Virgin Galactic is looking for a few good pilots—very good pilots—to fly paying customers to the edge of space and back in its SpaceShipTwo rocketplane.

The Virgin Atlantic space-tourism spinoff plans to hire another aviator by June to help David MacKay, its lone test pilot, prepare for the start of spaceflight as early as next year.

Virgin wants to cast a wide net because the jobs won't be easy to fill. The pilot selected—plus two more to be hired later—must be able to handle both the air-launched SpaceShipTwo and its multi-engine WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. A deft touch with the passengers will be a big plus as well, since they'll be in the same cabin as the flight crew.

“The sort of person we're looking for is somebody with some decent experience—not just a few flights but some proper background in large aircraft with asymmetric thrust-handling issues,” MacKay says. “And for SpaceShip it needs to be somebody who's been in pretty dynamic, fighter-type vehicles.”

MacKay has yet to take controls of the SpaceShipTwo as it moves from drop tests to powered flight. That job continues to be handled by Peter Siebold and Mark Stucky, the test pilots at Scaled Composites who are breaking in their company's new spacecraft. But MacKay is logging valuable time in Scaled's SpaceShip simulator, and he isn't asking for anyone more qualified than himself.

A former Royal Air Force test pilot, MacKay has logged more than 12,000 hr. at the controls of more than 100 different aircraft types. After 16 years of military service, he joined Virgin Atlantic in 1995 and became a Boeing 747 captain before moving to the Airbus A340 in 2002.

“I was brought in to act as a sort of technical liaison, if you like, between Scaled Composites and the rest of Virgin Galactic—the commercial team, the marketing team and the operational team—with a view to ensuring we were going to get what we expected to get, and working out how easy these vehicles would be to operate, and what sort of experience we would need in our pilots and what sort of training they would require.”

Virgin will post its job offering for SpaceShip pilots on April 11 at: www.virgingalactic.com/careers. Virgin Atlantic will help sift the expected influx of applications, and Scaled Composites also will have a say in the hiring once the applicants are winnowed.

“What we want to do in this campaign is identify three candidates,” MacKay says. “That's our minimum. We're looking at getting one person aboard 'round about June or as soon after June as we can manage it; then as the schedule demands, maybe taking on another couple from those initial candidates. I wouldn't want to put a date on it, because it really is a research and development program. We haven't got a motor in the spaceship yet, so there's a lot to be done.”

With the space shuttle program down to its final few months, one group that is likely to include pilots both qualified and interested in the job is the U.S. astronaut corps. “Someone with a spaceflight background would be very interesting for us,” MacKay says.

So would someone with commercial flight experience, he says, because the pilots will also train the passengers in SpaceShipTwo safety features and be in face-to-face charge of them during the flights.

“It's a three-day event,” he says of the $200,000 spaceflight package Virgin is offering. “There will be two days of training, and a day of spaceflight itself. There's going to be a close interaction with the crew that you'll be flying with to go through the procedures that you need to know, normal and emergency procedures, because there's not going to be any flight attendant up there keeping an eye on you and telling you what to do.”

The SpaceShipTwo cabin is open front to back, with the two pilots in the front seats and the passengers three-by-three along the sides. SpaceShipTwo will be flown manually from the time it is dropped from WhiteKnightTwo, through its foray above the atmosphere, and back to a gliding landing at Spaceport America, so the pilots won't have time to attend to passenger needs.

The company is also seeking a director of operations, as its ground facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico near completion (AW&ST March 28, p. 14). George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO, says the postings are “signs of us beginning to ramp up as we start to aim for commercial operations.”

The company has not set a date for that yet, although it has more than 400 paying passengers in line to fly. Whitesides says Virgin hopes to begin powered test flights to space next year. Meanwhile, the company plans to take a lot of care in selecting its pilots.

“We're going to look for the best of the best,” Whitesides says. “We're not in a huge rush. We're going to put this out and we're going to see who applies. Obviously we want to hire these folks as soon as we get good qualified folks, but we don't want to rush it, because these are going to be among the most important hires that we make.”