On Halloween, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two broke apart over the Mojave Desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Alsbury, along with pilot Peter Siebold, who survived the crash, were performing a test flight when something went wrong. While the exact cause of the crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), early findings reveal some sobering lessons that the air translportation indusry can learn from.
Even Experienced Crew Make Mistakes
Humans are fallible, even those who have undergone the best training and have the most experience. Alsbury had 15 years of flight experience, and the Halloween flight was his ninth trip in SpaceShipTwo; Siebold got his pilot’s license when he was 12. Just a week after the crash, NTSB revealed that the 39 year old co-pilot changed the spacecraft’s aerodynamic controls prematurely, causing the tail to rise and create drag, essentially hitting the brakes early. NTSB Chairman, Christopher Hart, cautioned this “feathering” error should not have caused the crash on its own, and is only one of several possibilities the organization was exploring as the cause of the crash.
Despite the ultimate reason or reasons that brought SpaceShipTwo to the ground, aircraft operators know even the best will make mistakes. So automating operations as much as possible, creating protocols that require more than one crewmember to sign off on important decisions, and even creating and constantly improving checklists can help to reduce human error regardless of the job being performed.
Virgin Galactic faces similar business obligations as aircraft operators, and in this way, this spaceflight company resembles aircraft operators more than it resembles NASA. Business forces pressure companies to constantly improve operations in order to drive profits but, like the airline industry, Virgin Galactic must balance this pressure with safety concerns.
So when the company decided to replace its unconventional fuel source, a synthetic rubber called MTPB, with an experimental nylon fuel called polyamide, in order to improve production times of aircraft, it put the safety of its pilots at risk since MTPB is known to be more stable. While engineers did test the polyamide engine on the ground, the October 31 test flight was the first time the fast burning fuel was used in real conditions.
Safety Personnel Should Be Taken Seriously
Transparency During Tragedies Helps Push You Through
Regardless of the cause, every tragedy has lessons to be learned so similar accidents are prevented and lives are saved.