Pilot profile: Virgin Galactic chief pilot, Dave Mackay

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot Dave Mackay

Virgin Galactic Chief Pilot Dave Mackay - Credit: Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson was chauffeured into space by a man whose piloting experience spans the whole era of wing-borne powered flight −
everything from Blériot, WWI biplanes, WWII warbirds and Boeing 747s to... yes; spaceships

A Virgin Galactic aircraft in flight

When Virgin Galactic seriously got going, Dave was invited to be its test pilot - Credit: Virgin Galactic

Unless you’ve been living on the Moon, it can’t have escaped your attention that on Sunday 11 July, Virgin Galactic founder and serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s childhood dream came true, when he flew into space aboard the VSS Unity. This is a Virgin Galactic spaceship commanded by VG’s Chief Pilot and the subject of this Pilot Profile, Dave Mackay. 

Like I suspect many Pilot readers of a certain age, who were raised on a diet of Dan Dare, Mach 2-capable airliners and the space race, this writer wanted to be an astronaut or test pilot when he grew up−and Dave Mackay is both! I’d have very much liked to have met him in a quiet Mexican cantina in the Mojave, or a dusty desert town’s saloon in New Mexico, but the plague put paid to that idea, so we had to resort to chatting over the internet. 

Dave was born in Thurso (the most northerly town in mainland Scotland) in 1957, and the Blackburn Buccaneers roaring low over his house from nearby Royal Navy Air Station Lossiemouth (also known as HMS Fulmar) made a profound impact on him. In 1966 he flew for the first time, in a Loganair Islander. The aircraft took off from a bumpy grass strip near Dornoch and−as he recalled with a grin−“the second the bumping stopped and the flying began, I was hooked!” 

While studying aeronautical engineering at Glasgow University he joined the University Air Squadron and learned to fly on Scottish Aviation Bulldogs. With flying becoming ever more important to him, joining the RAF was the next logical step, and after university he went to the Royal Air Force college at RAF Cranwell in 1979. Here he trained on the Jet Provost 5, before moving on to the Hawk at RAF Valley for advanced training and then RAF Brawdy for tactical weapons training. 

Having successfully passed through the TWU, all pilots are asked to list the three aircraft they’d like to fly, but as Dave smilingly explained, he’d already set his sights on the Harrier, so simply wrote ‘Harrier, Harrier, Harrier’. This led to a bit of a row with his flight commander ‘Jimbo’ James who was adamant that Dave had to choose three different aircraft! Eventually Dave bowed to his senior officer’s wishes and put Harrier, Lightning and Jaguar. However, by the time he’d got to the crew room “in a foul mood” he’d thought about things further, retraced his steps and changed his selection back to Harrier, Harrier, Harrier−which delighted his flight commander. Dave went to Harriers. 

After several years flying Harrier GR3s on the front line in Germany and the Falklands, Dave was selected for test pilot training and graduated from the EPNER (École du personnel navigant d’essais et de réception−the French test pilot school at Istres) in 1988. Here he flew nineteen fascinating types, including the Alpha-Jet, Nord 262, Mystere 20, Super Etendard and a Mirage 2000 (in which he attained Mach 1.4). He also started flying taildraggers at Istres, as the EPNR had a CAP10, which was used as a hack and for tailwheel training. 

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He was then posted to the Aircraft and Armament Evaluation Establishment (AAEE) at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, becoming the Commanding Officer of the Fast Jet Test Flight in 1992. While at Boscombe Down he was involved with trial programmes for the Harrier GR7, Sea Harrier FA2 and Tucano, being awarded the Air Force Cross in the same year he became the Fast Jet Test Flight’s (FTJF) CO. He also took the opportunity to expand his tailwheel experience, as the Fixed Wing Test Squadron, of which the FJTF was a part, still had two North American Harvards on strength and he checked out on them. 

Boscombe Down is quite close to where Charles Church had based his expanding collection of warbirds, and several test pilots such as Dave Southwood and Reg Hallam were already flying for Church. Dave heard through the grapevine that Church was looking for more pilots, and his connections made an introduction. Dave started out flying the Pilatus P2 and soon graduated to the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang and Me 109. Flying the 109 proved to be particularly memorable, and Dave described it as “the epitome of the old axiom that you don’t stop flying this aircraft until it’s back in the hangar!” 

