I was at the inaugural launch of SpaceShipOne at the Mojave Airport (MHV) in southern California on June 21, 2004. I can't do justice to the spectacle that unfolded that morning, but I will present here a narrative of the highlights of the photos I took. The full set is here if you want to browse them on your own.
We got there at about 6:30am, a few minutes before the first takeoff. I went with my parents and my friend Tim who had a radio on him which is able to scan aviation frequencies. I'm a pilot and I brought my Aircraft/Facility Directory with me, which contained the tower frequency for the airport. We tuned in as we were parking, and were lucky enough to do so in time to hear the tower call "White Knight, taxi to runway 30." We made our way toward the area of spectators lined up along runway 30 (the largest one at MHV) but couldn't get right up to the boundary.
The first aircraft to take off was one of the chase planes, a single-engine propellor-driven plane called an Extra. It was already in the air when we arrived. Its job was low-altitude chase and filming. You can see it in some of the later photos. It was buzzing around the area, climbing up to a few thousand feet as it went.
The second aircraft to take off at around 6:38am was a twin-prop Beechcraft Starship which had a similar function, a medium-altitude chase-plane. It's a pretty sleek looking ship.
This is about as close as we could get to the runway. If there is a next time, we definitely need to be a lot earlier! Beyond the masses there is White Knight, the carrier plane, and SpaceShipOne strapped to its belly.
As the Starship was climbing, we heard on the radio "White Knight, runway 30, cleared for takeoff." The pilot acknowledged, the jet engines on White Knight roared, and up they went, taking off west in the calm desert morning winds, and then eventually beginning to circle and climb to the release altitude of about 50,000 feet.
For several minutes the ships climbed and spiralled away from us, occasionally passing overhead to give us a view of the two ships together. From time to time they would form up for some filming and such. The tower soon called "White Knight, frequency change approved, have a good flight."
And up they went...
Soon after, the final chase plane took off, an Alpha Jet. This one was responsible for the high-altitude and high-speed chase and intercept work.
Once everything was high enough to be barely and only occasionally visible, the masses milled about, talking about what we'd seen, our experiences, where we came from to witness this, etc. Once in a while things would come back into view for a while. We did manage to catch a few shots of White Knight once it got high enough to generate a vapour trail.
Finally the key moment approached. The three higher-altitude ships were near each other, but far enough apart to be safe. Tim had since found the mission frequency, so we heard the countdown: "Four, three, two, one... release." About a second after White Knight and SS1 detached, they fired the rocket and he shot into space.
For the pilots among us, you may have heard the pilot of the ship talking about problems with the trim and a lot of yawing. You can see evidence of this in these photos where you can see the rocket's trail zig zagging. Imagine doing that at Mach 3! One of the chase planes tried in vain to keep up.
A long time passed. The next thing we could see was White Knight starting to descend back into view. Still no sign of SpaceShipOne though...
Finally, we could see something, but we weren't sure which ship this was. The Starship moved to intercept what turned out to be SpaceShipOne on its way back in. Apparently it had survived, but on the mission frequency we heard the pilot talking about a bang in the aft of the aircraft, and complained about the yawing and trim system problems I mentioned earlier. The Extra also moved in to inspect SpaceShipOne for damage to see if there was anything of concern. This lasted for a while as all the craft descended slowly and converged to film the descent. The Alpha formed up shortly afterwards.
Finally, we could definitely identify SpaceShipOne descending and still apparently in good shape, being escorted closely by the Extra and the Starship. They continued descending and spiralling, until finally someone said "Runway is made!" (pilot speak for "I can definitely make it to the runway from here"), and SpaceShipOne broke formation to descend to the runway.
The escorts broke away, but as SpaceShipOne was still on the runway, the others had some time to show off. White Knight came by for some low passes to show off its jet power and sleek design. The others formed up to join in the strut. With one final pass, we said our goodbyes and headed to the car.
On our way out we did a pass by MHV and snapped some photos. In this shot the area we were standing is in the lower right, and the runway going from there up to the left is runway 30 where everything happened. I snapped several photos as we passed overhead hoping to catch some photos of the ships, but it appears they had all left by the time we go there or were back in hangers already. I did get a good shot of the vast array of aircraft who call MHV their home.