MOJAVE ROCKETEERS PRIVATE FIRM FLIES ALCOHOL-FUELED PLANE.
MOJAVE - A 10-employee firm trying to make rocket flight a business showed off the first liquid-fueled rocket plane to fly since the last NASA rocket plane more than 25 years ago.
As winds from an approaching storm gusted Monday across Mojave Airport, the 1,800-pound EZ-Rocket roared off before 150 spectators, including investors, aviation enthusiasts and well-wishers.
``I'm really happy. It went beautifully,'' XCOR Aerospace Inc. President Jeff Greason said after the eight-minute flight that topped 200 mph and reached 9,000 feet.
Test pilot Dick Rutan, a retired Air Force lieutenant, said the plane flew smoothly despite the wind.
``That was a great flight,'' said Rutan, who gained fame in 1986 for his nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in the Voyager.
The EZ-Rocket is a Long EZ kit plane, designed by Rutan's brother, Burt, for airplane enthusiasts to build in their garages. The difference is a significant one. It's fitted with two 400-pound-thrust alcohol-fueled rockets.
The EZ-Rocket's purpose is not to fly high or fast, but to provide information - for example, how long engine parts will last and what maintenance is required - that is needed to make rocket-powered flight routine, XCOR officials say.
``It's not a performance demonstrator, any more than the Wright Flyer of 1903 was a performance demonstrator,'' said Greason. ``What it is for us is it's an operations demonstrator. It will demonstrate ... that you can fly rocket aircraft routinely.''
XCOR's goal is to create a rocket plane able to make money carrying scientific equipment for experiments in microgravity, hoisting small satellites aloft and even carrying passengers to the edge of space - more than 50 miles up.
``It's going to be somewhere south of $10 million to get all the way to revenue-supported (operations),'' Greason said.
If all goes smoothly, the second-generation rocket plane will get through flight tests and operational demonstrations and be ready to start flying payloads and cargo in about three years, Greason said.
XCOR is now trying to line up $850,000 for the next phase, which will include making more frequent flights - up to five a day - in the EZ-Rocket and refining the design for a future rocket plane able to reach the edge of space.
XCOR was created by former employees of Rotary Rocket, whose investors included techno-thriller novelist Tom Clancy, when that Mojave firm's plans to built an unconventional space rocket were shelved in 1999.
XCOR has raised and spent $330,000 in outside investment on its rocket plane research, said Greason, a California Institute of Technology graduate who was a technical manager at Intel Corp. before becoming team manager at Rotary Rocket in 1997.
XCOR picked up its first $50,000 in investment last year after demonstrating a small rocket engine in April 2000 at the Space Access Conference, firing the rocket inside a Scottsdale, Ariz., Holiday Inn ballroom.
In September 2000 it got a contract from a rocket development company to test throttling of the engine. Then it March, XCOR won a $300,000 contract from the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates U.S. spy satellites, to develop small rocket thrusters that run on nontoxic substances.
XCOR intends to use the same sort of thrusters for maneuvering its second-generation rocket plane in space.
Before Rutan took the EZ-Rocket up for its first flight in July, the last liquid-fueled rocket plane was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's M-24B, which last flew in 1975 at Edwards Air Force Base, the XCOR developers say.
The last time a liquid-fueled rocket plane took off from the ground under its own power - rather than being dropped from a jet like the famous X-15 in the 1960s - was in 1949, when Chuck Yeager took off in an X-1 from Edwards and broke a Navy record.
Monday's demonstration flight started with a thin cloud of white smoke billowing up from behind the small white airplane. Then the craft rolled forward past a row of mothballed jet airliners parked for storage.
Emitting a thin plume of vapor - and roaring like a military jet in afterburners - the craft lifted off and climbed in a looping curve. After less than two minutes, the rocket engines shut off, and the craft glided in a wide descending spiral for six minutes more.
With a conventional propeller-driven Long EZ shadowing it, the Rocket EZ glided onto a runway, wobbling its upturned wing tips a bit in the crosswinds, and touched down.
After the craft was towed by a four-wheel-drive pickup truck back to the crowd, Rutan told reporters the flight went well, despite gusty winds of about 25 mph coming in at an angle to the runway.
``We were a little worried about the wind. But the show must go on, right?'' Rutan told news people.
(1 -- color -- ran in AV edition only) Renowned Voyager test pilot Dick Rutan smiles after his flight Monday in a privately developed EZ-Rocket plane.
(2 -- color in AV edition only) News photographers and aviation fans surround the EZ-Rocket after a demonstration flight at Mojave Airport. (3) XCOR's 1,800-pound EZ-Rocket takes off Monday on a demonstration flight the test pilot called smooth despite winds.
Shaun Dyer/Special to the Daily News