Virgin Galactic: How did SpaceShipTwo pilot survive Mach 1 bailout at 50,000 feet?

Pilot Peter Siebold apparently was thrown clear of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo when it failed catastrophically and came apart. But he survived a free-fall from high altitude, deploying his parachute.

National Transportation Safety Board/AP
Virgin Galactic pilot Todd Ericson, right, talks with NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart, second from left, at the SpaceShipTwo accident site with investigators in Mojave, Calif.

Surviving the catastrophic failure of an aircraft comes down to pilot skill and equipment. In the case of military aircraft – with their relatively stubby wings designed for high speed and maneuverability, they don’t glide very well – that often means an ejection seat and parachute.

When Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo began coming apart just seconds after it had been launched from its mothership and its rocket motor had fired, the pilots were wearing parachutes but had no ejection seats – just an escape hatch. Nor were they wearing oxygen masks or space suits at an altitude where the temperature was about 70 degrees below zero.

Somehow, pilot Peter Siebold made it out of the aircraft designed to ferry amateur astronauts to the edge of space, parachuting to the Mojave Desert with relatively minor injuries. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury never made it out; his body was found in a portion of the debris.

Recording devices show that SpaceShipTwo flew under its own rocket power for about 15 seconds, reaching just over the speed of sound, and about 50,000 feet. At that point, the craft began coming apart – possibly because a flight control device had been activated too soon into the flight.

One of the other major questions the aircraft’s designers and builders, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, want answered is: “How did Mr. Siebold survive?”

The Washington Post reports that employees of Scaled Composites (which built SpaceShipTwo) “are calling Siebold’s survival miraculous, and they describe his escape like something out of a movie script.”

“According to sources, Siebold found himself flying through the air while still attached to his ejection seat,” the Post reports. “When he spotted the chase plane, he managed to give the pilot inside a thumb’s up, and then unbuckled himself at about 17,000 feet, deploying his parachute. He landed under his own power and suffered a shoulder injury from the force of the parachute that required minor surgery.”

If he was still strapped into his seat (which was not designed to eject him from SpaceShipTwo, nor would it likely have allowed him to exit through the escape hatch), then he must have been thrown clear – remaining conscious and with the presence of mind to fall to a lower altitude (where the temperature was warmer and the atmosphere contained more oxygen), then unstrap from the seat, and deploy the parachute.

"The fact that he survived a descent of 50,000 feet is pretty amazing," veteran test pilot Paul Tackabury told the Los Angeles Times. "You don't just jump out of aircraft at Mach 1 at over 50,000 feet without a space suit."

That pilot error may have been a factor in SpaceShipTwo’s disastrous flight is a consideration in the NTSB investigation, which could last a year.

At a press conference this week, acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said cockpit video and data showed that the co-pilot unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s unique “feathering” system earlier than planned. The system works somewhat like the wing flaps that airplanes use to slow for landing.

But while the co-pilot unlocked the system before planned, that action alone should not have been enough to change the craft’s configuration. Activating the feathering system requires the pulling of a lever. Why did the co-pilot activate the system at that moment? Why did the tails begin to rotate without the co-pilot starting that process?

Some experts have suggested that the pilots unlocked the feathering system early in order to regain control when SpaceShipTwo became unstable. A test pilot flying an earlier version of the aircraft once deployed the feathering device to control a spin, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

Such questions likely will be asked of Siebold when NTSB investigators interview him.

Meanwhile, at least some of those who signed up for Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 ride to the edge of space have begun asking for refunds.

Virgin Galactic has revealed that about 20 of the 700 customers have asked for their money back, the Guardian newspaper in Britain reports.

“Virgin Galactic declined to disclose which customers had torn up their tickets, but the waiting list includes household names from scientist Stephen Hawking to performers Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, and Hollywood couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” the Guardian reports.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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