The crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket during a test flight last year has been determined to be caused by human error, and a free fall from 50,000 feet after the craft disintegrated around the pilot is possibly what saved his life, according to new information from the investigating National Transportation Safety Board.

The possibility of pilot error was raised following the October 2014 crash of the suborbital plane designed for space tourism. According to Air & Space Magazine, we now know that was indeed the case.

The co-pilot, 39-year-old Michael Alsbury, was supposed to unlock the ship’s unique “feathered” wing when the craft hit Mach 1.4 during its climb. For unknown reasons — and after the maneuver had been rehearsed many times — Alsbury unlocked it too early, the magazine reports, costing Alsbury his life.

The feathered wing started to deflect, and the resulting aerodynamic stress tore the vehicle apart, just 13 seconds after it had released from its carrier airplane. Both Alsbury and pilot Peter Siebold were thrown from the vehicle, but only Siebold, whose parachute deployed automatically, survived.

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As for pilot Peter Siebold, NPR reports that the craft falling apart around him may have saved him from meeting the same fate as his co-pilot. Near 50,000 feet he was thrown from the craft, and his parachute deployed while he remained secured to his seat. He fell to earth, drifting in and out of consciousness, and suffered severe injuries. Being thrown from the plane prevented him from being killed inside it.

Here’s an account from the interview Siebold gave to the NTSB, which is absolutely harrowing to think about:

“The last thing he recalled in SS2 was a very violent, large pitch-up with high Gs, and grunting noises. He heard a loud bang followed very quickly by signs of a rapid cabin depressurization. In the background he heard the sound of “paper fluttering in the wind,” which he believed was the sound of pieces of the cabin coming apart. There was then a period when he had no recollection, which he attributed to ‘g-lock’ due to the unexpected onset of high Gs for which he was not prepared.

“The next thing he remembered he was outside of SS2 and he perceived that he was still at high altitude, above the haze layer. He heard a high frequency whistling noise and his helmet and mask were no longer straight on his face. He felt the mask was peeled up a little bit and both it and the helmet were twisted to the left. His believed the mask seal was compromised at that time. At some point he became aware that the visor had been ripped off. It felt as if something was continuously trying to rip his helmet off. He opened his eyes and saw a wide expanse of desert from a high altitude. He was falling in a stabilized position with his head slightly down and he had to look up to see the horizon. He was not tumbling.

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The rest of his account can be read on NPR.

Meanwhile, the NTSB also found fault with the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of the test program, saying staff was unfamiliar with the craft’s procedures and unique safety risks. Virgin Galactic has also been criticized by the scientific community for not paying closer attention to safety concerns in order to get the space tourism business and the plane off the ground.


Contact the author at patrick@jalopnik.com.