RAF pilot picked to join Virgin Orbit space programme

News, Space

An RAF pilot who has been picked to join the Virgin Orbit space programme has spoken of his pride at being involved in the pioneering project.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew “Stanny” Stannard, who is a Typhoon pilot with one of the RAF’s test and evaluation squadrons, is set to begin his three-year secondment next year.

He said: “I’ve flown Tornado and Typhoon fighter jets in the RAF but being involved in Virgin Orbit’s space programme is a truly unique opportunity.

“This programme is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space so it’s a real privilege to be part of it and I’m looking forward to bringing the skills and knowledge I gain back to the RAF.”

During his secondment Flt Lt Stannard is set to join the fleet of expert “test pilots” trialling Boeing 747-400 aircraft from which cutting-edge satellites will be launched.

Defence minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said the UK and the US already have an incredibly close defence relationship and would be working together to try to forge new frontiers in space.

She said: “This exciting partnership will see Virgin Orbit benefit from the skills and expertise of our personnel while propelling the RAF’s space ambitions to new heights.”

Air Vice-Marshal Simon “Rocky” Rochelle, the RAF Air Capability Chief of Staff, said: “Having one of our test pilots working at the heart of such a cutting-edge programme is a significant step in the RAF’s space journey.

“It also reinforces the close relationship we have with industry and with the US, we expect this to further enable UK satellite launch capabilities.”

Flt Lt Stannard’s return to the RAF should help boost the UK’s understanding of the military uses of small satellites, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Flt Lt Stannard, who graduated from RAF officer training in May 2007, has amassed over 1,000 hours on Tornados during multiple combat tours, after which he undertook instructional duties.

He was selected to become an experimental test pilot in 2015, and trained at the US Naval Test Pilot School before qualifying as a Typhoon test pilot.

The secondment still needs to gain final US and UK regulatory approvals.

Virgin Orbit’s chief executive Dan Hart said: “As part of Team Artemis, we’ve been working with the RAF and the US Air Force to demonstrate the utility of small satellites and responsive, resilient space launch and operations.

“We are thrilled to welcome Flight Lt Matthew Stannard to our team of hugely talented pilots where I know his presence will move us further, faster and to new heights.”

The secondment announcement was made on the RMS Queen Mary ship in California as the RAF’s Red Arrows display team flew overhead during the ceremony.

The MoD has previously announced it is investing £30 million to fast-track the launch of a small satellite demonstrator within a year.

The demonstrator, also known as Programme Artemis, is being delivered by a new transatlantic team of UK and US defence personnel and firms including Virgin Orbit.

The UK has also joined Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led international military unit aimed at strengthening deterrence against hostile actors in space and at preserving the safety of spaceflight.

Chris Price
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