As the doomed flight rocketed past the speed of sound some 13 kilometers high and then shattered seconds later, the odds of survival were slim.
Remarkably, as sections of the cockpit, fuselage, a wing and motor of the SpaceShipTwo rained down over the Mojave Desert in California and pieces of the lightweight craft tiny enough to travel 56 kilometers were picked up by the winds, a single parachute was seen in the sky.
Pilot Peter Siebold was alive and drifting to safety.
“It’s no minor miracle that he did survive and survive in relatively good shape,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said this week.
How Siebold, 43, survived the fall from extreme altitude while co-pilot Mike Alsbury, 39, perished a week ago is not yet clear, but Siebold is not the first to live through such a harrowing ordeal.
Bill Weaver has been telling a similar story for decades. The former Lockheed test pilot was torn from the seat of an SR-71 Blackbird at 78,800 feet above New Mexico on January 25, 1966.
The plane was going faster than 2,400 mph more than triple the speed of sound.
As Weaver banked into a turn, a malfunction caused one engine to lose thrust. He quickly lost control of the jet and knew he was in trouble as the plane began to pitch and break up. He didn’t have time to be scared.
“I knew we were going to just be along for the ride,” he said.
Weaver tried to radio to the reconnaissance and navigations officer in the back seat that there was no way to safely bail out at that altitude and speed, so they should stick with the plane and eject when it got lower.
But the severe gravitational forces made his speech unintelligible and then he blacked out.
The whole event to that point took two to three seconds. When Weaver regained consciousness, his first thought was that he was dreaming.
With the face plate on his helmet iced over from temperatures as cold as minus 55 Fahrenheit, he could only see a hazy white light and in a detached sense of euphoria, he thought he was dead.
He was relieved when he realized he was alive and plunging toward Earth.
“I had no idea how I got out of the airplane,” he said. “I had no idea how long I had been free falling. Had no idea how high I was or low I was.”