The Spaceship Engineers Who Build Their Own Planes
When they’re not building futuristic aircraft at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Elliot and Justin test DIY airplanes for the right stuff.
At dawn, Seguin and Gillen prepare to test a home-built experimental airplane. Photo: Sarah Scoles
It's 6:30 AM in Mojave, California. Hundreds of windmills normally churning the air are still, a silent audience as pilots Elliot Seguin and Justin Gillen pull out their experimental airplanes from private hangars.
Today, Seguin and Gillen are testing a brand-new one built by an older Air Force veteran, which has spent just three hours in the air. On its sleek nose cone, the builder used a Sharpie to draw the teeth-bared mouth of a shark, which remains the only decoration on the otherwise white body. You can see a bit of roughness in the seams, tiny inconsistencies you wouldn't want to find if you bought an airplane from a manufacturer.
But Seguin and Gillen will hop in any unproven aircraft like this one, test its performance, and fix whatever is wrong. And word of their willingness is spreading across the aerospace community. "We know two guys who will fly all kinds of crazy shit" is how Seguin characterizes the grapevine talk.
On the shark plane, a circuit connected to the primary alternator keeps blowing 30 minutes into every flight, and it's their job to figure out why. This morning, Gillen will fly this craft, and Seguin will chase behind him in a one-of-a-kind GT400, nicknamed "Snort." It's a needle of an aircraft, with a NASCAR-style "7" and a startled, cartoony horse painted on its side.
These sorts of experimental, home-built planes aren't subject to the same regulations as standard ones. To become FAA certified and carry passengers, they just have to fly for 40 hours and pass tests across their "operational envelope," or range of conditions in which they're designed to perform. After that, the planes receive certification and scary stickers that say "This aircraft is amateur-built and does not comply with the federal safety requirements for 'standard aircraft'" that go inside the fuselage. Seguin and Gillen want to get this plane its certificate so some passenger can sit in the back and stare wary-eyed at it.
"Everybody wants to be the hero test pilot with the jacket standing next to the plane looking real cool"
Gillen, hair mussed, trades his flip-flops for fireproof Nomex auto-racing shoes and zips a one-piece flight suit over his street clothes. He walks over to the shark plane's wing and begins folding a set of papers, each of which describes a test the craft must pass.
"Nice PJs," says Seguin. "Looking sharp, buddy."
Gillen responds by nodding his head up once and continuing his folding. As go-time approaches, both grow steadily quieter. They're tense, focused if not outright nervous. Seguin is a better test pilot than Gillen; Gillen is a better chase pilot than Seguin. But today, Gillen is testing, and Seguin is chasing. They've switched roles to expand their "personal envelopes." That kind of growth isn't always comfortable, especially when it happens 8,500 feet up, and the hard press of a backpack parachute is a reminder that at any moment, everything could go wrong. Especially if, like me, you're not totally sure you remember where to find the pull-tab that ejects the glass above your head, or how hard you have to pull the parachute cord to make it release.
As the two prepare their planes for takeoff, I am handed one of those packed parachutes and told to hop in Snort's backseat. The warning sticker, which keeps itself stubbornly in my peripheral vision, keeps begging me to look at it and and confront my own mortality.
"Nervous?" Seguin asks me.
"Should I be?" I ask.
Seguin and Gillen work by day at the Mojave Air and Space Port, where companies like XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic build next-generation planes and actual spaceships. They are employed by Scaled Composites, a company that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for its SpaceShipOne, which Virgin Galactic is now developing into a suborbital space vehicle.
As part of his job, Seguin, 32, has spent hundreds of hours hours testing the Proteus and White Knight aircraft that have carried different iterations of the SpaceShip to their launch altitudes, before releasing them and letting them rocket upward. He led the team of engineers that first spooled up spaceship production at The Spaceship Company, which Scaled and Virgin co-founded, and he personally hired many of its current engineers.
Gillen, 35, was the design engineer for parts of White Knight Two and has been the project engineer on the ARES project since 2012. Today, he also runs the fuselage engineering team for Stratolaunch, the world's largest aircraft.
But after Seguin and Gillen punch out at Scaled, they drive down Flight Line Avenue to their private hangars, also located at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Inside sit their experimental aircraft—ones they built, by hand, in their free time. These planes are so small and light that riding in them feels like sitting atop a dragonfly.
Gillen's baby is called Tango 2. Seguin's favorite child, Wasabi, is so minimal it could be made for Polly Pocket. He designed this plane, built it, raced it, modified it again, and flew it nonstop cross-country, with Gillen and Tango 2 on his wing the whole way. They both also pilot as part of an extracurricular Formula-One team called Wasabi Air Racing, which Seguin and Jennifer Whaley Seguin—the crew chief, a manager at Scaled, and Seguin's wife—founded and run together.
