In the Pantheon of Contemporary American Objects the Define Our Times, a few items demand immediate inclusion. Apple's iPod, obviously. Motorola's Razr phone, probably. The Chrysler 300C, debatably. And to that list we'd add one often-overlooked creation: White Knight, Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites mothership aircraft that was designed to carry his SpaceShip One rocket orbiter into the skies.
Although SpaceShipOne now hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian, White Knight still works for a living. Part tow truck and part space capsule -- with a healthy dose of MacGyver and Make magazine thrown in to keep it real -- White Knight is a remarkably successful piece of engineering that's both strikingly simple and incredibly sophisticated.
Even if it never left the ground, White Night would be just as much at home on display in the MoMA as it would in the Air and Space Museum. Its long, spindly construction is made possible only by the use of cutting-edge materials like carbon fiber. Two compact jet engines provide ample thrust. Then there's the the cockpit -- the aircraft's most distinctive feature -- which fuses Flash Gordon's rocket with the streamlining of a late-1940s Boeing Stratocruiser and the rounded, organic shapes of (yes) an iPod. Like peanut butter and chocolate, a good merger of form and function never fails to satisfy.
But what's it like to actually fly inside the thing? This week's issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology features a cover story about White Knight, and a report written by one of AWST's lucky-dog journalists describes the experience of flight inside that distinctive cabin. Functional it may be, but luxurious... not so much:
Crewmembers wear oxygen masks having an extra hose that diverts exhaled air through carbon-dioxide-scrubber cartridges. Although cabin humidity is controlled, enough moisture routinely condenses inside to cause window fogging and icing, a problem that plagued both vehicles for some time.
"We learned a lot about CO2 scrubbing and humidity control. A SpaceShipOne pilot's worst fear was having those little portholes get iced or fogged over to where he couldn't see to land," [Scaled Composites' director of flight operations Douglas] Shane says. "We had a lot of that in the White Knight early on. It was a [great] testbed to refine the environmental control system, so we didn't worry about those things on the spaceship."
Still, a crude "window-wiper" is always close at hand in the Knight's cockpit--a length of PVC pipe with a ball of cotton gauze taped to one end. "It's our giant Q-tip--the last resort when you're fighting window-fogging," Shane quips.
The test pilot and I crawled into the White Knight cockpit through a circular hole on the left side of the cabin. Shane strapped into the pilot's seat with his legs stuck almost straight out, straddling a vertical console that mounted a single flat-panel display and a Garmin GPS navigation system. I wiggled into a molded seat to the left and aft of him, essentially sitting on the floor. Both of us wore backpack parachutes, military-style helmets and oxygen masks.
After engine start, Shane craned his neck forward, and then he contorted his upper body left and right in order to be able to see through the small nose-section portholes, while taxiing to Mojave Airport's Runway 26. I observed that the limited field-of-view was very disconcerting, and it must have caused a good bit of angst for Scaled pilots.
"It's like flying inside a giant 'whiffle ball,'" Shane said. "Taxiing is the hardest part. You really have to duck down. And on landing, if you line up with the centerline, you are not going to land on the runway."
There are plenty more similarly-juicy details sprinkled throughout the story -- including a hair-raising description of the aircraft's emergency evacuation procedures -- so we've provided a link to the whole article below.
"Scaled Composites' White Knight Doubles as Testbed" (Aviation Week and Space Technology, Nov. 27, 2006): LINK
Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne/White Knight page: LINK
(White Knight photos above, courtesy of Scaled Composites)