RAF

Watch: RAF's rocket man helps launch Virgin Orbit space rocket over Pacific

Flight Lieutenant Mathew 'Stanny' Stannard has amassed more than 1,000 hours on Tornados during multiple combat tours with the RAF.

An RAF pilot has helped launch a rocket into space from over the Pacific.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew 'Stanny' Stannard, who is seconded to Sir Richard Branson’s satellite launch company Virgin Orbit, is part of a crew that took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California for the launch on Thursday evening.

UK Space Command hopes to benefit from Flt Lt Stannard's experience while with the company.

The airman helped work the controls of the rocket under the company's LauncherOne system which was released from a modified Boeing 747-400 named Cosmic Girl.

Just before 11pm, Virgin Orbit confirmed on a livestream that "LauncherOne is in space".

Virgin Orbit tweeted: "Looks like we made it Above the Clouds and on our way to Orbit. It's a beauty up here!"

It added: "Blue has gone to black. LauncherOne is in space."

According to Virgin Orbit, the reference to 'Above the Clouds' pays homage to hip hop group Gang Starr's 1998 album Moment Of Truth, on which the song Above The Clouds features the lyrics: "Above the clouds, where the sounds are original – infinite skills create miracles."

Flt Lt Stannard, a Typhoon pilot with one of the RAF's test and evaluation squadrons, is part of a crew on Cosmic Girl alongside chief pilot Eric Bippert, who has more than 1,000 hours of experience in test flights, plus launch engineers Sarah Barnes and Bryce Schaefer.

Their role was to monitor data from the aircraft and the rocket from their stations on the upper deck.

Sir Richard said he was "excited" and "slightly nervous" after watching the take-off.

"It is incredible what the whole team has accomplished," he said.

"It is always incredible to be watching and a great privilege."

Watch: Flight Lieutenant Mathew 'Stanny' Stannard was selected to join the Virgin Orbit Space Programme in 2019.

The rocket has seven satellites, including some from the US Department of Defense experimenting in space-based communications.

The mission is the third for Sir Richard's company – the LauncherOne system has previously launched 19 satellites.

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 (MOD).

The MOD anticipates using Virgin Orbit to launch military satellites in the future and is building a pool of experience in advance.

The latest mission marks a major step forward towards a planned launch by Virgin Orbit this summer from Cornwall, in what will be the first-ever satellite launch from the UK. 

Flt Lt Stannard said: "It has been great to be part of another successful mission with Virgin Orbit today.

"It gives huge confidence in the launch system as we switch gears to focus on the UK launch out of Spaceport Cornwall in the summer."

Royal Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, said: "The RAF congratulates Virgin Orbit on another successful rocket launch, and especially the part played by one of our pilots, Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard.

"We look forward to seeing Mathew and the Virgin Orbit team at Spaceport Cornwall later this year for their first launch from the UK."

Flt Lt Stannard, who graduated from RAF officer training in May 2007, has amassed more than 1,000 hours on Tornados during multiple combat tours.