Both Seguin and Gillen began their hobby because they wanted to stand out at their real jobs. "The big thing at Scaled is it's competitive," says Seguin, who has set six world records for speed in experimental aircraft. "Everybody's trying to get cool opportunities. You'll do anything to set yourself apart." And so even though the two spend all day solving aerospace problems, they spend their nights creating new ones, and then solving those, too.
As the sun's radiation tinges the dawn clouds pink, Gillen continues putting on his costume. He pulls a white balaclava over his head, then shoves a flight helmet with oxygen mask over that. With the full ensemble, he becomes iconic, more like a photograph than a person. But Seguin says that's not what it's all about.
"Everybody wants to be the hero test pilot with the jacket standing next to the plane looking real cool," he says. "But the work isn't in the flying. It's figuring out what happened on the flight."
Seguin hops on Snort's wing and lands himself in the cockpit, wrestling his headset over his ears. He looks back at me and gives a thumbs-up (it's a question: all good?) before closing the domed window that surrounds us from shoulders up. Minutes later, we, Snort, and the shark plane are taxiing down the runway. At dawn on a Saturday, no one is in the control tower. The airport is empty except for a coyote, who sniffs a sign staked to the median.
"Glitter 1 to Sparkle," Seguin says over the headset. "You see that doggy on the runway?"
Most pilots in Mojave have call names like "Viper" and "Death Squad." In response, Seguin and Gillen picked their names from My Little Pony (although they have never heard the term "brony" and don't claim the identity). They aren't the alpha-male test-pilot stereotype. Seguin is slight and boyish, sincere as he speaks sentences so quick and sharp you feel like his words are espresso and you're slugging them. Gillen is quieter, with a surfer's chill and a goofy smile. Their power, it seems, comes not from dominance but from enthusiasm, which buoys them like the Bernoulli Principle.
Snort accelerates and then lifts off, with a jolting pick-up a few hundred feet off the ground. Seguin banks hard, and the duplicate control stick between my knees knocks to one side. This stick, like the rudder pedals moving beneath my feet, I have been instructed to merely observe. Gillen follows close behind, his plane soon appearing through the glass around our heads. Glitter and Sparkle pull the planes higher, flying into a circular pattern a few thousand feet above Mojave.
In Snort's backseat control panel, bobbling analog dials give me the bare-bones stats: the plane's G-forces, airspeed, and oil pressure. Not much more information exists up front, either. Planes like these have hardly any instruments, and, often, no lights. As we curve through yet another circle, a wawawawa beat waves through the air between the planes. Their propellers are so close together that a harmonic has formed between them, like two flutes playing the same note out of tune.
"The breaker popped," Gillen soon reports over the radio, meaning the alternator cut out—again. He sounds calmer than a person should.
This doesn't even make the short list of scary experiences for Gillen. One time, as he flew through a thunderstorm, he felt an electric tingling in his ears, just for a second or two. He was focused on getting through the storm and over Sierra Nevada mountains, so he ignored it. But then, 20 seconds later, it returned, stronger this time. And 20 seconds after that, he felt it again. Every recurrence, the tingling became less like a tickle and more like a shock.
"As long as it doesn't get any worse," he thought, "this will be fine." But then he shot through the thickest portion of the cloud, and it did get worse, so bad that each occurrence jolted him like a Milgram experiment. He was losing altitude, falling closer and closer to the mountains below.
"The next one's really gonna hurt," Gillen thought, and throw him farther from his flight path. And then, just in time, he realized the problem was in his headset: with the electronics meant to cancel out ambient noise. He powered them down, just in time. "The best explanation I've heard so far is that static built up in the fiberglass of my plane, creating an electric circuit and then shorting to my ear," Gillen explains.
"Or through the sweaty seat of your pants," Seguin says.
Another storm recently gave Gillen a new kind of adventure. It doesn't rain much in Mojave, as its name suggests, but on October 15, 2015, three inches fell in just 30 minutes, in what the National Weather Service called a "1,000-year rain event." Just a few miles down the road from the Air and Space Port, a landslide sent a four-foot-high river of mud and debris pouring onto State Highway 58. Hundreds of people found themselves in a very wrong place at the exact wrong time, as a viscous, brown torrent slammed into the cars of those making the commute between Mojave and Tehachapi, as well as the big rigs traveling to the populated part of Southern California.
