A Detailed Account of Pete Siebold’s Survival in the SpaceShipTwo Crash

Pete Siebold descending under parachute after the breakup of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)
Pete Siebold descending under parachute after the breakup of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a summary of an interview it conducted with Scaled Composites pilot Pete Siebold, who was in command of SpaceShipTwo when it broke up over the Mojave Desert last Oct. 31 during a flight test. Siebold was thrown clear of the ship and managed to parachute to safety, but not before passing out and struggling to activate his oxygen system. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was not as lucky; he died in the crash.

The following excerpt describes Siebold’s descent and landing from about 10 miles up, the extent of his injuries, and his treatment by medical personnel in the desert and at Antelope Valley Hospital.

Because he considered this a “high-risk” flight he stated that he took extra precautions and took time to think through scenarios that might happen and how he would rapidly respond in an emergency and activate his parachute and oxygen cylinder. About 10-15 minutes prior to release there was a period of low workload when he was able to physically feel for the parachute D-ring rip cord, oxygen activation pud, and the dual-lever seatbelts to improve his “muscle memory” in the event of an emergency. This was not a written procedure, but something he personally did on some flights.

The last thing he recalled in SS2 was a very violent, large pitch-up with high Gs, and grunting noises. He heard a loud bang followed very quickly by signs of a rapid cabin depressurization. In the background he heard the sound of “paper fluttering in the wind,” which he believed was the sound of pieces of the cabin coming apart. There was then a period when he had no recollection, which he attributed to “g-lock” due to the unexpected onset of high Gs for which he was not prepared.

The next thing he remembered he was outside of SS2 and he perceived that he was still at high altitude, above the haze layer. He heard a high frequency whistling noise and his helmet and mask were no longer straight on his face. He felt the mask was peeled up a little bit and both it and the helmet were twisted to the left. His believed the mask seal was compromised at that time. At some point he became aware that the visor had been ripped off. It felt as if something was continuously trying to rip his helmet off. He opened his eyes and saw a wide expanse of desert from a high altitude. He was falling in a stabilized position with his head slightly down and he had to look up to see the horizon. He was not tumbling.

He did not recall what actions he took first, but he remembered attempting to activate the oxygen system by pulling on it “many times.” He could not be certain whether he attempted this activation at this time or during a later period of consciousness. He did not specifically recall being in his seat but remembered unfastening the dual-lever seatbelt without difficulty and assumed the free fall with his arms out and legs apart.2 He recalled no pain. He then experienced another period of unconsciousness or lack of memory.

The next thing he remembered was a “sudden jolt” when the parachute opened and feeling as though he had been asleep. He did not pull the D-ring for the rip cord and believed the CYPRES device had activated the parachute. He described the parachute opening as “gentlemanly… it was not harsh.” It was difficult to estimate the altitude but he estimated it was somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, noticeably lower than his previous period of consciousness. He looked up and checked on the canopy to ensure it was properly deployed. His eyesight was “degraded” and events began to “slow down” in his mind allowing him to absorb more information. He again recalled attempting to activate the oxygen but was unsure at what point in he made the attempts. It was either during one or both periods of consciousness. He tried “many, many, many times” and “just got the feeling” that it was not working and he never got oxygen flow. He also stated that he “didn’t know what to expect or what it should feel like… it just didn’t feel like it did anything.” When asked if he used one or two hands he stated that he only used one hand – his left. He further stated that “you can’t really do anything with your right hand with the oxygen. It’s not a very convenient angle so I would assess it as a one hand operation.” When asked if he could see what he was pulling on he stated that he could not recall.

The chase airplane began to circle him and he became aware that he had sustained injuries. His eyes hurt and it was very bright and difficult to see. He could not raise his right arm and assumed it was dislocated. He was concerned about the parachute landing fall and did not want to reinjure a previous left foot injury he had sustained years earlier. He wanted to reach the risers to position himself into the right attitude for a proper landing. He manipulated his right arm several times in an attempt to resolve the dislocation but he was not successful. He was running out of time and made the decision to put his hands at his sides with his feet and bent knees together. Between about 5,000 and 2,000 feet he noticed a very high ground speed and became concerned about landing and being dragged through the desert, but by the time of touchdown the surface winds were calm. He descended in a very slow spiral with no noticeable ground track.

Siebold's parachute as found by Kern County Sheriff's Office personnel. (Credit: NTSB)
Siebold’s parachute as found by Kern County Sheriff’s Office personnel. (Credit: NTSB)

Upon touchdown, he could not roll to one side because of a lack of directional control and fell forward into a creosote bush. He did not attempt to absorb any of the energy with his legs. The parachute drifted over the top of the bush and immediately collapsed. He sat up and began to become more aware of the severity of his injuries. His eyesight continued to degrade and was painful. He could not keep his eyes open and he never opened his right eye again until the emergency responders arrived. His right arm was bleeding and his flight suit was saturated with blood but it did not appear to be actively bleeding so he was “not overly concerned about it.” He did not perceive any lower body injuries. As he was moving to take the parachute harness off he felt a “clunking noise” in his chest and was concerned about a spinal fracture. Therefore, he decided not to move until the emergency responders arrived. He took his helmet off and may have taken his glove off. His right hand was numb, as if he were out throwing snowballs without gloves while his left hand felt normal. He did not release the Capewells on the parachute harness, although he was prepared to do so if he began to get dragged.

