COMMENTARY / GUEST EDITORIAL
How a visit to Oshkosh changed my life
THANK YOU, EAA, FOR the gift of flight and the opportunity to live my
dream. You have enabled thousands of homebuilders like me to pursue
our passion for flight. The experience I gained building and flying my
own VariViggen and Long-EZ led me to the ultimate opportunity—flight
testing SpaceShipOne. More importantly, I never would have become
the first commercial astronaut. From the VariViggen to SpaceShipOne—
dreams and a passion for flight can make anything possible!
My first taste of flight occurred at age 7 when my uncle took me
up in his Tiger Moth. Like others before me, I built model aircraft,
starting with free-flight gliders and then graduating to powered
“U-Control” models. I was hooked for life!
My wife, Sally, and I immigrated to the United States in 1967; I
worked as a machinist in Anderson, Indiana, and learned many of
the skills necessary to complete my first homebuilt. When our small
company needed a pilot, I volunteered and earned my private pilot
certificate in 1969. Later I found it expensive to rent an airplane, so
we looked into building one of our own.
In July 1970, Sally and I attended the EAA fly-in convention at
Wittman Regional Airport (OSH). I was amazed at the selection of
homebuilts and astonished to discover that anyone so inclined could
build such aircraft, receive an amateur-built airworthiness certificate from the FAA, and ultimately fly that plane.
At EAA Oshkosh 1974 I purchased a set of VariViggen plans from
a fellow named Burt Rutan. He was selling plans out of his plane on
the flightline. When I was close to my first flight, Burt stopped by for
a visit. Later he invited Sally and me to Mojave where I got checked
out, first in the rear seat and then in the
front seat, of Burt’s VariViggen. He demonstrated the entire envelope of his creation,
including its quirks and shortcomings.
This was a huge benefit to me. On
September 22, 1977, I made the first flight of
my VariViggen and thus achieved my life-long dream. In May 1978, Sally and I flew
our ’Viggen to Mojave. Shortly after we
arrived, Burt flew it and announced that it
indeed met his standards.
That day he asked if we would consider
coming to work for him. This was all we talked
about on the flight home and…well, the rest is
history. Sally and I joined Burt at the Rutan
Aircraft Factory (RAF) in his new facility on
the Mojave airport. Dick Rutan retired from
the U.S. Air Force and also joined RAF where
he took me under his wing, teaching me all I
know about air combat maneuvering, close
formation flying, and aerobatics.
Burt saw promise in my abilities and
began coaching me on the basics of test flying. Soon I was sharing test-flight duties
with Dick. Sally and I moved to Scaled
Composites full time in 1985 when RAF
closed down. We both retired in October
2007, but soon I was recalled and have been
helping out by flying the Proteus as well as
the original WhiteKnight. Occasionally I fly
chase on the new WhiteKnight Two.
Over the past 31 years I have been privileged to make 10 first flights of Burt’s original
designs and have been involved in flight testing almost all of his remarkable designs.
Thanks to EAA and the vision of its leadership, I was able to build and fly my own
flying machines and to ascend into the wild
blue, feeling the magic of flight. This privilege
is precious, and through the constant vigilance of all EAA members, it must be
preserved. Each of us must take the responsibility to continually improve the safety record
of amateur-built aircraft, using the tools available to us through EAA and its members.
I encourage anyone interested in flying to
visit EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Who knows,
you too may be able to experience the thrill
and infinite satisfaction of building and flying your dream as I have. From there, the sky
is the limit!
Sally joined Mike in the SpaceShipOne cockpit after it landed safely following
its second glide flight in August 2003.
Mike Melvill, EAA 53387, made history becoming the first
commercial astronaut when he piloted SpaceShipOne on its
first flight past the edge of space on June 2 1, 2004.