Pilots at the Mojave Air and Spaceport, including Gillen, decided to take rescue efforts into their own hands. Overnight, word spread to those stranded on the hoods of their cars: If they could make it to the Mojave Air and Space Port's Voyager restaurant (named for Dick Rutan's 1986 nonstop flight around the world in a plane his brother, Burt Rutan, designed) someone would roll up in a private plane and take them home to Tehachapi. The passengers stared down at the mud that had trapped them. From up in the air, that mud became a problem that could simply be hopped over, not one to be mired in.
In a Facebook post that Seguin wrote for Scaled, he called it the "Great Mojave Airlift."
Flying in this plane, with a view everywhere I look, including up, is not like flying in a plane. It's like being part of the sky.
One of Seguin's big, bad moments came during a prep flight for a world-record attempt. He switched from the "cold" (regular) fuel to the hot gas, which racers use to go fast. He pushed the engine to 100 percent of its power, warped the plane into overdrive, checked that all systems were nominal, and then began pulling back. Once he throttled down to 500 horsepower, he switched to the cold gas.
"The engine quit," he remembers. "Like, dead."
But he didn't panic. "We're pushing the engine so hard that it's not uncommon for it to stumble," he says. "You don't freak out enough when it's doing something weird." Seguin didn't freak out enough, until the engine remained stubbornly off. He was able to glide in "on energy" (or momentum, no power), but another plane barely cleared the runway in time.
Another time, a "fuelproof" sealant was not as advertised, and he ended up with flammable liquid leaking onto his feet mid-air. "There's this guy on the side of the gas can," Seguin says, "a burn victim. I was thinking a lot about him."
Gillen radios to say he's reset the shark's circuit breaker, and the primary alternator is back online. He is ready to go above the clouds, which hover around 8,500 feet. He pulls up, and the shark's open Sharpie mouth crashes through the stratus. His plane's bright red spinner, the yellow on Snort's wing, and the blue of the sky make the perfect primary colors.
With just these elements, far above everything else and totally in control, it's easy, even as a passenger who is definitely not touching any of the controls, to feel that you could make, or do, anything. Flying in this plane, with a view everywhere I look, including up, is not like flying in a plane. It's like being part of the sky. As we come through yet another circle, a higher layer of clouds appears, reaching up toward the Sun like better-fated Towers of Babel.
"Fucking wow," says Seguin over the headset. "Fucking. Wow."
Traditional wisdom holds that the more times you're exposed to something, the less awesome it becomes. People who live on beautiful tropical islands don't sit around all day talking about how beautiful their islands are the way that tourists do. Surgeons who cut open skulls become progressively more steady: just another brain. But Seguin's enthusiasm seems like it either hasn't waned or was unbelievably fierce at the start.
"I came from a flying family," Seguin says. His father was a pilot who used a Cessna 172 for family trips. Right around the time Seguin was thinking about fast cars, his father, perhaps in a mid-life crisis brought on by having a teenage son, decided to modify the Cessna to be "wicked quick." When he was finished with the build, he set a world record with it. "We went from having a pretty cool plane on the airport to having the coolest plane on the airport," says Seguin.
Soon after, he and his father teamed up to buy a broken Cessna 150 from a neighbor's farm. Seguin worked on it for two years before it was even ready for inspection. But once it could fly, he used it to get his pilot's license and then flew it off to college. If his fellow students paid for gas, he'd take them for rides.
"Maydays used to be sexy"
Toward the end of his engineering degree, he took a job building World War II-era airplanes and began thinking about a post-college career that would combine his interests in airplanes and engineering. "I made a list of companies that did that," he says, "and more were on the Mojave airport than anywhere else in the country."
So he hopped in the 150 and flew to Mojave to see who wanted to give him a job for the summer. He ended up landing internships at XCOR Aerospace and Nemesis Air Racing. But, most importantly, he got contacts at Scaled Composites, his dream company. When Seguin got back to school, he called the company's office every Monday afternoon.
"Hi, I'm Elliot. Do you remember me?" he asked. "I still want to work at Scaled."
When they refused to fly him in for an interview, because he was still in college, he drove himself. "I waited in the parking lot until they gave me the interview," he says. He returned to school and switched to calling every Friday.
Scaled sent him a job offer the day he graduated. That was almost 10 years ago. But the day of the mudslide was actually his last day working at Scaled. His hobby, designing, building, and testing airplanes, has become his true passion. Starting the next week, it will be his new job. "I'm a test pilot now," he says, with a grin the size of the Sharpie shark's. He's going to do for-hire work, like today's test, and do a full work-up of a new plane from Mooney Aircraft Company, which no one has ever flown before.
"You know when you find that thing, that one thing, that really gets you going?" he says. "You've gotta grab onto that."
He closes his fist around the air.
