MOJAVE, Calif. — There were no ejection seats and no easy ways out of SpaceShipTwo if disaster struck.
As the doomed flight rocketed past the speed of sound some eight miles high and then shattered seconds later, the odds of survival were slim. Remarkably, as sections of the cockpit, fuselage, a wing and motor rained down over the Mojave Desert, a single parachute was seen in the sky.
Pilot Peter Siebold was alive and drifting to safety.
“It’s no minor miracle that he did survive and survive in relatively good shape,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said.
How Siebold, 43, outlasted the fall a week ago while co-pilot Mike Alsbury, 39, died is not clear, but Siebold is not the first to live through such a harrowing ordeal.
Bill Weaver, a former Lockheed test pilot, was torn from the seat of an SR-71 Blackbird at 78,800 feet above New Mexico on Jan. 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 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.
An aircraft that violently tears apart around you isn’t something you prepare for.
“All bets are off. Now you’re back to DNA. What do you think is your next best move? If you’ve been knocked out or unconscious you don’t have a next best move,” said Brian Binnie, a former test pilot for Scaled Composites, which designed and built the craft for Virgin.