The Extra chase plane circled him numerous times while he was both in the air and on the ground. He recalled waving to them to show them he was conscious. He recalled that it took “a really long time for the responders [helicopter] to get there,” which surprised him. When they arrived the helicopter landed about 100 yards away. The first helicopter was from the National Test Pilot School. He recalled someone wearing a flight suit from the school and someone dressed in airport firefighting gear. They bundled up the parachute and were going to use it to stabilize him somehow. They examined him and eventually got a backboard and stabilized him on it. His boots were removed and later found on scene. He was taken to a second helicopter which had landed, which he presumed was the “Mercy Air” helicopter. One of the paramedics attempted to start an IV but was unable to until they got on the ground in Lancaster. Once in the emergency room he was cut out of his flight suit and his injuries were addressed.

Siebold's damaged seat. (Credit: NTSB)
Siebold’s damaged seat. (Credit: NTSB)

He stated that had a four-part fracture of his right humerus that was not compound. The ball itself was broken as well as broken off the humerus and it was dislocated. He also had a nondisplaced fracture of his right clavicle. He had a small “gash” in his right elbow that was the source of the blood on his flight suit. He had a deep scrape/contusion on his right wrist and multiple scrapes on the back of his right shoulder. He had a lot of bruising on his right chest but did not know how that occurred. He did not recall any bruising on his left side. He had a lot of bruising on the tops of his quadriceps on both legs which were sore for many days. He did not receive an official diagnosis for the “clunking” noise in his right chest but was told it may have been a muscle or cartilage tear between the ribs. Several days after the surgery his left little toe was sore. When it was x-rayed it was determined that it was fractured. He had an abrasion under his chin which he felt was consistent with the location of his chin strap. He had multiple contusions and scrapes on his face. He was initially diagnosed with only corneal scratches in his eyes but he removed a piece of fiberglass from his left eye during his hospital stay. His eyes did not improve as fast as he was told they would so he saw an ophthalmologist after being discharged. The ophthalmologist also removed some foreign matter from his left eyelid and a “silver sliver” from his right cornea. His eyes improved quickly almost immediately after the procedure.

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2 At the time of interview he realized that he was still in his seat and described the release of his seatbelts as “instinctual.” In written comments provided after reviewing the draft interview summary Mr. Siebold stated that he “likely lost consciousness just after thinking about the D-ring and [his] next recollection was the jolt from the chute deployment.”

  • kevino

    Lucky man. Hope he’s made a good recovery. Good article and interesting to see how he reacted to the situation.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    Wowzers.

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s a good story that I;ve been piecing together from the NTSB documents. Hope to write a piece soon on it. A failure of execution.

  • Larry J

    Ideally, the first responders would’ve been on alert for the flight test. I don’t know if they were or not. Even if they were on alert, it can take a few minutes to fire up the helicopter and several more minutes to fly to the crash site. Most helicopters aren’t very fast, often flying at about 120 MPH. How far was the crash site from the helicopter’s base? How much time actually elapsed from the aircraft breakup and the helicopter’s arrival? From the call to scramble, the time it takes to fire up the helicopter, take off, accelerate, cruise for an unknown number of miles, decelerate, and land can easily be 10+ minutes for even a short flight of say 10 miles.
    In duress, a person’s perception of time can vary. I once came within a second of dying in head-on collision with a driver who was going the wrong way on an interstate. He was only about 100 yards away when I saw him and took evasive action. In the split second when we passed one another with a crossing speed of over 100 MPH, it seemed time slowed down. I distinctly saw the man’s face as if he was sitting just a few feet from me. He needed a shave. Another time, when I made my first parachute jump, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Siebold is a highly skilled professional pilot but he had suffered severe trauma. It’s likely some minutes passed from the time he hit the ground and the helicopter’s arrival but in his pain and likely confusion, a few minutes might’ve seemed like hours.

  • Douglas Messier

    A Huey from Mojave spaceport took just under 11 minutes to reach Siebold’s location. So that’s your flying time. It didn’t arrive there until almost 45 minutes after SpaceShipTwo broke up. The had to pull it out of the hangar, prep it and get emergency personnel assembled.

    A rescue helicopter from another location that’s normally pre-positioned at the spaceport on standby for these flights was not there that day. It was at its base 30 miles west of Mojave. It was dispatched, but didn’t arrive until about 5 minutes after the Huey from Mojave did.

  • Mark Shinnick

    I wish I could understand why that release was pulled…..I’d like to stangle the person who came up with the idea in the first place.