LOS ANGELES The surviving pilot of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo was thrown from the rocket-powered vehicle when it broke apart last month, and he was able to unbuckle from his seat before his parachute deployed automatically, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Oct. 31 crash during a test flight in Southern California, also said the pilot, Peter Siebold, was unaware his co-pilot, Mike Alsbury, had unlocked the craft's moveable tail section, which appears to have set off a chain of events that led to the ship's destruction.
Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash, and authorities found his body in wreckage from the aircraft.
The safety agency's latest findings underscore the extraordinary circumstances of Siebold's survival. His seat broke free from the ship and he fell from about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) above the ground, an altitude virtually without oxygen. It was unclear if he lost and regained consciousness or if he stayed conscious throughout his fall.
Siebold had a shoulder injury and was released from hospital a few days after the crash.
The NTSB statement said its investigators interviewed Siebold, 43, on Friday.
"He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically," the NTSB said in a statement.
An NTSB spokesman said in an email that Siebold unbuckled himself during his fall.
SpaceShipTwo broke apart and crashed in the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles, moments after its separation from the special jet aircraft that carries the spacecraft aloft for its high-altitude launches.
NTSB officials have previously said Alsbury, for reasons that are still not clear, unlocked the tail section early.
The tail is designed to pivot upward during atmospheric re-entry to ease descent of the craft.
Alsbury was supposed to have waited until the ship was traveling at 1.4 times the speed of sound, fast enough for aerodynamic forces to hold the tail in place, sources familiar with the spacecraft's operation have told Reuters.
The findings released by NTSB officials on Wednesday represent only an update on their investigation. The agency is expected to issue a preliminary report on the accident this month, and the final report could take up to a year.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral, Fla.,; Editing by Susan Heavey and Mohammad Zargham)