Aviation entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson's prototype aircraft designed to launch paying passengers into space made an emergency landing at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport Friday morning after a warning light lit up in the cockpit, according to an airport official.
Gateway spokesman Brian Sexton said the aircraft landed without incident at about 10:30 a.m., and the crew began repairs. Late Friday afternoon the aircraft was hauled into a hangar for protection from a looming storm, he said.
The aircraft is the WhiteKnight Two operated by Virgin Galactic, the for-profit spaceline formed by Branson to carry revenue-paying passengers on sub-orbital space flights. It was on a flight from Mojave airport in southern California to Las Cruces, N.M., where it was to overfly a ground breaking ceremony for Spaceport America.
Spaceport America, the world's first commercial spaceport, is to be the home base for Virgin Galactic when it begins operations in 2012.
Sexton said the pilot reported an Alert 2 to the Gateway control tower, and the airport dispatched firefighting equipment to mid-field as a precaution. But the plane landed safely and taxied to the cargo ramp on its own power, he said.
He did not know how long the craft would remain at the airport.
"There was no indication what the problem was," he said. "Their comment was they wanted no photographs taken."
However, Sexton said some pilots and amateur photographers took pictures from behind a security fence.
The unique aircraft is designed to fly up to about 50,000 feet when a second smaller craft carrying passengers would be dropped. That second rocket-powered aircraft, called SpaceShip Two, would fly up to 62 miles above the earth's surface and then return.
The two ships were designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and built by Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, in California.
Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn told Flightglobal.com, an aviation Web site, that the crew would still attempt to do the overflight of Spaceport America later "as there are two days of events here."