Aviation News

November 1, 2014

Updated: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes During Test Flight

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Written by: NYCAviation Staff
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UPDATED 1:55pm EDT November 1, 2014

In a statement to the press this morning, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson described this as, “a very tough time for all of us at Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company, and Scaled Composites.” He also said that “our thoughts remain with the families of the brave Scaled pilots, and all of those affected by this tragedy.” The uncharacteristically humble Branson noted that, “this is the biggest test program ever carried out in commercial aviation history, precisely to ensure that this never happens to the public.”

The fatally injured Scaled Composites test pilot has been identified by a friend of his family as Michael Alsbury. The identity of the pilot who was seriously injured in the breakup and crash has not yet been released.

Meanwhile, an investigative team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has arrived in Mojave. Commercial space travel of this type is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and accidents are investigated by the NTSB. This is in contrast to the programs from vendors such as Orbital Sciences and Space X, which are under contract with NASA and subject to that agency’s oversight. The NTSB’s investigation is being headed by Lead Investigator Lorenda Ward. Ms. Ward previously led the investigation into the crash of Colgan Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY.

 

 

UPDATED 3:03pm EDT

Virgin Galactic has reported via Twitter that their Spaceship Two aircraft crashed during a test flight today.

 

Space Blogger ParabolicArc.com was present during the test, and reports on Twitter that Spaceship Two “had trouble with engine burn, blew up, came down in pieces near Koehn Lake.” They also say they have witnessed one part of the debris field which includes a body still in a seat.

California Highway Patrol has reported that there was one fatality and one seriously injured in the crash.

 

Spaceship Two was on its fourth powered test flight overall, the second this year, and the first using “Thermoplastic Polyamide” as the solid fuel.

White Knight Two, the delivery vehicle that launches Spaceship Two from the air, departed Mojave at 9:19am PDT. The White Knight Two aircraft has landed safely.

Virgin Galactic says they will hold a press conference at 2:00pm PDT/5:00pm EDT.

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  • Jeff

    Why must these incidents always happen in groups? Wallops Island, ICT, SXM, now this.

    • GeorgeTyrebyter

      Why must people always look for ways to group disconnected, completely independent incidents?

      My condolences to all who have lost a friend or relative. Flight is dangerous, flight powered by bombs with a nozzle at one end doubly so.

      • Durian

        Shut up with the smug response you idiot.

        Also RIP

      • ShawnSzentmiklosy

        Thats what thinking people do. They connect dots. Try it sometime.

        • GeorgeTyrebyter

          No, that’s what the superstitious do. The thinking people get degrees in things like physics, chemistry and engineering and have a clue as to which dots can be connected.

          • ShawnSzentmiklosy

            Guys Im just kidding, I know nothing of Aviation or any of these projects I just threw out this comment before I left to go hiking in the Sierras. I do think its ridiculous that they pour money into projects like this and that they seem to benefit very few people. To me the whole concept and the look of the vehicle seemed comical.

          • Pioneers spending lots of money that initially seem to benefit few always seems ridiculous, insane. This is the march of technology, advancement.

            Step back on board a Boeing 747 – its lineage stretches back to a very different time in aviation, the time of the SR-71, the Concorde, the Apollo Moon landings and the turbofan-powered Jumbo Jet itself. Within the 30 years before these programmes, the jet engine had been invented, the rocket engine invented, and the sound barrier surpassed.

          • GeorgeTyrebyter

            I think everyone grokked your knowledge of Aviation and I doubt Branson is counting on selling you a ticket.

        • macweirdo42

          The brain is excellent at connecting dots. So excellent, in fact, that sometimes it connects dots even when there is no real connection to be made. It’s why we become superstitious about coincidences. It’s why we see pictures in clouds, or Jesus in a piece of toast. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, it helps us process the overwhelming amount of information we’re subjected to everyday, and it helped our species survive and thrive. But you have to be aware that tendency exists, so you can know when not to apply patterns to situations which really are just coincidences.

        • William Hosack

          My car wouldn’t start this morning is that connected to the connection between a twin engine aircraft crash because of an engine failure, and the Orbital Science engine failure and the SS2 engine failure because it was my engine that didn’t work as well. I wonder if Ebola has jumped the animal engine barrier, OH NO Call a Congressional Hearing!!

