It wasn’t exactly a closely guarded secret, but last November the U.S. Air Force for the first time acknowledged that it flew Communist-built fighters at the Tonopah Test Range northwest of Las Vegas, Nev., from 1977 to 1988. Intended to familiarize American airmen with their Cold War adversaries, the Constant Peg program pitted Air Force, Marine and Navy pilots against Soviet-designed fighters such as the MiG-17 Fresco, MiG-21 Fishbed and MiG-23 Flogger.
“Constant Peg afforded pilots an opportunity to learn how to fight enemy aircraft in a controlled, safe environment, without having to endure the risks of actual air combat,” said Brig. Gen. Hawk Carlisle, a former member of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron. Constant Peg was not without its risks, however, as the covertly acquired aircraft were difficult to fly and maintain. Captain Mark Postai was one of two pilots killed during the program, and due to the secrecy surrounding it, his family only learned last fall that his death in 1983 was at the controls of a MiG-23.
While the program was terminated near the end of the Cold War, it soon paid dividends in a conflict with a nonCommunist nation. “Constant Peg training greatly influenced the success of American airmen in Desert Storm, who shot down 40 Iraqi fighters, many of which were Fishbeds and Floggers,” reported General Carlisle.
Mount Everest tops out at just under 30,000 feet, a height so bitter-cold and extreme that those who challenge it manage to die at a substantial rate with their feet on the ground. But Englishman David Hempleman-Adams this January surmounted that summit plus another half-mile in an open wicker basket under a propane-fired gasbag to set a new world altitude record—an even 32,500 feet— for hot-air balloons. He did it in perilously thin air that measured minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit, while battling hypoxia and the inevitable list of frozen-equipment problems.
The previous record of 31,299 feet, set by American balloonist Carol Davis, had endured since 1979.
Hempleman-Adams lifted off from a field near Red Deer, in Alberta, Canada. Though the departure was normal, his return was anything but. A shortage of propane for the burners meant that his balloon ended up descending at 1,500 feet per minute, which is 21⁄2 times the rate at which an F/A-18 typically whacks onto the deck of an aircraft carrier. “I think I must be two inches shorter,” he said after his return.
Hempleman-Adams is a professional record-setter, assuming that such a job description exists. He has climbed many of the highest mountains in the world, including Everest. He was the first person to cross the Atlantic in an open-basket balloon. He was the first to make it to all four poles. (You thought there were two? Nope: North and South magnetic and geographic poles.) In fact, he made it to the magnetic North Pole solo, a first—no dog teams, snowmobiles, Eskimos or air support.
But in some ways, his crowning achievement was history’s highest formal dinner. Hempleman-Adams and two co-conspirators ascended to 24,262 feet, again in a hot-air balloon. Attired in black tie, the three descended 40 feet to a table set with linen and silver slung under the balloon and dined on asparagus, salmon and summer fruit. After clearing the table and doing the dishes, they parachuted to the ground. (We made up the part about doing the dishes, but the rest is true.)
For decades space has been the province of highly trained astronauts and, more recently, a privileged few who can afford the $20 million tab for a ride aboard a Russian rocket. In the 46 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach earth orbit, only about 450 men and women have flown in space. Now several companies are poised to bring space tourism to a wider universe of would-be astronauts.
Leading the pack is Virgin Galactic, the brainchild of Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Sir Richard Branson, aviation visionary Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by being the first to build and launch a reusable spacecraft, dubbed SpaceShipOne, that reached an altitude of 100 km twice in a two-week period with the equivalent of three people on board.
At Wired magazine’s NextFest technology exhibition in New York City last fall, Branson unveiled a conceptual mock-up of the interior of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft that is roughly three times the size of SS1. Conceived by British product designer Seymour Powell, the SS2 interior features fully reclining seats to minimize the effects of G forces, as well as large windows affording passengers spectacular views of Earth. The suborbital flights will last 21⁄2 hours with approximately seven minutes of weightlessness, during which time passengers will be able to float around the cabin.
While certainly not cheap at an initial $200,000 ticket price, the flights have already attracted thousands of potential customers, and Virgin plans to reinvest profits from early flights to make space tourism more affordable. One pioneer space tourist present at the NextFest exhibition, Alan Watts, found a way around the steep introductory price by cashing in 2 million Virgin Atlantic Airways frequent flier miles for his ticket.
Testing of the SS2 prototype is slated to begin early next year, with commercial flights commencing in 2009. The initial flights will be launched from Scaled Composites’ Mojave Desert facility, with operations eventually switching to New Mexico’s $225 million Spaceport America, currently under design and construction.
In a nod to that most famous of fictional spacecraft, the first SS2 will be named VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Enterprise. No word yet on whether William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy has signed up for a flight. Info: www.virgingalactic.com.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.