Pilot in Virgin Galactic crash thrown from plane while strapped in seat

Kern County Sheriff's officers keep watch over wreckage from the Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo in the Mojave Desert.
(Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times)

The pilot who survived the Virgin Galactic crash in the Mojave Desert last month was thrown from SpaceShipTwo still strapped in his seat as the plane broke apart in midair, federal investigators reported.

Pilot Peter Siebold told investigators that he managed to unbuckle himself from his seat as he plunged toward Earth, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday. His parachute then automatically deployed.

The rocket plane had just broken the sound barrier and was more than 10 miles high when it was destroyed during the Oct. 31 test flight.

Siebold also told investigators that he wasn’t aware that his copilot had unlocked the craft’s movable tail, which may have started the sequence of events that caused it to break up just seconds later.


Copilot Michael Alsbury was found dead in the wreckage, still strapped in his seat.

But still a mystery is exactly what went wrong that morning. The NTSB is months away from making final conclusions about what caused the SpaceShipTwo to be torn apart over the desert, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The tragedy was a major setback for British billionaire Richard Branson’s plan of soon taking tourists into space.

NTSB investigators said in their statement that they were continuing to look at the design of the craft’s movable tail, which the company calls its “feather.”

The feather is designed to help slow the rocket plane after it reaches the edge of space, its engines are turned off and it begins its descent. To serve as a brake, the tail moves upward, perpendicular to the craft’s line of flight, creating drag.

But on the Oct. 31 flight, the feather deployed 13 seconds after the engines ignited, as it was still blasting higher.

Although a camera inside the cockpit shows Alsbury moving a lever to unlock the feather system, neither pilot moved a second lever to actually deploy it.

Seconds after the tail moved upward, the rocket plane was torn apart.

Investigators are looking at whether aerodynamic forces, a malfunction of the rocket plane or other factors caused the feather to deploy after it was unlocked. The NTSB said its final conclusions could take a year.

Siebold and Alsbury were piloting the plane for Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman and a partner with Virgin Galactic.

The 43-year-old Siebold severely injured his shoulder. He was released from Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster on Nov. 3, three days after the crash.

Twitter: @melodypetersen