The White Knight joins Flying Heritage Collection

EVERETT — Shutters clicked as the gangly white airplane buzzed over Paine Field.

A few wows and goshes could be heard from the roughly 100 people gathered to see a piece of aviation history arrive at the Flying Heritage Collection.

After a couple flybys, the plane, the White Knight, gently touched down and taxied to just outside the museum’s main hangar. The collection’s newest addition helped open the era of private and commercial space flight in 2004, when it launched the first manned privately owned space craft, SpaceShipOne.

Both planes were built and developed by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a collaboration between aerospace company Scaled Composites and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who also owns the Flying Heritage Collection.

SpaceShipOne claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize for making two manned flights in as many weeks reaching at least 62 miles above sea level, where outer space begins. Competing teams were not allowed to accept any government money.

The White Knight carried SpaceShipOne under its belly to about 50,000 feet, where it launched the smaller, rocket-powered craft. By hitching a ride, the spacecraft needed to carry less fuel, making it easier for it to reach sub-orbital flight.

Early aviation pioneers used a similar method for launching the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier.

Aviation aficionados at Monday’s event marveled at the White Knight’s innovative design that enables it to carry a much heavier load than its thin, twin-boom frame suggests.

They pointed out the plane’s stranger features — and there are plenty of them. It’s cockpit sits several feet off the ground, high enough to fit SpaceShipOne beneath its belly.

“It’s a unique design,” said Valerie Neal, curator for space flight at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “The purpose of the White Knight is to do the heavy lifting, to get SpaceShipOne to a high enough altitude that it doesn’t have to carry as much fuel.”

See video of the White Knight as it flew to Everett.

SpaceShipOne is in the museum’s Milestones of Flight Hall alongside the Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.

The collection holds some of “the crown jewels” of aviation history, and including the spacecraft provoked much debate among staff, Neal said. “It was brand new. It had just landed a few weeks before.”

But the craft opened the door to private space flight, she said. “It really was poking the first hole into space and paving the way for private passengers to become a reality.”

About half a dozen firms are pursuing commercial space travel, and some are getting close, she said.

Scaled Composites is currently developing SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic, which plans to operate a space tourism service.

The craft is in testing, but has not traveled into space yet, said Peter Siebold, a test pilot and aerospace engineer for Scaled Composites.

He and another pilot flew the White Knight for its final flight to Paine Field.

“It flies very much like a regular airplane,” Siebold, 43, said.

The Tacoma native learned to fly as a kid from his father, Klaus Siebold.

When Peter was a toddler, the elder Siebold built a booster seat from two-by-fours, wrapped with foam, for his son to sit on when they went flying in his single-engine plane.

“That’s all we did. That’s all he wanted to do. I knew he would be a pilot,” Klaus Siebold, 79, said.

Peter Siebold never imagined that he would play such a role in aerospace history, though. He joined Scaled Composites in 1996, and eight years later, the company claimed the Ansari X Prize.

It’s been 10 years, and several companies are closing in on offering commercial space travel, but it has not happened yet.

“When we won the X Prize, we thought it was just around the corner,” Siebold said.

Of course, “Trans-Atlantic air service didn’t start the day after Lindbergh first crossed the Atlantic,” he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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