27 June 1952

Jean L. Ziegler in the cockpit of Bell X-2 46-675 after landing on Rogers Dry Lake, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 27 June 1952. (NASA)

27 June 1952: The Bell X-2 research rocketplane, with company test pilot Jean Leroy (“Skip”) Ziegler at the controls, was airdropped from a “mothership,” a Boeing B-50A-5-BO Superfortress, 46-011, over Edwards Air Force Base, California. This was the first flight of the X-2 Program, and was an unpowered glide flight for pilot familiarization.

On touch down, the nose wheel collapsed and the aircraft slid across the dry lake bed, but was not seriously damaged.

Two X-2 rocketplanes, serial numbers 46-674 and 46-675, were built by the Bell Aircraft Corporation, which has also built the X-1 series. The second X-2 was the first one to fly.

Bell Aircraft Corporation standing next to the Bell X-2 rocket plane on Rogers Dry Lake, California, after the first glide flight, 27 June 1952. The nose wheel collapsed on landing. (NASM)

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket. In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from Stainless Steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, california, 1952. (NASA)
Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust burning alcohol and liquid oxygen. Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

A four-engine Boeing B-50A Superfortress bomber, serial number 46-011, was modified as the ”mothership.” A second Superfortress, B-50D-95-BO 48-096, was also modified to carry the X-2, and was redesignated EB-50D. During the flight test program, the X-2 reached a maximum speed of Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour, 3,370 kilometers per hour) and a maximum altitude of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters).

On 12 May 1953, less than one year after the first glide flight, Skip Ziegler was in the cockpit of 46-675 while it was being carried on a captive test flight aboard the B-50A Superfortress. An internal explosion destroyed the X-2 and killed Ziegler and another crewman aboard the mothership. The rocketplane fell into Lake Ontario and neither it nor Ziegler’s body were ever recovered. The Superfortress was able to land, but was so badly damaged that it never flew again.

Jean L. "Skip" Ziegler, with the Bell X-5 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1952. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.
Jean Leroy “Skip” Ziegler, with the Bell X-5 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1952. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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