Special to Mustang News
Michael Alsbury always wanted to be a pilot.
That’s what retired aerospace engineering professor Dan Biezad remembered of the now-deceased Cal Poly graduate.
“He was more pilot than engineer and he just really wanted to fly, but he was a really great engineer and also a really good student,” Biezad said.
Alsbury died in the crash of SpaceShipTwo, the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that crashed during a test flight this past month. The craft’s other pilot, 41-year-old Peter Siebold — also a Cal Poly graduate — survived after parachuting to safety but sustained severe injuries.
Alsbury was in the copilot spot while Siebold was in the pilot seat during the crash. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was expected to carry tourists into space by mid-April. The fare would have been $250,000.
The investigation initially revealed that a new fuel mixture used in the flight might have caused the crash. It was the first time it was used in test flight. But according to a statement from Virgin Galactic on Nov. 4, that possible cause was disproved.
“The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has recovered the intact engine and rocket propulsion fuel tanks with no signs of burn through or mid-air explosion,” the statement read. “This definitely dismisses the premature and inaccurate speculation that the problem was related to the engine or the fuel.”
There was also an issue with the feathering mechanism — a device that turns the tail booms, or side wings, in order to ensure smooth re-entry. According to the statement, the lever activating the wing booms was pulled prematurely and could have caused the crash, but it also states it is too soon to assume this was the sure cause.
The full investigation into the true cause will take at least a year, NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said in a New York Times article.
Remembering the pilots
Both Alsbury and Siebold graduated from Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering program, Siebold in 2001 and Alsbury in 1998. Professors Biezad and Faysal Kolkailah both described the pilots as hard-working, memorable students when they were at Cal Poly.
“I’ve been here 31 years and I teach 100-120 students a year,” Kolkailah said. “I do not remember everyone in my class from the past 31 years, but I definitely remember them.”
Alsbury got his job at Virgin Galactic as a flight test pilot and flight test engineer after graduating from Cal Poly in 1998, Biezad said.
“He was ambitious and highly competent and very outgoing,” Biezad said.
Alsbury was also a husband and a father of two children.
Scaled Composites, a subset of Virgin Galactic, has dedicated an area on its website where people may donate money to Alsbury’s family.
Siebold has remained relatively close with the department. He once met with Biezad’s students who visited Virgin Galactic.
“He would take us aside and show us some special things, get the students some special briefing and a little insight on what was happening that they wouldn’t get from the newspaper,” Biezad said. “The students always loved it.”
Siebold got a job with Virgin Galactic before he finished his senior project, Biezad said. Biezad worked closely with Siebold on the project, which consisted of building an orbital flight simulator. When Siebold’s workload at Virgin Galactic was not as heavy, Siebold came back to finish his project. This proved how dedicated he was, Biezad said.
“It was such a privilege to know him,” Biezad said. “I’ve been teaching since the 1980s and I would put him in the top three of my students for initiative, talent, cooperation and just being generally good-natured.”
When Biezad heard about the crash, he immediately wondered if he knew those hurt.
“My immediate thought was, ‘Did I know the pilots?’” Biezad said. “I was more emotional. I spent so much time working on (the senior project) with him. I became more and more involved and he was more than just another student in my class.”
Kolkailah said he was deeply saddened by Alsbury’s death and Siebold’s injuries, he said. In the past, the faculty has tried to reach out to families of deceased graduates to see if there is anything they can do, he said.
For Kolkailah, how he felt about his students, including Alsbury and Siebold, went beyond the normal student-teacher dynamic — it was a deeper connection.
“Those who graduate here are like your kids,” Kolkailah said. “They are like my kids, and it hurts.”