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Virgin crash probe could take year

A probe to discover what caused the doomed Virgin Galactic test flight to crash could take at least a year, the lead investigator has said.

Christopher Hart, who is spearheading the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) investigation, said the recovery mission was still under way, with small parts of the SpaceShipTwo found 35 miles from the crash site.

Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, died when the aircraft crashed in the Mojave Desert in California on Friday, while surviving pilot Peter Siebold, 43, was said to be alert and speaking with family members and medical staff in hospital.

NTSB investigators are yet to talk to Mr Siebold but interviews with most other staff would be completed shortly, Mr Hart said.

Mr Hart initially said he believed the co-pilot had activated the spaceship's "feathering" system - which lifts and rotates the tail to create drag - prematurely but in a press conference this morning he retracted the comment.

"I was mistaken about the identity of that person because I don't know whether that person was the co-pilot," he told reporters.

He added: "The investigation will continue for several months. The process in the investigation is that the parties continue to work together to develop the factual portions of this investigation.

"Once the factual development process is complete then we go to the analysis and at that point we do the analysis alone in order to make sure the analysis is not biased.

"We anticipate the typical time frame for an accident like this, it may be helped by the rich data sources that we have, we may be able to move a little more rapidly but we would anticipate it taking us as much as 12 months to complete the analysis which will end up with a probable cause determination."

Virgin Galactic - owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi - plans to fly passengers to altitudes more than 62 miles (100km) above Earth.

The company, which sells seats on each prospective journey for 250,000 dollars (£156,000), has denied reports that it ignored safety warnings ahead of the test flight crash.

Sir Richard yesterday also strongly denied claims of safety warnings and vowed to "push on" with the project.

"All I can say is we will not fly members of the public unless we can fly myself and family members," he added.

Earlier, Mr Hart had said they were not ruling out passenger error and at the latest press conference he suggested part of the investigation would centre on the actions of the pilots.

To that end, the NTSB team had set up a dedicated "human performance group", which would also analyse the spacecraft's displays and design.

Mr Hart confirmed that on-board video showed one of the men had unlocked a lever of the feathering system before the aircraft had reached the required speed of Mach 1.4 or 1,065mph. But it is not known how the system was deployed "without being commanded".

He said: "Telemetered data does not indicate this extension was commanded by the use of the feather extension cockpit controls."

Some five seconds after the lever was moved, contact with the aircraft was lost, including telemetry and video.

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