Virgin pilots are out of this world

Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic today announced an agreement whereby pilots flying for Virgin Atlantic could become astronaut pilots of the future. Virgin Atlantic pilots will have the opportunity to be seconded to Virgin Galactic and trained as fully-fledged astronaut pilots flying space tourists on the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo from 2008/9 onwards.

Any of Virgin Atlantic’s 700 pilots can apply for the scheme, which will involve a 27 month secondment to Virgin Galactic, where they will receive all the necessary training to make their flying skills out of this world.

Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic, said: ‘This is such an exciting and unique opportunity for our pilots, many of whom have a wealth of experience and are fanatical about flying (as you will see from the first pilots who have been chosen.) At Virgin Atlantic we have some of the most experienced pilots in the world and I’m sure that many will be keen to apply for the new scheme.

‘Only a handful of Brits have ever gone into space and this gives us the opportunity to put British pilots at the forefront of space exploration. I’m also sure our passengers will love the idea that one day the pilot, on their Boeing or Airbus plane who is flying them around the world, will soon be flying passengers to space. Other Virgin airlines will also be included in the scheme.’

Three Virgin Atlantic pilots have already been handpicked on the basis of their experience and skills. Steve Johnson, currently a training Captain with Virgin Atlantic and an ex-Red Arrows pilot, will become the chief astronaut pilot for Virgin Galactic, having overall responsibility for the pilot astronaut workforce.


Alistair Hoy, also a Virgin Atlantic training captain and an ex-Red Arrows pilot, will be the chief training astronaut, responsible for training all of Virgin Galactic’s astronaut pilots.

Captain David MacKay, currently a line captain with Virgin Atlantic, will be Virgin Atlantic’s test pilot and is already working with manufacturer Scaled Composites in the development process of SpaceShipTwo.

The pilots will receive nine months of aerobatic, fast jet and executive aircraft for zero gravity flights training. They will then spend the next nine months flying the mothership and participating in Mission Control work - the last nine months will be spent flying Virgin Galactic Spaceships into space. Once they have completed their 27 month secondment they will return to Virgin Atlantic as qualified pilot astronauts.

Stephen Attenborough, Head of Astronaut Relations, Virgin Galactic, commented: ‘This is a unique opportunity to build a talented team of astronaut pilots, who will not only witness the birth of this new area of space travel, but will be the pioneers of future commercial space flight and an inspiration to thousands of commercial pilots flying around the world today.’

Matthew Lee, Director of Flight Operations for Virgin Atlantic, commented: ‘I am delighted that we are able to offer our pilots, who maintain some of the highest standards of safety and professionalism in the industry, this fantastic opportunity and I’m sure it will encourage even more pilots to apply to Virgin Atlantic for years to come.’

Alex Tai, a Virgin Atlantic captain and the Operations Director for Virgin Galactic, commented: ‘As a Virgin Atlantic pilot I know how exciting and unique this opportunity is for our pilots and how popular it will be. The pilots who have been selected so far have so much expertise - from their work with the RAF and display teams, to their work as commercial airline pilots - but I can guarantee that what they will experience in the next few years will be a challenge unlike anything they have experienced before.’

From 2008 Virgin Galactic expects to have around 30 astronaut pilots recruited from all of the Virgin airlines round the world. 50% of the astronaut pilots will be recruited from NASA and Virgin America with the remaining 50% being recruited from other Virgin airlines including Virgin Atlantic from which three pilots will be seconded.

Virgin Galactic also plans to recruit some of its pilots from Virgin Nigeria, Virgin Blue and Virgin Express. In December Virgin Atlantic launched the first frequent flyer programme reward where Flying Club members could earn miles to get themselves to space.

Virgin Galactic is a company established by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group to undertake the challenge of developing space tourism for everybody. It will own and operate privately built spaceships, modeled on the history-making SpaceShipOne craft. These spaceships will allow affordable sub-orbital space tourism for the first time in our history. Every customer of Virgin Galactic will be helping the development of a new generation of space craft.

Virgin’s experience in aviation, adventure, luxury travel and cutting-edge design will be vital in contributing to the design of the spaceship, the smooth operation of the spaceline and creating an unforgettable experience unlike any other available to mankind.


Alex learned to fly gliders at 16 and gained his pilots licence at 17. He joined the Royal Air Force as pilot and then flew executive jets before joining Virgin at 27. Alex became one of the youngest Virgin Atlantic Captains at 30 flying with Virgin Sun on the A320/A321. During his career with Virgin Atlantic Alex has worked on a number of special projects for the Virgin Group including new corporate ventures mainly in aviation, he has also supported the around the world balloon attempts and the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer projects as the Chase plane pilot. Alex is now the Operations Director of Virgin Galactic and is responsible for all Space flight development production and operations. Alex holds eleven world records in aviation with his friend Steve Fossett.


Steve learned to fly at Swanton Morley in Norfolk when he was 16. He joined the RAF in 1978 and flew Harrier GR3 aircraft in Germany and in the Falklands He was a RAF Germany Harrier Display pilot in 1987 and then joined the Red Arrows in 1988. He later flew for a civilian display team sponsored by Toyota. He has also participated in Pitts specials Warbird displays for The Fighter Collection and The Old Flying Machine Co. Duxford. Steve joined Virgin Atlantic in 1994 flying the Airbus A340 and he is currently a training captain on the A340.


After spending three years flying with the University Air Squadron, Alistair joined the Royal Air Force and completed three years of pilot training. His first operational tour was flying Jaguars with No 17 Squadron in the ground attack role. He was then selected for the Central Flying School where he spent three years teaching both fast jet students and instructors. At the end of that tour he was invited to join the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team ‘The Red Arrows’ where he served until leaving the service in October 1991. For the next three years he was employed as an Advanced Flying Instructor at the UAE Air Force College, Abu Dhabi. Since May 1994 he has been employed by Virgin Atlantic and has been a Captain on the A320 and A340 for the past 9 years. He is currently a Training Captain on the A340 fleet. In the past few years he has displayed the Vampire and Venom and taught on the Harvard. He is also a co-owner, Director and Chief Pilot of a company that holds a JAR Ops AOC, which offers formation aerobatic experiences to the general public.


David received his flying training from the RAF between 1979 and 1982. He served as a Harrier pilot in Germany, Belize and the Falklands. After graduating from the French test pilots’ school EPNER in 1988, David became a test pilot for the Fixed Wing Test Squadron until 1992. He then became an Officer Commanding Fast Jet Test Flight and then a Fixed Wing Tutor. David joined Virgin Atlantic in 1995 as a First Officer on the Boeing 747 fleet. He was promoted to Captain in 2001 and is currently a Captain on the A340 fleet.