Dave Mackay sitting in a grounded aircraft

Dave McKay's flying career began on Glasgow University Air Squadron's Scottish Aviation Bulldogs - Credit: Via Dave Mackay

Dave Mackay sitting in a GR3 aircraft

On completing his RAF training he went on to fly the GR3, despite listing in order his preferred options as simply ‘Harrier, Harrier, Harrier’! - Credit: Via Dave Mackay

Dave Mackay sat at an aircaft control panel

Joining Virgin Atlantic in 1995, he gained his command on the 747 ‘Classic’ in 1999 - Credit: Via Dave Mackay

Time to move on...
Sadly, Church was killed in a Spitfire in 1989, and the collection was gradually sold off. Dave was still doing a lot of development work on Harriers and Sea Harriers, and was instrumental in the trials for the FRS2 on the carrier HMS Ark Royal. An aviator through-and-through, by now Dave had been in the RAF for sixteen years and−remarkably−had managed to avoid ever having to do a ground tour! But all good things must come to an end, and when the RAF indicated that perhaps it was time to hang up his G-suit, he resigned his commission and joined Virgin Atlantic in 1995, gaining his command on the 747 ‘Classic’ in 1999. He flew ‘Jumbos’ for six years and then after 9/11 moved onto the A340. 

Now, having spent most of his career flying single-seat fighters, I was curious to learn what he thought about flying airliners and was surprised to learn that he’d actually enjoyed airline flying. Knowing 500 people are relying on you getting them where they want to go is a lot of responsibility, and of course this was the first time that he’d had a crew. Although operating an airliner is a very different sort of flying, Dave explained he’d enjoyed the challenges. For example, the terminal areas above Heathrow and Los Angeles are some of the busiest pieces of airspace in the world, and as I know the LAX controllers think fast, talk fast and like you to fly fast.

Being able to efficiently manage an A340 on a high-energy approach was a challenge which Dave relished. Airline flying also gave him the opportunity to continue display flying and although the Church collection had been sold he flew Plane Sailing’s Tigercat for several years and Source Aviation’s DH Vampires at Bournemouth. He also flew the initial test flights on the AC Cars Hurricane at Blackbushe. 
With such an impressive CV, he was unsurprisingly asked to become a collection pilot at Shuttleworth and eventually ended up flying most of the collection’s aircraft including the Edwardians. You probably can’t get much further from a Harrier than a Blériot, but as Dave explained, the one thing they do have in common is that they’re both challenging to fly. Most of the Edwardians are distinctly sub-optimal and must be coaxed into the air. Indeed, if you have been lucky enough to watch them fly on a summer’s evening at Old Warden the performance is best described as ‘marginal’− and that’s a challenge! 

But while he has flown some impressive machinery, what I really wanted to talk to Dave about was his current position as Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot−and in particular what it’s like to fly a rocket-powered aircraft into space, and then glide back to a runway landing. Dave joined Virgin Galactic full-time in 2009, becoming Chief Pilot in 2011. On 22 February 2019, he became the 569th person−and first Scot−to visit space. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the machines operated by Virgin Galactic, they consist of a suborbital spacecraft SpaceShipTwo (SS2) called VSS Unity, which is carried aloft by a mothership called VMS Eve (after Branson’s mother). I asked Dave how he’d got the gig and he replied “In the right place at the right time−everybody needs a little luck in life! I was working for Virgin Atlantic when I was invited to have a look at the GlobalFlyer−the aircraft built by Scaled Composites for Steve Fossett’s solo, non-stop around the world flight. At this time Scaled was also test flying SpaceShipOne [which went on to win the Ansari X-Prize]. 

“As well as looking over the amazing GlobalFlyer, we flew the SpaceShip simulator, talked to the engineers, test pilots and [designer] Burt Rutan about what they were doing and what future developments might come out of it. When Virgin Galactic seriously got going, I was invited to be its test pilot.” 

