It's 'a Miracle' Anyone Survived the Virgin Galactic Crash, Says Legendary Test Pilot

Bob Hoover, once part of Chuck Yeager's Supersonic crew, says the pilot who walked away "did everything to perfection"

Photo: Xavier Collin/Splash News Online; Scaled Composites/AP

There are a handful of men who know exactly what Virgin Galactic test pilot Peter Siebold endured on Oct. 31 as the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane disintegrated around him over 10 miles in the sky, killing his co-pilot, Michael Alsbury.

Legendary test pilot Bob Hoover, 92, is one of those men. Like Siebold, Hoover has found himself straining to breathe while tumbling toward earth through 70-degrees-below-zero air as jagged shards of his aircraft tore past him at hundreds of miles an hour.

“It’s a miracle the pilot survived,” Hoover tells PEOPLE of the crash that claimed the life of Siebold’s co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39. “But it comes with the territory.”

Hoover, who served as Chuck Yeager’s backup pilot in the supersonic Bell X-1 program in 1947, is quick to admit that a test pilot’s work is unfathomably dangerous.

“Testing aircraft is like flying a combat mission,” says the World War II flyer, who was shot down by the Germans on his 59th combat mission. “Every flight is into the unknown. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Exactly what happened to the $500 million rocket plane that billionaire Richard Branson hoped would begin ferrying wealthy passengers to the edge of space is something that investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board say could take a year to understand. What is known is that seconds after SpaceShipTwo was released from the aircraft that had carried it up to between 45,000 and 50,000 feet, its rocket motor ignited. During the 13 seconds that followed, the craft soared upward at more than Mach 1 (the speed of sound), then suddenly began to disintegrate.

Co-pilot Alsbury’s body was found in the wreckage, which was spread out over 35 miles of the Mojave Desert. Hoover, who says his heart goes out to the seasoned flyer’s family, has lost more test pilot friends over the decades than he cares to remember. “It’s something you don’t keep track of,” he says.

Siebold, who has been released from the hospital and is now recovering from his wounds at home, managed to survive, Hoover says, thanks to incredible skill “and a little bit of luck.” He needed plenty of both, because even the air that he tumbled through was deadly – so thin that it causes blood to boil.

“There’s not enough oxygen to keep you alive for very long – just a few seconds,” Hoover adds. “His decisions had to be spur of the moment, but he obviously did everything to perfection and I certainly do respect him.”

So how do test pilots cope with the inherent danger? By constantly pondering worst case scenarios, Hoover says , and figuring out how to resolve them.

“The most important thing for a test pilot to think about is all of the what ifs that one can be faced with,” he explains. “When something happens, you don’t have time to think. You have to have a reaction that’s instantaneous and make a decision in milliseconds.”

While much of the details are still unclear, it appears that Siebold’s craft disintegrated around him at about 60,000 feet and he plummeted for miles, wearing only a lightweight flight jumpsuit, trying to escape the thin air and the bitter, unworldly cold.

“It sounds like he was able to physically separate himself from the wreckage,” Hoover says, “then free-fall to a lower atmosphere, which was survivable.”

Siebold’s parachute reportedly wasn’t deployed until he had descended to 20,000 feet or below.

Known in the flying community as “the pilot’s pilot,” Hoover, the two-time president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, has one of the most impressive, storied histories in aeronautics.

He has flown or flight-tested nearly every type of fighter aircraft. Once, while testing the Republic F-84, one of the first combat jets, his engine exploded 50,000 feet above the New Mexico desert and – while traveling 500 mph – he was “sucked out”of the cockpit and slammed into aircraft’s tail, breaking both his legs and numerous bones in his face.

“I was banged up pretty bad,” Hoover recalls. “All I was thinking about was survival and wondering if anybody would find me once I landed. Lucky for me, a fellow working in the alfalfa fields got to me right before dark. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Hoover pauses for a moment, then adds: “I’ve had more close calls than probably anybody in the world, but I’m one of the lucky few to have made it this long.”

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