This is it: the end of a 21-year countdown. The 9,600-foot Mojave runway stretches out in front of me, the chase plane is coming up from behind. It's clear and calm this November 1st-the day when, as I heard someone explain yesterday on NPR, "the barrier between the living and the dead is thinnest."
Light at 1,800 pounds, and with 1,000 pounds of static thrust, Melmoth 2 pulls forward rapidly as the manifold pressure swells to 38 inches. Rotating at 80 knots, the airplane continues to accelerate and settles into a steady climb at 110.
"You're clean," says Mike Melvill, the chase pilot. Nothing falling off, no smoke, no black liquids running down the belly.
It's odd how these moments confound anticipation. In the weeks prior to this one I've mentally rehearsed every imaginable catastrophe-collapse of the landing gear … failure of the engine mount, wing spar, flight control system or empennage … flutter … engine fire. You name it, I've worried about it. I've examined my own possible death from every angle, including the effect it would have on my 14-year-old daughter's grades in biology. I've paid an unusual number of visits to the bathroom this morning. But now that I'm airborne it comes down to the familiar sensations of flying an airplane as I've been doing for the past 40 years. The moment of becoming airborne is not one of climactic excitement; instead, it releases the stored-up pressure of a sort of negative excitement, letting relative calm flow back in. In the first few seconds aloft most of my fears have evaporated. And so later when people ask, "Was it exciting?" I will have to say, honestly, that no, it was not exactly exciting-it was more just a great relief.
Some time before the first flight Burt Rutan visited the hangar, which is a couple of hundred yards away from his prototype shop, Scaled Composites. He observed that I should definitely have a chase plane for the first flight in order to get a video-which, he said, "your family would like to have, even if it goes well." Actually, he now says that it was I who added the "even if" clause. He and I are about the same age, an age at which who said what a couple of weeks ago begins to be less clear and, for that matter, less important. But whoever said it was right; it did go well, but I, at least, still haven't tired of watching that video.
To recapitulate the road that led here … After several years of false starts, between 1968 and 1973 I designed and built a two-seat airplane that I called Melmoth. I flew it a little over 2,000 hours in nine years, visiting some faraway places, including Europe and Japan. I believe it was, in 1976, the first homebuilt airplane to fly nonstop from the United States (Cold Bay, Alaska) to Japan. Melmoth was destroyed in 1982 when, while holding short of the runway, it was struck by a landing Centurion that was having problems of its own. A year before that I had started working on an all-composite four-seat fuselage for Melmoth; now that project became a completely new airplane. For some reason it took me 21 years to get it flyable-I won't say finished. This is the airplane-same name, same N-number as its precursor-that made its first flight on November 1, 2002.