8 August 1955

8 August 1955: While being carried aloft by a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the Bell X-1A was being readied for it’s next high-altitude supersonic flight by NACA test pilot Joe Walker. During the countdown, an internal explosion occurred. Walker was not injured and was able to get out. The X-1A was jettisoned. It crashed onto the desert floor and was destroyed.

A number of similar explosions had occurred in the X-1D, X-1-3 and the X-2. Several aircraft had been damaged or destroyed, and Bell Aircraft test pilot Skip Ziegler was killed when an X-2 exploded during a captive flight. A flight engineer aboard the B-29 mothership was also killed. The B-29 was able to land but was so heavily damaged that it never flew again.

Debris from the X-1A crash site was brought back to Edwards AFB for examination. It was discovered that a gasket material used in the rocket engine fuel systems was reacting with the fuel, resulting in the explosions. The problem was corrected and the mysterious explosions stopped.

Test pilot Joe Walker “horsing around” with the Bell X-1A, 1955. (NASA)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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About Bryan Swopes

Bryan R. Swopes grew up in Southern California in the 1950s–60s, near the center of America's aerospace industry. He has had a life-long interest in aviation and space flight. Bryan is a retired commercial helicopter pilot and flight instructor.

3 thoughts on “8 August 1955

  1. “similar explosions had occurred in the X-1, D-558-II”

    Can you tell me more about the explosion on the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket?

    1. I believe I was incorrect to include the D-558-II. . . In the early rocket planes,leather gaskets were used in the fuel systems. It was discovered that a chemical, tricresyl phosphate (TCP), had been used in treating the leather that reacted with liquid oxygen, resulting in an explosion. In addition to the loss of the X-1D, a Bell X-2 was also destroyed, killing its pilot, Skip Ziegler and engineer Frank Wolko. The B-50a carrier aircraft made it safely to land but was so badly damaged that it never flew again. Other research aircraft damaged include the X-1A and the X-1-3.

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