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Virgin Galactic pilot recalls colleague's crash

The debris of the crashed Virgin Galactic spaceship in the Mojave Desert from November 2014

For the first time, one of the pilots involved in Virgin Galactic's spaceship crash has spoken to the media.

Dave Mackay, the company's chief pilot, spoke to the BBC about last October, when the company's new spaceship broke apart in mid-air over California.

"We were listening out on the radio and it became apparent fairly early that something had gone seriously wrong," he said.

The final report into the accident is due within the next few months.

Mr Mackay, from Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, was flying the mother ship, called White Knight Two, that had ferried the rocket plane to around 50,000ft before releasing it to the sky.

We stand overlooking the endless, scrub-strewn desert plains where the accident happened.

"We didn't see anything. We launch the spaceship and it drops below us several hundred feet before it ignites the rocket motor," he said.

"When it was apparent the wreckage had hit the ground, we descended to try to give some support in any way we could. Which involved, basically, finding out where the vehicle was and finding out where the survivor was and relaying that position back to emergency services."

Media captionDave Mackay gives Richard Westcott an exclusive demonstration of the Virgin Galactic flight simulator

According to investigators at the NTSB, the co-pilot, Mike Alsbury, pulled a lever too soon. It unlocks the spaceship's revolutionary "feathering" system, which then seems to have deployed of its own accord.

If you can picture it, the vehicle has two long tails that actually pivot by 65 degrees. It's an odd sight. Like taking two darts and bending them in the middle.

But by folding up like that, the ship slows down, so it's ready to glide back to earth. If those tails move at the wrong time, however, the consequences can be lethal.

Frankly, it's a miracle that the pilot, Peter Siebold survived the crash. After being thrown from the ship and blacking out, he came to, falling through the air and still strapped in his seat.

Somehow he managed to unbuckle himself, which triggered his emergency parachute. His colleague and friend Mike Alsbury was killed.

Flying just a few hundred feet above them that day, Dave Mackay described arriving back at base.

"I was very proud of the way that everybody reacted. It took some time to get over the shock and the sadness," he said.

Then the figurehead for the whole project arrived on the scene.

"Very soon afterwards, within a few hours, Richard Branson and his son Sam came out. Richard obviously was very shocked and saddened as well. But Richard was as determined as everyone else to see this through."

The doubts

Sir Richard Branson is under pressure to prove his dream can still come true.

At the Virgin Galactic launch in 2004, he told customers they could be floating 66 miles above the earth within three to four years.

Media captionThe BBC's transport correspondent Richard Westcott spoke to Dave Mackay about the crash, in an exclusive interview

A decade later, his radical plane has only made four powered flights, with heights well short of the 350,000 promised in the brochure. They've barely got above 70,000ft.

And there are still daunting technical hurdles to overcome, including working out which fuel will give them enough power. Sceptics have suggested flying could still be years away, and even some of its hopeful customers recently told the BBC that they were resigned to thinking it may never happen.

I met Virgin Galactic's chief executive, George Whitesides, in the shadow of his new spaceship. Like everyone here in Mojave, he comes with a stratospheric CV. Princeton, Cambridge, former chief of staff at Nasa.

"The vast majority of our customers, so about 98%, have been really terrific, very supportive. What we are doing is not easy, it's an historic thing. What we are doing is opening up space to the rest of us. We are democratising space."

He tells me they are happy they have the right rocket for the job. That the new spaceship is safe, otherwise he wouldn't go in it (he's taking one of the first flights). That the investors are supportive; in other words, the money won't run dry. And that it will make a profit once it's all going.

This thing has already burnt up hundreds of millions of dollars.

Then we spar over flight dates. In the end, the best I could get was that paying customers could be up within 18 months to two years, maybe sooner, but not much longer, so not five years, for example.

As regards the altitude, he says that getting to 70,000ft and the speed of sound is the disproportionately tricky bit. Leaping from there to space should be much quicker.

The new ship

Virgin have been building a new spaceship since 2012, tucked away in a shiny hangar being battered by the desert wind. They showed us how it's coming along.

Stripped down to the bare, brown carbon-fibre body, it's clearly nowhere near ready to fly. The body was in effect finished last weekend, now engineers are fitting the wires and levers that will bring it to life.

Not that we were allowed to film either the inside, or any of the manufacturing processes going on around us. It's all restricted by the US government, which currently treats the project the same as it would treat a new military weapon.

Filming the wrong bit could land people in prison, we were frequently reminded.

I can tell you that some small changes have been made to prevent a repeat of last year's crash. I don't have details, but I understand it may be made physically harder to unlock the feathering system at the wrong time.

However, Virgin are confident this wasn't a design issue, so some of the improvements may come in the way the pilots communicate their actions with each other and with ground control.

The desert team

Mojave space port is an odd place.

The 300 or so engineers have often given up a nice, well-paid life in a smart city to come and work in this barren town with hostile sunshine, an airplane graveyard and rusty trains out back and no nice shops. Think Breaking Bad and you get the picture. Partners often find it a difficult move.

Among the five pilots on board is a man who flew the space shuttle four times. Another flew the SR71 Blackbird and was once voted US Air Force test pilot of the year. One man I spoke to told me his wife works for Nasa, driving the Mars Rover. Not your average couple.

They all share a determination to make a mark on this stark landscape.

When I ask him about the future, Dave Mackay often conjures up the past.

"You could look back to Otto Lilienthal crashing in his glider," he says. "If people had said then, you know this flying is dangerous, let's stick to walking on the ground, where would we be today?

"It is hard. It has turned out to be harder than we thought it would. But if it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago.

"We're enjoying the challenge."

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