Aside from that alternator thing, the shark plane has passed all of today's tests, and Gillen has finished working his way through the neatly folded cards. Snort is running low on fuel, although "low" is relative. Seguin has many gallons left, but he plays it safe. Or safer than he used to, especially since last year's accident. In October 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke into pieces and crashed, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Later, investigators found that Alsbury had made a fatal mistake mid-flight.
"Maydays used to be sexy," Seguin says. But the accident made people in Mojave step back and look at what they were doing, at the risks they were taking. Alsbury was an experienced pilot, but he wasn't infallible. No one is. What was he thinking? other pilots wondered. And could it have been me? The answer is yes: It could have been them.
"I've got about five minutes to bingo," says Seguin.
"Roger," says Gillen.
We sweep around in an arc to come in perpendicular to Highway 58, still closed and covered in mud just upstream of the landing strip. My g-force dials, both the biological one inside me and the one in front of me, tick up. Cars and buildings seem to be very close to us, for longer than they are in a commercial jet. It feels like I am a giant, not an airplane passenger, and could reach down and pluck unwitting residents from their houses. Soon, though, the wheels touch the ground. We regain our regular stature, and both planes taxi toward the hangars.
When the pilots hop down from their wings and back to Earth, Seguin runs over to Gillen and gives him a high-five.
"That's my boy," he says. "Let's get some doof. That's 'food' backward."
A few minutes later, Seguin, Gillen, and I sit in a booth at the Voyager restaurant to debrief. A map of Voyager's record-making flight hangs on the back wall, and a signed picture of the Rutan brothers and their plane hangs out front. It's the same autographed image Gillen received in 1986, when his father took him to a fundraising event featuring Dick Rutan, just before Rutan's big trip. Rutan himself sits in a booth just behind us, still a fixture in Mojave, a fact I only discover after they reach over to pat the old man's shoulder and say, "Hey, Dick."
After we order breakfast, Seguin and Gillen launch into a discussion of what went well, what could have gone better, and how they feel about today's role-reversal. At one point, Gillen refers to a time he couldn't understand Seguin's maneuvering. Seguin gets testy, defensive.
Gillen puts down his tea. "Don't shut down on me," he says.
Seguin looks at the table and holds up his hand. "Okay," he says. "Okay."
They both set egos aside, for the good of their bromance, for the good of their work. Because it's this part—the figuring-out part, the making-it-work part—that drew them to this world in the first place.
When I ask why he likes designing, building, and testing planes so much, Seguin says, "I think it's a really well-defined problem. Airplanes have to be light and powerful and strong and flexible and stiff. It's infinitely challenging. There's always another corner you can learn about." Then he stops and looks out the window at the runway, where others, finally awake, are parking their own aircraft. "But that's the lamest answer ever," he says.
He reaches for my recorder and puts it up to his mouth. "This is Elliot Seguin," he says. "Here's what it's really about." He puts the recorder down and puts his hands on the table. "Today?" he says. "That shit with the clouds?" And that time back in April, when he and Gillen organized the Mojave Experimental Fly-In, a gathering of experimental-plane pilots from all over. During the day, Seguin ran between work and the Fly-In, waiting for the temperature to peak. He planned to try for a new record—the fastest three-kilometer record—and hot air is thin, letting planes slice through faster. "This [record] had been a goal of mine," he says, and stops. "No, not even a goal because I didn't think it was reachable. I just thought it was totally freaking badass. Just the fact that I was even going to get a shot at it was badass."
And so in the hottest heat, Glitter took off from Runway Eight. Seguin winged toward the racecourse, opened up the engine, and flew across the starting line. "I have an airplane with three times the rated horsepower going 390 miles an hour," he says. "It's the freaking coolest shit I've ever done, the summation of a year and half of work figuring out how to make these engines make that much power." He flew hard and straight and fast for just 17 seconds, while the engine, maxed beyond maxing, "tried to explode the whole time." He hit the three-kilometer mark in one piece.
It was a record.
Popping his plane off the course, he dropped the engine down to normal levels. "It became just an airplane again," he says, sounding still amazed at the transformation. Below him, the slow-flying "bug-smasher" planes buzzed, dropping "flour bombs" toward targets on the ground. Other, faster airplanes were returning from fun-runs to other airports all around him. The National Aeronautic Administration were watching, and would certify, his return from a record-setting flight. They were all chattering on the same frequency. There were so many voices in his head. All these people, brought together by their love of airplanes. And all this adrenaline, and a new world record.
"Everything," he begins, and makes an explosion noise, "spiked to this moment."
Seguin is wide-eyed and out of air at this point, having spoken with such excitement that you begin to believe you, too, should drop whatever you're doing and dedicate your own life to flying fast, to flying hard. To flying where every problem has a solution, and it's your job to stay up there until you find it.