I was going through a whole lot of awesome cockpit photos yesterday when I stumbled upon this image, the most impressive of them all. It looked more like the interior of a secret Imperial fighter from Star Wars rather than a machine made on Earth.
This is the WhiteKnightOne, the mothership designed by Burt Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne, the first manned private ship to travel to space. It did it twice, which got Rutan the first Ansari X Prize.
I wanted to post it after talking to a pilot friend of mine about how the golden age of aviation seemed to be over. Not only the years of propeller aeroplanes of World War II, but the explosion of weird jet and rocket-powered contraptions that happened right after that, with hundreds of crazy one-of-a-kind prototypes that required the most courageous — or insane — test pilots to fly them.
This cockpit — sans the digital panel — feels like it belongs to a flying machine from those days. It oozes Rutan’s awesome style through every screw, gauge and notch — all beauty and simplicity with a Flash Gordon aesthetic.
The cockpit of SpaceShipOne is equally impressive, albeit more claustrophobic, like the old Bell X supersonic planes that Chuck Yeager and his colleagues used to test over the skies of Muroc Army Air Field — what is now known as Edwards Air Force Base.
In fact, I would say this is a direct descendant of Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis, which launched from the belly of a B-29. It’s much more polished, for sure, but almost as dangerous as the video of her first flight shows.
The pilot then was Mike Melvill, an old-school test pilot that, like Yeager, had the right stuff to keep his cool when SpaceShipOne started to roll like crazy on her way up.