The pilot who survived the Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crash was thrown from the vehicle when it broke apart above the Mojave Desert last month.
Peter Siebold was also able to unbuckle from his seat before his parachute deployed automatically, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the October 31 crash, said yesterday.
He was apparently unaware co-pilot Mike Alsbury, who was killed in the crash, had unlocked the rocket-powered craft's moveable tail section, which appears to have set off a chain of events that led to the ship's destruction during a test flight in Southern California.
SpaceShipTwo broke apart and crashed 95 miles (150km) north of Los Angeles moments after its separation from the special jet aircraft that carries the spacecraft aloft for its high-altitude launches.
The NTSB’s latest findings show that Siebold’s seat broke free from the ship and he fell from about 50,000ft (15,000m) above the ground, an altitude virtually without oxygen, unbuckling himself during his fall, an NTSB spokesman said in an email.
He suffered a shoulder injury, but was released from hospital a few days after the crash.
"He stated that he was extracted from the vehicle as a result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically," the NTSB said in a statement, which added that its investigators interviewed Siebold on Friday.
NTSB officials have previously said Alsbury, for reasons that are still not clear, unlocked the tail section of the aircraft early. The tail is designed to pivot upward during atmospheric re-entry to ease the descent of the craft.
Alsbury was supposed to have waited until the ship was traveling at 1.4 times the speed of sound, fast enough for aerodynamic forces to hold the tail in place, sources familiar with the spacecraft's operation told Reuters.
The agency is expected to issue a preliminary report on the accident this month, but the final report could take up to a year.