Dave Mackay flying the Shuttleworth Collection's Blériot XI G-AANG

Experience in RAF aircraft and Church's warbirds opened the door to Dave flying the Shuttleworth Collection's original (Blériot XI G-AANG, seen here) and replica pioneering aeroplanes - Credit: Peter March

Dave Mackay flying an Edwardian replica aircraft

The performance of the collection's 'Edwardians' is best described as marginal, according to McKay - Credit: Steven Jefferson

Flying Eve and Unity
As well as flying SpaceShipTwo Dave also flies its airborne launch platform, Eve, so I asked what this incredible-looking machine was like to fly. “Eve is a remarkable aircraft” he replied, “with its twin fuselage layout accommodating a large, heavy SpaceShip payload at its centre of gravity. It has a high-lift wing, and performs a bit like a powered glider. Unladen, it’s easy to get thirty to forty degrees’ attitude on initial climb out, which never fails to impress in such a large aircraft. From high altitude it needs drag−the undercarriage or speedbrakes to be extended−in order to descend, idle thrust being insufficient on its own. It’s flown from the right fuselage and, in general, the fact that the pilot is some 26 feet to the right of the centre of gravity is no big deal, except for the landing. This is especially true in a crosswind, where we use the wing-down technique. But like everything else in aviation, you soon get used to that.” I was curious how Eve handled while carrying Unity, bearing in mind that the spaceship is a formidable machine in its own right with a max weight of over 9,700kg. “Perhaps surprisingly,” he replied “an advantage of carrying it at the centre of gravity, means that SS2 makes virtually no difference to Eve’s handling characteristics.” 

Obviously, Dave has flown both aircraft, so I was curious what it was like in the cockpit of both at the moment of release, which typically occurs at around 45,000ft. “On a spaceflight mission, Eve is releasing close to half its all up weight instantaneously” he replied, “so it springs upwards. In Unity, the release feels like going over the top of a roller coaster ride. There’s a feeling of lightness in the stomach, and a couple of seconds of silence, before the motor is lit and the real fun begins!” Thrust is provided by a hybrid rocket motor which uses solid hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) as fuel and liquid nitrous oxide as the oxidizer. It produces 70,000lb (310kN) of thrust for sixty seconds. 

Once the rocket’s lit, “the acceleration comes on quickly and ramps up to a 3G push in the back, which is virtually constant throughout the whole boost. Unity goes supersonic less than ten seconds after launch, then we pitch upwards towards the vertical. Very quickly the sky goes from blue, to dark blue, then, while bathed in the extremely bright sunshine outside the atmosphere, the sky becomes intensely black.” The speed will peak at just over Mach 3 as Unity races up towards its apogee of around 300,000ft and “after one minute, the motor smoothly shuts down and the acceleration washes away completely, to zero G.

The beautiful, weightless, silent experience of coasting through space feels even more special after the very dynamic rocket powered flight on the way up.” Small, air-powered thrusters (the reaction control system or RCS) mounted on the nose and tail are used to “gently pitch the vehicle over on to its back so that the customers can view the very brightly lit Earth below and for close to a thousand miles in any direction, as well as see the matt blackness of space. Separating the two is the very thin and very beautiful atmosphere. The curvature of the Earth is very pronounced and customers can visualise the size of the planet−it’s not very big. The whole picture, the sensation of floating freely in weightlessness, the silence and stillness of apogee is a transformative experience that will stay with people throughout their lives.” For the passengers it must be truly awe-inspiring, but for Dave and his team of hugely-experienced pilots the next challenge is re-entry, an incredibly difficult problem that was elegantly solved by the genius of Burt Rutan. 

As Unity descends, accelerating back towards Earth, “the RCS thrusters−there are two independent systems for redundancy−are used to pitch the spaceship to the upright position so that, with the ‘feather’ (the tail booms and an upward moving trailing edge flap) raised, she presents herself to the atmosphere in a very high drag configuration. 

“The noise of the air meeting the underside of the ship starts quietly and rapidly builds to a crescendo, not unlike the sound of a waterfall. It is actually louder than the rocket motor in boost. The peak deceleration occurs around 100,000ft and we become subsonic at about 80,000ft. The feather is lowered at around 55,000ft and then we’re a glider with around 10-15 minutes of gentle flight time remaining – time for everyone to relax and unwind before re-uniting with their friends and family who have been waiting and watching down below”. 

Recovery to Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert is achieved with the assistance of some very hi-tech guidance systems, although the good old ‘Mark One Eyeball’ still has its part to play, as “the final approach and landing is flown circling around the airfield at around 165kt, which gives a best lift/drag ratio of 7:1. On final approach with gear down and speedbrake extended [it’s either ‘in’ or ‘out’] our sink rate is around 5,000 feet per minute, with the pre-flare flown at around 400ft agl before a final touchdown at around 135kt. 

“It’s an elegant, conventional−albeit unpowered−runway landing. Airspeed is the primary performance parameter, although we also have an alpha indicator in the cockpit. After touchdown we use aerobraking down to 100kt, before lowering the nose, coming to a halt and welcoming some newly-minted astronauts back 
to Earth”. 

Virgin Galactic's air launch vehicle, VMS Eve

Virgin Galactic's air launch vehicle, VMS Eve, is named after Richard Branson’s mother. It is piloted from the starboard cockpit - Credit: Virgin Galactic

An unofficial image portraying Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two Cockpit

SpaceShipTwo cockpit – Dave's current 'office' – portrayed in an unofficial image that somehow got out onto the web - Credit: Pinterest

Virgin Galactic's First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018

“The curvature of the Earth is very pronounced and customers can visualise the size of the planet – it’s not very big - Credit: Virgin Galactic

Favourite aircraft?
Although I know that the perennial ‘what’s your favourite aircraft’ question is almost as unavoidable as it is unanswerable, as Dave has such a stellar (see what I did there) collection of aircraft in his logbook, I figured it certainly needed asking. 

“Well” he replied “that’s a little like asking, what’s your favourite piece of music−it’s difficult to choose one, and it depends on what you’re doing at the time. Every aircraft is interesting to a greater or lesser extent. However, I do have some aircraft that I have really enjoyed flying, or really admired, and the prime example is the Harrier. I always enjoyed the challenges, and the thrill, of high speed, very low level flying. The Harrier did that and so much more−courtesy of its VSTOL abilities and its versatility to operate from small covert sites or ships. It was demanding, exciting and very satisfying flying.” 

“Well, what about your least favourite then,” I asked? “I do have a contender for that,” he replied. “At the Shuttleworth Collection, I flew the LVG CVI, a German WWI two seat reconnaissance biplane, for a few seasons. It was the only aircraft I’ve ever flown where I had the awful feeling that I was losing control. It was believed that this was because its wings were not rigid enough: at high speeds an aileron input could produce enough wing twist to cause the aircraft to roll in the opposite direction to the pilot’s command. The solution was to throttle back and pull up to reduce speed. The story that circulated amongst the Collection’s pilots was that in WWI German aviators had a rule not to turn it below 500ft. 

“The LVG belonged to the RAF Museum and a few years ago they asked for it back. I’m not a fan of aircraft being retired to museums but if I had to choose one to go into a museum, it would have been the LVG.” 

“And finally, is there anything from history you’d have liked to have flown?” 

“The Apollo Lunar Module. Strictly, it’s not flying, it’s a spaceship, but it ‘flew’ in space, landed on the Moon and took off again. For me, that first Moon landing is the most incredible feat in the history of aviation. Executing it successfully, faced with communication problems, computer overloads, a severe shortage of fuel, a navigation issue (they were long on their target for, at the time, unknown reasons), and then having to find a suitable place to land because they were headed for a boulder field. To do all that with most of the world’s population watching, listening, waiting… it doesn’t get any higher pressure than that. Great job, Neil and Buzz!” 

Despite being almost green with envy I really enjoyed chatting to Dave, who, amongst several other claims to fame is the first Scottish spaceman. As Virgin Galactic is scheduled to begin commercial operations in 2022, you can be sure he won’t be the last.

Virgin Galactic's Unity in taking off

“A couple of seconds of silence, before the motor is lit and the real fun begins!” Launch platform VMS Eve’s contrails are visible above the rocket plume - Credit: Virgin Galactic

VSS Unity manouvering itself to the atmosphere

With the ‘feather’ (the tail booms and an upward moving trailing edge flap) raised, VSS Unity manoeuvers to present itself to the atmosphere in a very high drag configuration - Credit: Virgin Galactic