Top Gun RAF ace to fire 500mph satellite rocket into space from Virgin Boeing 747 at 30,000ft

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A TOP Gun RAF ace is to become the air force’s first “rocket man” after today being unveiled as a test pilot with Virgin Orbit.

Combat veteran Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard, 30, will fly a customised Boeing 747 with a rocket carrying a satellite strapped to its wing, before firing it into space.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard is to become the air force’s first 'rocket man'
UK MOD � Crown 2019

Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard is to become the air force’s first ‘rocket man’[/caption]

The pioneer is one of the new breed of RAF officer taking the air force into the stratosphere.

He said: “My overall feeling is to be very privileged, it’s another step forward for the air force and to be at the forefront of that, doing this job, privileged is the word I would use.

“We’re in a new age, there’s lots of innovation these days. A decade ago what we’re doing now would be inconceivable.”

Flt Lt Stannard – who has seen action in the skies over Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan – will be officially unveiled as the RAF’s test pilot with Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit today.

The company aims to “air launch” a rocket loaded with a small satellite from the wing of a modified passenger liner into space.

It is a commercial venture for companies seeking to put communication satellites into space cheaply.

But RAF Top Brass have driven through a bold new partnership with Branson’s outfit because the military benefits are infinite.

The Top Gun ace will be the RAF’s test pilot with Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit
UK MOD � Crown 2019

The Top Gun ace will be the RAF’s test pilot with Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit[/caption]

Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit, releases a rocket from underneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner during a high-altitude drop test in July

Virgin Orbit, releases a rocket from underneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 during a test in July[/caption]

It once took years and millions to launch expensive big satellites into narrow orbits.

But by air launching from a 747, small communications and spy satellites can be placed into an orbit of a commanders’ choosing within days.

Virgin Orbit have recently commenced their first launch campaign, developing a new small satellite launch vehicle called LauncherOne which is to be released from a modified Boeing 747-400 named Cosmic Girl.

Flt Lt Stannard, a dad-of-two, from Lincoln, who will join the Virgin team for up to five years, explained: “Previously it was a huge deal putting as satellite into space, now it’s becoming easier and easier to do that.

“Typically it was a rocket that sits on the ground and is launched from a small number of places.

“What Virgin Orbit has done is take that same rocket and instead of launching it from zero feet and zero miles an hour, you launch it from 30,000ft and 500 miles an hour.

“That’s great commercially but the RAF are looking at that and saying, ‘that’s interesting.’

“Suddenly, and this is where the RAF is interested, I could decide tomorrow there is a need for me to have a satellite in a certain orbit over a certain part of the world.

“And I can call Virgin Orbit and that 747 can arrive one day later, I load the rocket, that takes another, and on day three I can put a satellite into space.

“Only a few years ago, we’d be talking years for that process to happen.”

That means if another humanitarian disaster struck – or a sudden conflict like the rise of ISIS – RAF commanders could choose to put a satellite over a specific spot beaming live footage or communications directly into pilot’s cockpits or back to HQ.

Flt Lt Stannard believes one day the RAF might have a host of small satellites locked up ready to go for any emergencies.


And booking them into space orbit would be as easy as booking a flight for your holiday.

He added: “When somethings going on, for example a humanitarian disaster where aid is needed, and we need imagery and communications and potentially other surveillance, we can do this now in three days.

“Commercially we can change space for everyone. If it’s good commercially it’s probably good for us as well.”

The technological leap might even make space safer because if satellites can be replaced within three days, enemy nations will be less likely to develop expensive weapons to destroy them.

Flt Lt Stannard – who has flown Tornados and Typhoons – will use his unique skills to master flying a huge 747 with a rocket strapped to its wing.

And provide vital feed back to the engineering team as they perfect the technology.

He expects to make his first flight by January.

He said: “What I provide is the partnership with the RAF, but also I’m a test pilot, the Boeing 747 wasn’t designed to have a huge rocket strapped to its wing.

“So I will help in the programme to do that type of flying – that dynamic type of flying.

“And you are the link between what you’re able to do and the engineering side of it.”

The venture is part of a £30m MoD investment codenamed Team Artemis, a gross Government plan to develop new ways of launching satellites into space.

An RAF source said: “This exciting programme should provide a huge leap forward in capability for the UK in space and shows how a new breed of RAF talented aviators, who are shaping the next generation RAF, can become space pioneers, never has the RAF moto looked more appropriate: ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’, ‘through adversity to the stars’.”

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