Virgin Galactic pilots: Kelly Latimer flies Virgin Orbit and WhiteKnightTwo

Virgin Galactic pilots: Kelly Latimer flies Virgin Orbit and WhiteKnightTwo

Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit Two commercial space companies is an ownership of the British billionaire Richard Branson. For space tourism company Virgin Galactic Latimer flies the giant twin  aircraft known as White-Knight-Two that carries a smaller spaceship at its belly to an altitude of up to 50,000 feet 15,000 about meters before the spaceship detaches and blasts off toward suborbital space.

Latimer is a chief test pilot for Virgin Orbit as well where she flies a modified 747 plane known as Cosmic Girl. The plane carries a rocket under its left wing about 35,000 feet 10,000 meters in the air after the rocket is released and falls for about 4 or 5 seconds before launching toward its intended orbit. Latimer is the only female test pilot out of a total of 7 between the 2 companies.


Growing up in New Jersey Latimer knew from an early age that she always wanted to be an astronaut. In eighth grade she decided she needed a plan to make that a reality. Latimer went to the library pulled out an encyclopedia and looked up the term astronaut. From there she learned that all astronauts at the time had been military test pilots and that to be a test pilot one had to be a commissioned officer. After a lot of research she set her sights on attending the Air Force Academy.

She kept the entire application process a secret from her parents because she thought they would not accept even though her father had served in the US Air Force.

"This is the late 70s early 80s the academies just got opened to women" Latimer said. "The 1st girls were just going through when I was applying ... and in my mind I'm like It's fine I have got the women there now. It's going to be good. I can do it. It's not a problem. But I just knew my parents would not see it that same way."

When Latimer finally told them, though, they were thrilled.


She was graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering then headed to NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, where she completed a master's degree in aeronautics through George Washington University.

When she finished her master's program she reported for Air Force pilot training. The criteria that would strengthen her case on the way to astronaut selection was experience flying a high performance jet. At the time women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft like bombers. The one and only way women could get that high performance jet experience was being a T-38 supersonic trainer jet instructor. After doing that for three years she flew C-141 multi engine cargo planes for a few years before she was picked up for test pilot school and flew C-17 military transport planes for several years before becoming an instructor one more time.

She said her military and test pilot career was greatly aided by those who came before her.

"My path here was way easier because of all the women who came before me that seriously had a hard time had to deal with a lot more issues that I don't have to deal with at all" She said. "I just have to do my job and do it the best I can."


In 1999 she was chosen to participate in astronaut selection interviews at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Though she was ultimately not selected she passed all the necessary tests including a physical exam and background check and figured she would learn from this for the next time.

A few years later while she was deployed to Afghanistan she applied again and was chosen for an interview. However this time She didn't pass the physical exam because of a high antibody reading in her blood a result "you wouldn't know unless you took the astronaut physical" Latimer said. She said she remembered thinking at the time that after all her time and effort "the dream is dead."

"It was pretty crushing at that moment," She said.


After serving as commander of the 418th Flight test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster, She deployed to Iraq where she advised the Iraqi Air Force. But she knew she didn't want to stay in the Air Force forever. In 2007 she retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. That same year she took a job as a research pilot with what was then known as NASA's Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards Air Force Base. There she flew the agency's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy which is a modified 747 plane with a telescope in the back. She was the 1st female research test pilot.

She later moved to Huntington Beach making a longtime dream true of living near the ocean and worked for Boeing for 8 years as a test pilot. In that role she flew military and commercial planes including the C-17 Boeing 737, 787, P-8 Poseidon naval aircraft and KC-46 tanker plane.

"I was looking for a little civilization and a life outside of work" Latimer said.


A friend asked her in 2014 if she would be interested in applying to a pilot job with Virgin Galactic. That year the company's spaceship had broken apart during a test flight killing the copilot and injuring the pilot. At the time she was unsure whether Virgin Galactic would be able to recover from the accident but a tour of the company's Mojave facility changed her mind.

Latimer saw new rocket motors being built and that a test team was being developed. She talked to company leadership about their test program and priorities .

"I was surprised at just how serious and how much effort was going into moving forward" Latimer said. "And I was like 'This is the real deal. These guys are really going to do this. And I want in.' "

The accident cause was later determined the copilot had prematurely opened the spaceship's "feather system" which helps to slow down the craft down when it reenters Earth's atmosphere. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the spacecraft's builder Scaled Composites and after the accident, Virgin Galactic brought manufacturing in-house.

"Accidents like that ... they are huge emotional events for any organisation" Latimer said. "The key thing is finding out what happened to cause it. That for me was the biggest thing that it was something that was fixable."


She still has a chance to become an astronaut. Sometime next year she'll probably get her turn to fly Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo to suborbital space after which she will earn commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration. Until then she will be busy flying tests of Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl which is expected to have its 1st launch later this year. That company's mascot is Rocket the raccoon stuffed animal from the film Guardians of the Galaxy because the acronym for the launch controls is RACUN.

"Even though I didn't end up being a NASA astronaut which was kind of a crushing defeat I realized wow by actually chasing that I'm sitting on this mountain of experience and education and skills" she said. "I would not have known to go do all of this if I hadn't been chasing that astronaut dream."


She is married to Ray Blew almost two years ago, and the couple have a condo in Huntington Beach. When her work on the program takes her to the Antelope Valley, she stays in a friend's spare room near Mojave. When she can, Latimer enjoys surfing.

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