Surviving pilot of Virgin Galactic spaceplane crash is from Gig Harbor

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GIG HARBOR, Wash. — The surviving pilot of last week’s Virgin Galactic spaceplane crash is originally from Gig Harbor, the Tacoma News Tribune reported.

43-year-old Peter Siebold deployed his parachute after SpaceShipTwo disintegrated 45,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. His co-pilot Michael Alsbury did not survive the crash.

“He just lives for flying and has done so since early childhood,” Peter’s father Klaus Siebold told the Tribune. “He grew up here and he started flying here at the local airport, in an airplane that’s still at that flight school.”

Siebold fell more than ten miles without a spacesuit. At that altitude, it is 59 degrees below zero and there its little air to breathe.

“The fact that he survived a descent of 50,000 feet is pretty amazing,” Paul Tackabury, a veteran test pilot who sat on the board of directors of Scaled Composites until it was sold to Northrop Grumman Corp, told the Los Angeles Times. “You don’t just jump out of aircraft at Mach 1 at over 50,000 feet without a spacesuit.”

When he landed, Siebold smashed his shoulder. He was released from the hospital on Monday and is now recovering at home.

“It was a total shock, because we didn’t expect anything to happen,” Klaus Siebold told the Tribune. “We have confidence in the program, and he had done successful flights. I know that my son is an excellent, very conscientious pilot, so I didn’t expect it.”

Siebold lives in Tehachapi, California with his wife and two children.

He is an experimental test pilot at Scaled Composites, LLC. He has 17 years flight experience and 2,000 hours of flight time in 35 different winged aircraft, according to his bio.

Cause?

While the National Transportation Safety Board said it is “months and months away” from determining the cause, it outlined two problems involving the spacecraft’s “feathering” — a process used to slow the spacecraft down toward Earth.

In order for feathering to start, two things have to happen: someone has to unlock the feathering system, and someone has to activate the system with a different handle.

The NTSB has said the unlocking device was moved too early. On Monday night, the agency said Alsbury was the one who unlocked the feathering system.

“… the copilot, who was in right seat, moved the lock/unlock handle into unlock position; he did not survive accident,” the NTSB tweeted.

But that mishap alone doesn’t explain why the feathering started, since no one moved the feathering handle.

During feathering, two pieces on the back of the vehicle — the “feathers” — lift up perpendicular to the spaceship, making the vehicle look like it’s arching its back as it descends.

Plastic fuel

A team of 13 to 15 investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will be in the Mojave Desert for about a week. But analyzing the data from the test aircraft will take much longer, and the investigation may take up to a year.

Friday’s flight was the first to use a new plastic-based fuel, something that CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien has said could have affected the plane’s stability, despite the fuel tanks being found intact.

O’Brien said that Virgin Galactic had “consistently underestimated the risk involved.”

But Virgin founder Richard Branson denied this, saying that 400 “of the best engineers in the world” were working on the project and that the risks were similar to those taken by people flying across the Atlantic in the 1920s and ’30s.

Veteran pilot killed

A memorial fund has been set up for Alsbury’s family.

He worked at Scaled Composites, the company that partnered with Virgin on the test flight program, and logged more than 1,600 hours as a test pilot and test engineer in Scaled aircraft.

Future of the program

For years, Virgin Galactic had planned to sell trips in which SpaceShipTwo would transport passengers about 62 miles above Earth — the beginning of outer space — and let them experience a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to the ground.

Virgin Galactic planned to send paying customers on SpaceShipTwo as early as next year and has sold more than 700 tickets, each costing more than $250,000, for future flights.

Several celebrities have already signed up, including Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking.

Friday’s tragedy was not the first fatal accident to hit the Virgin Galactic space program. In 2007, three employees of Scaled Composites were killed during testing in the Mojave Desert. Sources told CNN that they had been testing components of a new rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo.

CNN contributed to this report.

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