A conceptual sketch of the plane Poly graduate Peter Siebold tested carrying SpaceShipTwo. Courtesy of Virgin Galactic
A conceptual sketch of the plane Poly graduate Peter Siebold tested carrying SpaceShipTwo. Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

A Cal Poly aerospace engineering graduate and flight test pilot earned an international award last fall for his role in developing aircraft for the fledgling space tourism industry. The award put him in a select group that includes famous pilots John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

Peter Siebold, who completed his degree in 2001, received the Iven C. Kincheloe award at the 53rd Annual Symposium for the international Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP). The award is given after aeronautical companies nominate pilots whom they feel have made a significant contribution to flight test through development, performance and testing.

“It’s without question the most prestigious award a test pilot can receive in his career,” Douglas Shane, president of Scaled Composites and Siebold’s boss, said. “It’s likened to a Heisman Trophy in football.”

Siebold won the yearly award specifically for his role as chief test pilot and on the Model 348 WhiteKnightTwo plane, from the first flight through subsequent testing and modification processes.

“I’m humbled to be in the company of significant contributors to flight testing,” Siebold said. “It’s hard to see yourself as equal to some of those folks that have received the honor previously.”

Siebold may feel humble, but his work speaks for itself. WhiteKnightTwo is part of billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s dream for the potential space tourism industry. WhiteKnightTwo would act as the carrier and take-off platform for Virgin Galactic tourism space ships at an elevation of 47,000 feet, Siebold said. Basically, WhiteKnightTwo would fly with a space ship attached, get to the appropriate altitude and then act as the take-off platform.

WhiteKnightTwo is three times the size of any aircraft Scaled Composites had ever designed or built and is the largest he has flown, Siebold said. Despite the size and scale of the project, he said it continues to exceed expectations.

His confidence and success with WhiteKnightTwo can be attributed to his experience and versatility. He flew his first solo flight, gaining his pilot’s license at 16, the youngest age that a person can do so. He taught flight classes at the San Luis Obispo Airport when he was a student at Cal Poly and has now logged about 2,500 hours of flight time in 40 different types of fixed wing aircraft.

Siebold is not only an experienced pilot, but also a capable engineer.

“Engineer and pilot are a perfect combo of those two interests,” he said. “As a test pilot, you need to understand the engineering as well as how things work.”

Siebold said employees of Scaled Composites are encouraged to be multi-talented and work in different areas. Siebold has, for instance, worked with computers managing avionics and simulation developments. The mid-size company focuses on innovative designs and technology within the industry.

Terry Tomeny, president of SETP and director of flight test operations at Calspan Bicycleworks at the Mojave Airport, said that the Scaled Composite philosophy is admired throughout the industry.

“They’re a very unique company that does a lot of groundbreaking work with very new airplanes,” Tomeny said. “They’re very confident and efficient compared to the big companies who develop slower and spend more money.”

Siebold said that his Cal Poly education prepared him well for work at a unique company like Scaled Composites.

“My education gave me two things: a toolbox of knowledge to do the work and, more importantly, it fostered the creative spirit and can-do attitude,” he said. “Scaled is a very similar place where we’re always looking for people who try something new and learn from their mistakes.”

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  1. Interesting story. Of course Mr. Siebold wasn’t the first Cal Poly graduate to work at Scaled Composites. The company was founded and is still run by Burt Rutan, who is also a Cal Poly alumni.

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