The Virgin Galactic rocket plane had just broken the sound barrier and was shooting toward the heavens when it began disintegrating, battered by powerful aerodynamic forces. The test pilots were strapped into their seats as entire pieces were torn from SpaceShipTwo. At more than 10 miles high, with fingers no doubt numb from air way below zero, Peter Siebold somehow escaped from the hurtling wreckage.
Siebold, who had been flying Virgin Galactic's spaceships for a decade, had to rely on his experience and his instincts. He had a parachute but no pressure suit or oxygen mask to protect him from the lethal environment as he plunged toward Earth last Friday at close to the speed of a bullet.
At almost twice the height of Mount Everest, the air is dangerously thin and the temperature is about 70 degrees below zero. It was a real world case of survival in the face of disaster, like the movie Gravity.
Indeed, employees of the aerospace company Siebold works for — Scaled Composites — describe his escape as being like something out of a movie script. According to the employees, Siebold found himself flying through the air while still attached to his ejection seat. 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. Falling freely for miles would have helped him exit the cold as fast as possible.
He landed in California's Mojave Desert. His shoulder was smashed and a fellow pilot described him as "pretty banged up." He was discharged from the hospital Monday.
"The fact that he survived a descent of 50,000 feet is pretty amazing," said Paul Tackabury, a veteran test pilot. "You don't just jump out of aircraft at Mach 1 at over 50,000 feet without a space suit."
The body of co-pilot Mike Alsbury, 39, was found strapped to his seat in the rocket plane's wreckage, which was scattered across more than 35 miles of desert.
Siebold's jump is part of a long history of extraordinary feats of survival by test pilots who have defied the odds through skill, faith or luck.
Perhaps nobody can appreciate Siebold's gift for survival more than Bob Hoover, a famed test pilot who survived five crashes and lives on Los Angeles' Palos Verdes Peninsula. "I have been broken up from head to toe," said Hoover, now 92. "It is the reason I am all crippled up now."
In October 1947, he ejected out of one of the first combat jets, the Republic F-84, and hit the tail at 500 mph, breaking both legs and busting his face. Several years later, he was trapped in a disabled F-100 Super Sabre that slammed into the desert, bounced 200 feet back into the air and then slammed down again. It broke his back. Rescue crews had to chop him out of the wreckage. His career continued for decades longer.
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As for Siebold, Hoover said, "It is a miracle he got out. At 50,000 feet, your survival time is very limited, and for him to pull the rip cord in those conditions is pretty surprising. I am so happy for him."
Ken Brown, a photographer and avionics engineer who was taking shots of the test flight Friday, said his pictures show that the rocket plane was in pieces in a few moments.
SpaceShipTwo was released from its White-KnightTwo ferry craft at somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 feet. Then the rocket motor ignited, blasting the craft over the next 13 seconds to more than Mach 1, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said. The rocket plane malfunctioned after its tail, known as a feather, deployed at the wrong time. The NTSB said it could take up to a year to unravel the cause.
Brown said he believes the plane may have been at 60,000 feet or higher when it broke apart. "Peter is a lucky guy," Brown said. "The vehicle disintegrated around him."
In such thin air, Hoover said it is almost impossible to inhale or exhale. "It is the most horrible feeling in the world," Hoover recalled.
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SpaceShipTwo pilots wear thin flight jumpsuits, offering little protection against the bitter cold of the upper atmosphere. It was a decision made early in the program by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed the predecessor SpaceShipOne, Tackabury said. The craft was made by winding composite fibers into a strong pressure vessel, and Rutan wanted small hatches to preserve the strength of that structure, meaning large spacesuits would not fit, Tackabury said.
Not quite pilots, not quite astronauts, test pilots are tasked with mastering aircraft built to withstand far more than the rigors of typical flight. The SpaceShipTwo, for instance, could break the sound barrier in eight seconds and soar past 2,500 mph. Yet the rocket plane was flown the old-fashioned way, via stick and rudder. Rutan believed the system lent itself more comfortably to pilots used to flying simple hand-controlled systems.
The need to test experimental aircraft has always taken pilots to the edges of safety.
In 1966, Lockheed test pilot Bill Weaver was flying an SR-71 at 3.2 times the speed of sound at 78,000 feet when it began to disintegrate around him, just like SpaceShipTwo. He blacked out under the severe forces. When he regained awareness, his plane was gone and he was flying through the air strapped to his seat. The absurdity of his situation led Weaver to think, "Therefore I must be dead," he wrote later.
In fact, he came to his senses and parachuted to a New Mexico cattle ranch, where the owner rescued him.
Last week's test flight was crucial to Virgin Galactic's program, which had hoped to begin flying passengers 60 miles up to the edge of earth's atmosphere as early as next year. So far, more than 700 people have paid as much as $250,000 each to reserve a ride.
Siebold, who got his pilot's license at 16 and has flown three dozen different aircraft, has twice won the Oscar of flight testing, the Iven C. Kincheloe Award, for his work with Scaled in 2004 and 2009. (To underline the dangers of the job: The Kincheloe and Tenhoff awards, like Edwards Air Force Base, are named for test pilots killed in flight.) Contributing: Washington Post