Veteran Pilot Sheds Light On Virgin Galactic Crash

An expert’s theory as to why the Virgin Galactic spacecraft failed.

A London-based aviation analyst, former pilot and aircraft veteran has shed new light on what may have occurred during last Friday’s tragic Virgin Galactic test spacecraft crash.

SpaceShipTwo, the craft on which Virgin billionaire Sir Richard Branson had hoped to send passengers into space at a cost of US$250,000 each, experienced vehicle failure at about 45,000ft on 31 October 2014. The spacecraft fell apart in mid-air, resulting in the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and serious injuries to pilot Peter Siebold, who managed to parachute to the ground.

Investigators have warned it could take up to a year for the full report into the crash to be completed.

But analyst Fabrizio Poli, who earned his pilot’s licence 22 years ago and has since flown commercial and private jets and launched an aviation business, Tyrus Wings, yesterday published a detailed post describing the crash of SpaceShipTwo and its likely causes that has been reproduced below.

“One area of inquiry that has already been flagged up is the relatively new hybrid propulsion system that was used in Friday’s flight: nitrous oxide and plastic fuel, in contrast to the carbon-based fuels that have powered most rockets for decades.

“The [US National Transportation Safety Board’s] acting chairman, Christopher Hart, said that while no cause for Friday’s crash of SpaceShipTwo had been determined, investigators found the ‘feathering’ system [that] lifts and rotates the tail to create drag was activated before the craft reached the appropriate speed.

“An analysis of telemetry and video recorded aboard the doomed space plane has revealed SpaceShipTwo’s novel braking system deployed earlier than designed.

“The rocket plane’s rear-mounted feathering system is supposed to extend before the ship descends back into the atmosphere from space, slowing SpaceShipTwo’s speed and putting the craft into a belly-down position during re-entry.

“But SpaceShipTwo’s twin tail booms rotated upward seconds after it fired a hybrid rocket motor following a drop from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane 50,000ft above California’s Mojave Desert.The rocket’s hybrid rocket motor, consuming a mix of nitrous oxide and a plastic-based solid fuel mix, ignited a few seconds after SpaceShipTwo’s release from the carrier aircraft. Friday’s test flight marked the first time the rocket motor was used on SpaceShipTwo since Virgin Galactic switched from a rubber-based to a plastic-based fuel.

“‘About nine seconds after the engine ignited, the telemetry data showed us that the feather parameters changed from lock to unlock,’ Hart said.

“According to Hart, a camera mounted inside SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit showed Alsbury move a handle to unlock the feather system as the rocket plane passed Mach 1 — the speed of sound.

“‘Such action on a SpaceShipTwo flight is not expected until the rocket plane reaches Mach 1.4,’ Hart told reporters in a press conference Sunday night in Mojave, Calif[ornia].”

Virgin Galactic issued a statement today defending the company’s safety record and urging against speculation on the cause of Friday’s mishap.

“At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our ‘North Star’. This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue,” the company said.

For more on the Virgin Galactic project, click here.

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