Pilot Error Suspected in SpaceShipTwo Crash
Friday, 07 November 2014 10:11

The test pilot who was killed in last Friday's crash of Virgin Galactic's spaceshiptwo crashSpaceShipTwo prematurely unlocked the craft's feathering tail structure, most likely leading to a catastrophic inflight breakup high over the Mojave Desert, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said the error was made by 39-year-old copilot Michael Alsbury, who was seated in SpaceShipTwo's right seat beside test pilot Peter Siebold. Siebold, who survived the crash with serious injuries after parachuting from the damaged spacecraft, has yet to be interviewed, but Hart confirmed in-cockpit video shows the early release of the feathering tailboom locking mechanism, which he indicated may have been a contributing cause of the crash.

SpaceShipTwo's feathering tail is used to create drag for the craft's descent after blasting toward the edge of space. The mishap over Southern California occurred moments after SpaceShipTwo was released from its carrier airplane at about 50,000 feet. Speculation initially centered on a rocket motor malfunction until the NTSB said video footage and telemetry data revealed that the spacecraft's tail had been unlocked prematurely.

 The full investigation into the crash could take up to a year. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson is vowing to continue with the civilian spaceflight program, which aims to take paying passengers on suborbital flights to the edges of the atmosphere. Branson said he will be the first passenger when the service launches.


Photo credit: NTSB

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