Headlines > News > EZ-Rocket returns to sky, targets world record

EZ-Rocket returns to sky, targets world record

Published by Robin on Sun Sep 4, 2005 1:01 am
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By ALLISON GATLIN
Antelope Valley Press Staff Writer

MOJAVE – After three years in retirement, XCOR Aerospace’s rocket plane has returned to the skies in preparation for a series of exhibition flights next month and an attempt at a world record.

The EZ-Rocket is the world’s first privately built, rocket-powered aircraft. The rocket engine test bed is a Long-EZ kit plane modified with twin 400-pound thrust rocket engines instead of the usual engine and propeller.

In its third post-retirement foray Thursday, the rocket plane reached its highest altitude ever, climbing to 11,546 feet above the Mojave Airport in what was also the aircraft’s longest-duration flight, lasting about 12 minutes.

“Things went great,” said Dan DeLong, XCOR chief engineer.

In addition to providing training for new EZ-Rocket pilot Rick Searfoss, a former NASA shuttle astronaut, the flight was designed specifically to prepare for the project’s next milestone: a world distance record for a rocket-powered aircraft.

The planned record-setting flight will be piloted by noted aviator Dick Rutan, XCOR’s original test pilot. This record run will come nowhere near his other distance records for around-the-world flights, however.

With the current world record mark at 110 feet – set by an ultralight outfitted with hobby rocket motors – the EZ-Rocket team expects to raise the bar with a flight from Mojave to California City.

The EZ-Rocket uses rocket power to take off and climb to altitude. The motors are then shut down and the aircraft glides to a runway landing.

For this reason, it is important to reach a high enough altitude so the airplane can glide as far as California City, DeLong said.

Thursday’s test flight traveled 23.6 miles around the Mojave Airport, providing plenty of cushion for the distance needed, said Randall Clague, government liaison for XCOR.

“We did a marathon,” he said.

On Thursday, Rutan tailed the EZ-Rocket in his own Long-EZ in the role of chase pilot. He has also worked with Searfoss, training him for the unique aircraft.

Searfoss’ relationship with XCOR goes back several years, to the time when he was a research pilot with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

Although he had discussed the possibility of piloting future XCOR projects, “I never expected to get to fly the EZ-Rocket,” he said.

Experienced in jets and gliders, Searfoss appreciated the “really, really smooth” flight provided by the rocket motors. “It’s a joy to fly,” he said.

First flown in 2001, the EZ-Rocket was created as an operations demonstrator for XCOR’s rocket engines. The Mojave-based company develops safe, reusable, routinely operable rocket engines with the intent of opening up private, commercial access to space.

The rocket plane demonstrated this routine operability during flights in 2001 and 2002, repeatedly flying with little or no engine maintenance required.

The goal is engines that have the same operational reliability as a car engine, XCOR’s Aleta Jackson said.

“After you go to the store, you shouldn’t have to examine your engine. That’s what this is – gas and go,” she said.

Having proven their point, the EZ-Rocket was retired, brought out only for static display on occasion.

The last time the EZ-Rocket flew was in July 2002 at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention in Oshkosh, Wis.

The rocket plane’s resurrection came about at the request – and funding – of the X Prize Foundation, an organization well-known in Mojave for sponsoring the $10 million Ansari X Prize, won last fall by the Burt Rutan-designed SpaceShipOne spacecraft.

The international prize was awarded for the first privately funded, manned spacecraft to reach suborbital space, then repeat the feat within two weeks.

To continue the pursuit of private, manned space travel opened by the X Prize competition, organizers initiated the X Prize Cup, a series of contests to be mounted over several days in Las Cruces, N.M.

The inaugural gathering will take place Oct. 6 to 9 at the Las Cruces International Airport.

XCOR was asked to fly the EZ-Rocket during a day of demonstrations on the final day of the event, offering a preview of what future X Prize Cup “rocket racers” might look like.

The XCOR team has spent the last few months getting the rocket plane ready to fly once again.

Dick Rutan took it up on its first check flight in three years on Aug. 26, with Searfoss taking his first time at the controls on Aug. 29.

The team expects to fly about a half-dozen times more before departing for New Mexico, where the aircraft will spend time on display before taking its aerial turn before the crowds.

Thursday’s successful flight also marked the sixth anniversary of the Mojave Airport-based aerospace company.

agatlin@avpress.com

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Saturday, September 3, 2005.

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