Achieving The Dream
Guests attending the Wright Brothers Dinner sign a get well card for Burt Rutan.
December 15, 2007 — Early morning, October 4, 2004, was the day Brian Binnie got his dream back high over the Mojave Desert in California. At the controls for SpaceShipOne's second Ansari X Prize flight that morning, he soared to a record height of 367,442 feet (112 kilometers/69 miles), exceeding Mach 3 to clinch the $10 million bounty and become the world's 434th astronaut, as well as the first Scotsman, to reach space. That epic flight also broke the rocket plane altitude record set in 1963 by the North American X-15.
Binnie gave a riveting speech recounting the X-Prize project at Friday evening's fifth annual EAA Wright Brothers Memorial Dinner in the AirVenture Museum's Eagle Hangar. He wasn't even supposed to be in Oshkosh-the scheduled speaker, SS1 designer Burt Rutan, was unable to attend due to illness, and Binnie was able to attend in his stead.
"It all came to be courtesy of this man, master innovator, I like to think of him as the King of Dreams," Binnie described the visionary homebuilder. "Burt was the master of thinking for himself." The term, thinking outside the box, didn't really apply to Rutan, Binnie quipped. "I don't even know if Burt ever thought there was a box."
Binnie's dreams of space flight came early in life. Born in America to Scottish parents, the Binnie family moved to Scotland until Brian was a teenager. It was his mother who planted the idea that someday Brian may soar into space when she told him he should become an astronaut.
"Like many of you I had the aviation bug early," he said. "Anything to do with flying seemed like the right thing to do." Binnie went on to earn undergraduate and advanced degrees in such disciplines as aerospace engineering, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics before joining the U.S. Navy and graduated from its Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, as well as the Naval Aviation Safety School at Monterey, California. All told Binnie has more than 4,600 flight hours in 59 aircraft types.
But nothing could compare to piloting the little spaceship Burt built. He flew the innovative craft only twice - coincidentally its first and last powered flights. The first occurred just about four years ago to the day - December 17, 2003 - as many EAAers were focused on festivities commemorating the 100th anniversary of powered flight.
Although the rocket engine was lit for only 10 seconds, it propelled Binnie to a speed of Mach 1.2 and a height of more than 20 km. "What a great way to spend the centennial of flight," he said, even though the flight ended badly when the left main gear collapsed at touchdown and the aircraft wound up in the soft sand off the runway.
"The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat all wrapped up in one flight," Binnie said.
That landing went on to haunt Binnie. "This landing was going to drive me crazy. I could see, perhaps, that the dream, was being taken away."
Circumstances, and Binnie's continued persistence - spending extra hours in the simulator - found him back in the cockpit on October 4, 2004. Fellow test pilot Mike Melvill made the first successful X-Prize flight the previous Wednesday, September 29, 2004, but the well-documented rolls Melvill experienced in flight put the second required flight to earn the $10 million into question. But the team regrouped, solved the problem, and planned to make a second launch.
Binnie said he was surprised to learn he was tabbed to make the second flight, giving him the chance to, as he put it, "cauterize the demons from the previous 10 months" since the 12/17/03 flight where the gear collapsed.
Binnie saw Rutan being interviewed on TV the night before the second flight (October 3). "Burt, in his indomitable way, told the interviewer, 'We're not just going to hit a home run, we're going to hit a grand slam.'" That prediction for the record-breaking flight turned out to be right on the money.
"It was a great day personally because I got my dreams back, plus it opened up the doors for future opportunities." That was a reference to SpaceShip2, the venture being developed for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic project. Binnie told the audience to remember January 23, 2008, for some news about that project.
"Get ready to start dreaming again."
Rutan's Special Message to Wright Dinner Attendees
Before he introduced Brian Binnie, EAA President Tom Poberezny took the time to read a special message from Burt Rutan, who had been scheduled to speak but remained at his home in Mojave with an illness.
"I am truly sorry that Tanya and I cannot be with you tonight. As you know I had to cancel because of my health. I am frustrated because this has been going on since September. At the same time I am optimistic about the outcome.
I was sharing with Tom that this was the first time since 1959 that I had not been able to fly. I am not only engaged in a physical battle, but a mental one.
As EAAers, we gather in the spirit of the Wright brothers. We come together to celebrate the joy of flight. We share thoughts, ideas, techniques, and encouragement as we pursue our passion for aviation. We build (aircraft) in our basements and garages. We fly them in the pattern, across the country, and into space. We test our minds, our capabilities, and our energies, looking for and discovering the next breakthrough. We share our strengths together and move aviation forward.
I am delighted that Brian is able to provide your keynote address tonight. I'd also like to thank his wife Bub for joining him. Believe me, Brian is no pinch hitter.
Enjoy your evening, my friends, and as you celebrate the courage and industriousness, and innovation of the Wrights, don't forget to look around the room. For EAA embodies the spirit of aviation. The Wrights would be proud of what you've accomplished. I look forward to seeing you in Oshkosh next summer.