“It’s a great miracle that he did survive and survive in relatively good shape”, Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said.
How SpaceShip Two pilot Peter Siebold survived the fall from extreme altitude a week ago while co-pilot Mike Alsbury died is not yet clear.
SpaceShipTwo did not have ejection seats, but there was an evacuation procedure.
Typically, the pilot would stay with the controls and the co-pilot would depressurise the cabin and then they would both unbuckle and bail out with parachutes, said Brian Binnie, a former test pilot for Scaled Composites, which designed and built the craft for Virgin.
It’s sounds simple, but not in an aircraft that is tearing apart violently, the biggest challenge is surviving a wind blast of 800 km/hr that could blow off eyelids, tear off limbs and snap vertebrae, says Dr John Ogle, an air force flight surgeon who has investigated plane ejections and crashes.
Ogle suspects Siebold probably stayed with some of the wreckage, such as his seat, which would have slowed his fall.
Siebold would have faced the triple threat of lack of oxygen, extreme cold and
intense air pressure as he fell at a rate of about 480km/h, he said.
As the doomed flight rocketed past the speed of sound about 13 kilometres high and then shattered seconds later, the chances of survival were slim.
Remarkably, as sections of the cockpit, fuselage, a wing and motor rained down over the Mojave Desert and pieces of the lightweight craft tiny enough to travel 56 kilometres were picked up by the winds, a single parachute was seen in the sky.
Bill Weaver has been telling a similar story for decades.
The former Lockheed test pilot was torn from the seat of an SR-71 Blackbird 24km above New Mexico on January 25, 1966. The plane was going more than triple the speed of sound.
As Weaver banked into a turn, a malfunction caused one engine to lose thrust. He lost control of the jet and knew he was in trouble as the plane began to pitch and break up.
He didn’t have time to be scared.
‘I knew we were going to just be along for the ride,’ he said.
Weaver tried to radio to the reconnaissance and navigations officer in the back seat that there was no way to safely bail out, so they should stick with the plane and eject when it got lower.
But the severe gravitational forces made his speech unintelligible and then he blacked out.
The whole event to that point took two to three seconds.
When Weaver regained consciousness, he first thought he was dreaming. With the face plate on his helmet iced over from temperatures as cold as minus 48C, he could only see a hazy white light and in a detached sense of euphoria, he thought he was dead.
He was relieved when he realised he was alive and plunging toward Earth.
‘I had no idea how I got out of the airplane,’ he said.
‘I had no idea how long I had been free falling. Had no idea how high I was or low I was.’
How Siebold got out of SpaceShipTwo is also unknown, according to National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher Hart, who said the pilot hadn’t been interviewed because he’s recovering from injuries originally characterised as moderate to major.
Initial findings show the Virgin Galactic plane designed to take tourists for $A270,500 joy rides beyond the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, broke apart after the craft’s re-entry braking system prematurely activated during its rocket blast, Hart said.