Daily Archives: November 5, 2023

5 November 1959

The Number 2 X-15, 56-6671, broke in half when it made an emergency landing while still partially loaded with propellants. (NASA)
The Number 2 X-15, 56-6671, broke in half when it made an emergency landing while still partially loaded with propellants. (NASA)

5 November 1959: During his fourth X-15 flight—the third in the Number Two ship, 56-6671—North American Aviation chief test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield made an emergency landing at Rosamond Dry Lake after one of the two Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-13 rocket engines exploded, causing an engine compartment fire.

The X-15 had been launched by the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003, at 0.82 Mach and approximately 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Bouquet Canyon Reservoir, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Edwards Air Force Base. Scott Crossfield ignited both XLR11 rocket engines and began to accelerate and climb, but one of four combustion chambers of the lower engine exploded almost immediately. He shut both engines down after 11.7 seconds. Crossfield kept the rocketplane in a level attitude for the 114 seconds it took to jettison the liquid oxygen and water-alcohol propellants to lighten the X-15 for the landing. The tanks could not fully drain and the aircraft remained approximately 1,000 pounds (455 kilograms) overweight.

The X-15 approached the emergency landing site at Rosamond Dry Lake, about ten miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Edwards, while Major Robert M. White, flying a Lockheed F-104 chase plane, called out Crossfield’s distance from the dry lake and his altitude. As he neared the touch down point, Crossfield raised the X-15’s nose to decelerate.

“I lowered the skids and nose wheel, pulled the flaps, and felt for the lake bed.

“The skids dug in gently. The nose wheel slammed down hard and the ship plowed across the desert floor, slowing much faster than usual. Then she came to a complete stop within 1500 feet instead of the usual 5000 feet. Something was wrong; the skids failed, I was sure. . . Quickly I scrambled out of the cockpit. What I saw almost broke my heart. The fuselage had buckled immediately aft of the cockpit, two hundred and thirty inches back from the nose. Her belly had dragged in the sand, causing the abrupt deceleration on the lake. The rocket chambers which had exploded at launch were a shambles.”

Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot, by A. Scott Crossfield and Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1960, Chapter 41 at Pages 383–384.

The scene at Rosamond Dry Lake after Scott Crossfield's emergency landing after an engine explosion. (NASA)
The scene at Rosamond Dry Lake after Scott Crossfield’s emergency landing following an engine explosion. (NASA)

It was determined that the engine had exploded due to an ignition failure, a relatively simple problem not connected to the design of the X-15. But there remained the question as to why the rocketplane had broken in half. The investigation found that the rapid extension of the nose wheel strut when lowered caused the oil inside the strut to foam and vaporize, providing almost no shock absorption. This was corrected and the check list changed to lower the gear sooner.

The total duration of this flight was 5 minutes, 28.0 seconds. The peak altitude was 45,462 feet (13,857 meters) and the maximum speed was 660 miles per hour (1,062 kilometers per hour).

56-6671 was taken back to the North American Aviation plant for repair. It returned to flight operations three months later.

Test pilot A. Scott Crossfield with the damaged X-15 (UPI/Harry Ransom Center
Test pilot A. Scott Crossfield with the damaged X-15 on Rosamond Dry Lake. (UPI/Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

5 November 1911 (00:04, 6 November UTC)

Cal Rodgers departs Sheepshead Bay, New York aboard his Wright Model EX, Vin Fiz, 4:30 p.m., 17 September 1911. (NASM SI-A-3475_640)

5 November 1911: At 4:04 p.m., (00:04, 6 November UTC) Calbraith Perry Rodgers completed the first transcontinental flight when he landed at Tournament Park, Pasadena, California, in front of a crowd of 20,000 spectators.

Only a few months earlier Cal Rodgers had been taught to fly by Orville Wright at Huffman Prairie, Ohio. On 7 August he had been awarded Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) pilot certificate number 49.

Calbraith Perry Rodgers, 1879–1912. (Wright Bros. Aeroplane Co.)

In October 1910, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst offered a prize of $50,000 to anyone who flew an airplane across the North American continent in 30 days or less. The prize offer would expire 11 October 1911.  Rodgers bought a Wright Model EX from the Wright brothers, who were skeptical that any airplane could hold together for that long of a flight, but they eventually agreed to sell the airplane to him. Armour Meatpacking Company of Chicago agreed to sponsor the cross country flight as a means of advertising their grape soft drink, Vin Fiz. Rogers named his airplane after the soft drink. (Vin Fiz also sponsored Harriet Quimby.)

An Vin Fiz advertisement showing the route of Cal Rodgers transcontinental journey in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

The Wright Model EX was built as an exhibition airplane. It was developed from the 1910 Model R, with shorter wings and some other improvements to reduce aerodynamic drag. It was a single-place biplane with a length of 21 feet, 6 inches (6.553 meters) and a wingspan of 31 feet, 6 inches (9.601 meters). It was powered by a water-cooled Wright inline 4-cylinder engine which produced 30 horsepower, driving two propellers in pusher configuration by means of chain drive. Its top speed was approximately 62 miles per hour (99.8 kilometers per hour).

Rogers and Vin Fiz took off from Sheepshead Bay, New York, at 4:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time (21:30 UTC), 17 September 1911.

Cal Rodgers was accompanied by a special six car train that provided living quarters, support personnel and a hangar car for maintenance. He paid Charlie Taylor, the Wright’s’ mechanic, $70 per week to accompany the flight and perform the necessary maintenance on the airplane. The top of the rail cars were marked to allow Rodgers to follow the train in and around the larger cities as a form of navigation.

The total duration of the flight was 49 days, 2 hours, 34 minutes. The transcontinental flight required more than 70 landings for fuel, maintenance or repairs. By the time that he arrived at Pasadena, California, Hearst’s prize offer had already expired. The city of Long Beach offered him $1,000 if he would fly to the shoreline of their city to complete the journey. After spending the night at Pasadena, Rodgers took off on the final leg, only 25 miles, but he crashed at Compton, and was seriously injured. It was nearly a month before he had recovered sufficiently to fly the rest of the way to Long Beach, which he did with a crutch tied to the airplane’s wing. He landed on the beach there, 10 December 1911.

Cal Rodgers and Vin Fiz at Long Beach, California, 5 November 1911. The airplane was rolled into the water for dramatic effect. (NASM)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes