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Survivor of Virgin Galactic crash grew up in Gig Harbor, ‘lives for flying’

Peter Siebold, who survived last week’s crash of the Virgin Galactic rocket plane he was piloting, grew up and learned to fly in Gig Harbor.

“He just lives for flying and has done so since early childhood,” said Siebold‘s father, Klaus, who still lives in Gig Harbor. “He grew up here and he started flying here at the local airport, in an airplane that’s still at that flight school.”

Peter Siebold, 43, was flying SpaceShipTwo, along with 39-year-old co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash Oct. 31 in California’s Mojave Desert. Siebold was able to deploy his parachute after the plane disintegrated just after it broke the sound barrier.

Without a spacesuit, he fell more than 10 miles amid thin air that made breathing almost impossible. At about 50,000 feet, the temperature was 70 degrees below zero.

Siebold smashed his shoulder when he hit the ground. He was discharged from the hospital Monday and is recovering in Tehachapi, California, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Klaus Siebold said in an interview with The News Tribune that he first heard about the crash when his daughter-in-law called. She hadn’t seen her husband yet and only knew he was on the way to the hospital.

A nephew in Germany who saw one of the first detailed accounts of the wreck from a German news magazine told him more about what happened, Klaus Siebold said.

“It was a total shock, because we didn’t expect anything to happen,” he said. “We have confidence in the program, and he had done successful flights. I know that my son is an excellent, very conscientious pilot, so I didn’t expect it.”

Peter Siebold is the director of flight operations for Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic’s development partner. He has test-flown Virgin’s spaceships, designed to take tourists to the brink of space, for about 10 years.

Exactly what happened during the experimental flight and how Peter Siebold survived the crash is still being investigated. Investigators have said the plane’s tail, called a feather, deployed at the wrong time.

Klaus Siebold said he wouldn’t discuss the crash, based on company policy, but agreed to talk about his son’s local roots.

“He was very early interested in flying,” said Klaus Siebold, a recreational pilot who taught his son to fly in a Cessna 152. Peter was born at Tacoma General Hospital and started flying a few years later.

“Three, 4 years old, he started flying with me,” Klaus Siebold said.

Aboard the plane, Peter Siebold would sit next to his dad in a homemade wooden box with foam rubber that functioned as a car seat.

By the time Peter Siebold was 5, he knew which way the controls made the plane go. It was about middle school, his father believes, that the boy knew he wanted to be a pilot.

On his 16th birthday, he opted to fly by himself for the first time, instead of driving.

“He had the choice to get his driver’s license or to do his first solo, and he chose to do his solo,” Klaus Siebold said.

Peter Siebold attended Bellarmine Preparatory School for a year in Tacoma, his father said, and eventually graduated from high school in California.

He started working for Scale Composites in 1996, before he graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, his father and company biography said.

While he recovers in California from his injuries, his family has asked for privacy.

“The press people have been ruthless,” Klaus Siebold said. “To the point where the kids are practically prisoners in the house.”

His son doesn’t like the spotlight and didn’t tell his father he was testing SpaceShipTwo last week.

“I didn’t know he was flying that day,” Klaus Siebold said. “He is a very private, very modest person. He does not brag.”

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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