          Please let the grown ups deal with this Jeff and Shawn…for all our safety. Sheesh.

          • ShawnSzentmiklosy

            lol you guys are funny

    • mutie

      Everything happens “in groups” if you set your time frame broadly enough.

  • Yet another Branson disaster: http://newslines.org/richard-branson/

  • Jeff Jarvis

    In the 90’s we had three rockets explode in the same year here in Cape Canaveral. Nobody freaked out then…..

    • Brian Tarver

      The insurance underwriters did. 😉

  • Kari Norén

    Two space accidents in near time. Is it a coincident? I belive not. Because i chose to belive not.

    • GeorgeTyrebyter

      So, why do you choose to believe they are not coincident? One manned, one unmanned. Completely different technologies, different people, different financing, different continents, different missions.

  • Bris Vegas

    The reality is VG can never offer anything more than a quick and extremely dangerous (>>1% risk of death per flight) trip to the top of the stratosphere for the indolent rich. It was pure unadulterated hype from the beginning by a master PR manipulator.

    • Brian Tarver

      The aircraft design and engine has nothing to do with Branson or Virgin Galactic aside from financing and marketing. The aircraft involved are the products of many very intelligent and serious aerospace engineers at Scaled Composites.

      If you think Burt Rutan is all hype you know nothing about him or his leadership in the composite airframe revolution sweeping aviation. He is perhaps the most innovative aircraft designer the world has known for many years. His designs work; rocket motors are notorious for going bang no matter whose name is on the side.

      • GeorgeTyrebyter

        Solid rocket engines are particularly finicky… gives me the willies for manned rocket flight. And while Rutan in particular has done amazing work in composites, I am concerned that composites are going to be a net negative for General Aviation. We have airplanes from the 1930’s that are airworthy, mostly museum pieces, but there are aircraft aging gracefully like Beech Bonanzas and the Mooneys that were made in large numbers and are mainstays of GA.

        Barring mishaps that will always be with us, will the Cirrus fleet still be airworthy in 60 years?

        • Brian Tarver

          All materials deteriorate including aluminum, wood and fabric. Even the Bonanzas will eventually disappear without replacement of fatigued or corroded structures. Pressurized aircraft are all limited by flight cycles and composites have extended the expected life-span for them. I certainly understand your point though. The throw-away mentality has indeed permiated every aspect of manufacturing.

  • Brian Tarver

    There are photos of the drop and engine ignition though I am having a hard time finding them again. They seem to show a good ignition. The plume then stops followed by another frame which appeared to me to indicate that one of the “shuttlecock” tail structures had deployed in its return configuration (full up). At high airspeeds this asymetrical position of the right pylon deployed with the left in flight setting could overstress the airframe. A picture of debris on desert floor seemed to show a deployed pylon as well.

    Conjecture on my part as photos are few, and low resolution, but if anyone finds these photos I’d appreciate your input on these observations.

    • Brian Tarver

      The NTSB is now focusing on the tail structures as a probable cause of spaceship2’s departure from controlled flight and subsequent structural failure. An investigation within the investigation will now ensue. Was pilot error to blame by deploying at wrong time or was crew following bad procedure correctly? Was there a design deficiency or did ground crew somehow damage or incorrectly maintain critical parts? Is the design as a whole somehow flawed and inherently dangerous or could a simple modification or addition of a fail-safe ensure safe operations in the future.

      This was possibly the most documented aircraft disintigration in history. There were 6 cameras on board, 3 on carrier plane, multiple ground tracking stations and telemetry transmitting over 1000 individual metrics to test team. The NTSB will have no problem solving this one soon.

  • ShawnSzentmiklosy

    Ya know I have to ask you guys, does not the Russian MIG fighter from the 80s fly at the same altitude?

    • Brian Tarver

      The MiG 25 achieved a record of ~125,000 ft. That is twice the altitude of the white knight carrier plane when it launches spaceship2. Spaceship2, using a rocket engine, then reaches an altitude 3 times higher than the MiG 25 though (~350,000 ft). Jet engines require oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere to create combustion. There is very little air at high altitude to provide that oxygen. The record setting MiG pilot used a ballistic trajectory to reach the record and suffered flame outs in both engines before getting there.

      The accident may have occurred around 100,000 ft but it is capable of much more.