Pilot error not ruled out in early Virgin Galactic crash investigation

3 Nov 2014

Acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart at the SpaceShipTwo briefing in Mojave, Calif. Image via NTSB

While Virgin Galactic and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) trawl through the data and wreckage of SpaceShipTwo, the early release of re-entry procedures hasn’t ruled out pilot error in the crash.

The crash on Friday marked another significant blow to space exploration and travel in the same week the Antares rocket destined for the International Space Station (ISS) exploded soon after launch.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which had been designed for space tourism, had been undergoing a test flight on Friday when things went horribly wrong.

Investigations into the SpaceShipTwo crash that killed the aircraft’s pilot began immediately after the incident, and the initial investigation by the NTSB has appeared to show the suspected reason for the crash was the early deployment of SpaceShipTwo’s procedures for what would be its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Last night, acting chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, spoke to media as part of its third press briefing since the incident. Hart explained that “approximately nine seconds after ignition, the ‘feather’ parameters changed from lock to unlock”, referring to the re-entry procedure in the plane’s design.

The NTSB’s acting chairman Christopher Hart during the third media briefing held last night

Feather unlocked without prompt

This was despite the fact the aircraft’s data and camera footage recorded in the cockpit showed the pilot had not moved the lever responsible for activation of the feather, all of which happened when the craft was travelling at a speed of Mach 1.

Under the craft’s guidelines, the feather is only to be unlocked if its speed is above Mach 1.4, otherwise a situation like the one that happened on 31 October would occur.

However, when asked by the media, Hart refused to rule out that the pilot, Michael Alsbury, could have contributed to an error within the craft.

“We are not ruling anything out. We are looking at all of these issues to determine what was the root cause of this mishap … We are looking at a number of possibilities, including that possibility (of pilot error).”

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic also released a statement last night, asking the media to give the NTSB time to conduct its research.

“Now is not the time for speculation. Now is the time to focus on all those affected by this tragic accident and to work with the experts at the NTSB, to get to the bottom of what happened on that tragic day, and to learn from it so that we can move forward safely with this important mission.”

Watch a B-roll of SpaceShipTwo crash site here:

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic