7 March 1961: Launched over Silver Lake, a dry lake bed near the California/Nevada border, at 10:28:33.0 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, test pilot Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, flew the number two North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6671, to Mach 4.43 (2,905 miles per hour/4,675 kilometers per hour) and 77,450 feet (23,607 meters), becoming the first pilot to exceed Mach 4.
This was the first flight for the number two X-15 with the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 engine, which was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.55 kilonewtons).
The flight plan called for a burn time of 116 seconds, an altitude of 84,000 feet (25,603 meters) and a predicted maximum speed of Mach 4.00. The actual duration of the engine burn was 127.0 seconds. Peak altitude was lower than planned, at 77,450 feet (23,607 meters). The longer burn and lower altitude translated into the higher speed.
The total duration of the flight, from the air drop from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress carrier, 52-008, to touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, was 8 minutes, 34.1 seconds.
20 December 1968: After 199 flights, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration cancelled the X-15 Hypersonic Research Program. A 200th X-15 flight had been scheduled, but after several delays, the decision was made to end the program. (The last actual flight attempt was 12 December 1968, but snow at several of the dry lakes used as emergency landing areas resulted in the flight being cancelled.)
The X-15A rocketplane was designed and built for the U.S. Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of NASA) by North American Aviation, Inc., to investigate the effects of hypersonic flight (Mach 5+). Design work started in 1955 and a mock-up had been completed after just 12 months. The three X-15s were built at North American’s Los Angeles Division, at the southeast corner of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), on the shoreline of southern California.
The first flight took place 8 June 1959 with former NACA test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield in the cockpit of the Number 1 ship, 56-6670.
While earlier rocketplanes, the Bell X-1 series, the the Douglas D-558-II, and the Bell X-2, were airplanes powered by rocket engines, the X-15 was a quantum leap in technology. It was a spacecraft.
Like the other rocketplanes, the X-15 was designed to be carried aloft by a “mothership,” rather than to takeoff and climb to the test altitude under its own power. The carrier aircraft was originally to be a Convair B-36 intercontinental bomber but this was soon changed to a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. Two B-52s were modified to carry the X-15: NB-52A 52-003, The High and Mighty One, and NB-52B 52-008, Balls 8.
From 8 June 1959 to 24 October 1968, the three X-15s were flown by twelve test pilots, three of whom would qualify as astronauts in the X-15. Two would go on to the Apollo Program, and one, Neil Alden Armstrong, would be the first human to set foot on the surface of the Moon, 20 July 1969. Joe Engle would fly the space shuttle. Four of the test pilots, Petersen, White, Rushworth, and Knight, flew in combat during the Vietnam War, with Bob White being awarded the Air Force Cross. Petersen, Rushworth and White reached flag rank.
One pilot, John B. (“Jack”) McKay, was seriously injured during an emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada, 9 November 1962. Another, Michael James Adams, was killed when the Number 3 ship, 56-6672, went into a hypersonic spin and broke up on the program’s 191st flight, 15 November 1967.
Flown by a single pilot/astronaut, the X-15 is a mid-wing monoplane with dorsal and ventral fin/rudders and stabilators. The wing had no dihdral, while the stabilators had a pronounced -15° anhedral. The short wings have an area of 200 square feet (18.58 square meters) and a maximum thickness of just 5%. The leading edges are swept to 25.64°. There are two small flaps but no ailerons. The entire vertical fin/rudder pivots for yaw control.
Above 100,000 feet (30,840 meters) altitude, conventional aircraft flight control surfaces are ineffective. The X-15 is equipped with a system of reaction control jets for pitch, roll and yaw control. Hydrogen peroxide was passed through a catalyst to produce steam, which supplied the control thrusters.
The forward landing gear consists of a retractable oleo strut with steerable dual wheels and there are two strut/skids at the rear of the fuselage. The gear is retracted after the X-15 is mounted on the NB-52 and is extended for landing by its own weight.
The rocketplane’s cockpit featured both a conventional control stick as well as side-controllers. It was pressurized with nitrogen gas to prevent fires. The pilot wore an MC-2 full-pressure suit manufactured by the David Clark Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, with an MA-3 helmet. The suit was pressurized below the neck seal with nitrogen, while the helmet was supplied with 100% oxygen. This pressure suit was later changed to the Air Force-standardized A/P22S.
The X-15 is 50.75 feet (15.469 meters) long with a wing span of 22.36 feet (6.815 meters). The height—the distance between the tips of the dorsal and ventral fins—is 13.5 feet (4.115 meters). The stabilator span is 18.08 feet (5.511 meters). The fuselage is 4.67 feet (1.423 meters) deep and has a maximum width of 7.33 feet (2.234 meters).
Since the X-15 was built of steel rather than light-weight aluminum, as are most aircraft, it is a heavy machine, weighing approximately 14,600 pounds (6,623 kilograms) empty and 34,000 pounds (15,422 kilograms) when loaded with a pilot and propellants. The X-15s carried as much as 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of research instrumentation, and the equipment varied from flight to flight. The minimum flight weight (for high-speed missions): 31,292 pounds (14,194 kilograms) The maximum weight was 52,117 pounds (23,640 kilograms) at drop (modified X-15A-2 with external propellant tanks).
Initial flights were flown with a 5 foot, 11 inch (1.803 meters)-long air data boom at the nose, but this would later be replaced by the “ball nose” air sensor system. The data boom contained a standard pitot-static system along with angle-of-attack and sideslip vanes. The boom and ball nose were interchangeable.
The X-15s were built primarily of a nickel/chromium/iron alloy named Inconel X, along with corrosion-resistant steel, titanium and aluminum. Inconel X is both very hard and also able to maintain its strength at the very high temperatures the X-15s were subjected to by aerodynamic heating. It was extremely difficult to machine and special fabrication techniques had to be developed.
Delays in the production of the planned Reaction Motors XLR99 rocket engine forced engineers to adapt two vertically-stacked Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-13 four-chamber rocket engines to the X-15 for early flights. This was a well-known engine which was used on the previous rocketplanes. The XLR11 burned a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water with liquid oxygen. Each of the engines’ chambers could be ignited individually. Each engine was rated at 11,800 pounds of thrust (58.49 kilonewtons) at Sea Level.
The Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine was throttleable by the pilot from 28,500 to 60,000 pounds of thrust. The engine was rated at 50,000 pounds of thrust (222.41 kilonewtons) at Sea Level; 57,000 pounds (253.55 kilonewtons) at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters), the typical drop altitude; and 57,850 pounds (257.33 kilonewtons) of thrust at 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). Individual engines varied slightly. A few produced as much as 61,000 pounds of thrust (271.34 kilonewtons).
The XLR99 burned anhydrous ammonia and liquid oxygen. The flame temperature was approximately 5,000 °F. (2,760 °C.) The engine was cooled with circulating liquid oxygen. To protect the exhaust nozzle, it was flame-sprayed with ceramic coating of zirconium dioxide. The engine is 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) long and 3 feet, 3.3 inches (0.998 meters) in diameter. It weighs 910 pounds (413 kilograms). The Time Between Overhauls (TBO) is 1 hour of operation, or 100 starts.
The XLR99 proved to be very reliable. 169 X-15 flights were made using the XLR99. 165 of these had successful engine operation. It started on the first attempt 159 times.
The highest speed achieved during the program was with the modified number two ship, X-15A-2 56-6671, flown by Pete Knight to Mach 6.70 (6,620 feet per second/4,520 miles per hour/ kilometers per hour) at 102,700 feet (31,303 meters). On this flight, the rocketplane exceeded its maximum design speed of 6,600 feet per second (2,012 meters per second).
The maximum altitude was reached by Joe Walker, 22 August 1963, when he flew 56-6672 to 354,200 feet (107,960 meters).
The longest flight was flown by Neil Armstrong, 20 April 1962, with a duration of 12 minutes, 28.7 seconds.
North American Aviation X-15A-1 56-6670 is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. X-15A-2 56-6671 is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
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
At The Edge Of Space, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992
X-15 Diary: The Story of America’s First Spaceship, by Richard Tregaskis, E.F. Dutton & Company, New York, 1961; University of Nebraska Press, 2004
X-15: Exploring the Frontiers of Flight, by David R. Jenkins, National Aeronautics and Space Administration http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/470842main_X_15_Frontier_of_Flight.pdf
The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space, by Michelle Evans, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2013
5 December 1963: On Flight 97 of the X-15 Program, Major Robert A. Rushworth flew the number one aircraft, Air Force serial number 56-6670, to an altitude of 101,000 feet 30,785 meters) and reached Mach 6.06 (4,018 miles per hour/6,466 kilometers per hour).
The rocketplane was dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress “mother ship” 52-008, Balls 8, flying at 450 knots (833.4 kilometers per hour) at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Rushworth ignited the Reaction Motors XLR-99-RM-1 rocket engine, which burned for 81.2 seconds before shutting down.
The flight plan had called for an altitude of 104,000 feet (31,699 meters), a 78 second burn and a maximum speed of Mach 5.70. With the difficulties of flying such a powerful rocketplane, Rushworth’s flight was actually fairly close to plan. During the flight the right inner windshield cracked.
Bob Rushworth landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight of 9 minutes, 34.0 seconds.
Mach 6.06 was the highest Mach number reached for an unmodified X-15.
56-6670 flew 81 of the 199 flights of the X-15 Program. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
From 1960 and 1966, Bob Rushworth made 34 flights in the three X-15s, more than any other pilot.
18 November 1966: On Flight 175 of the research program, Major William J. (“Pete”) Knight, U.S. Air Force, flew the newly-modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, to Mach 6.33 (4,261 miles per hour/6,857 kilometers per hour) at 98,900 feet (30,245 meters). This is just 11 years, to the day, since Pete Everest made the first powered flight in the Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 rocketplane, with more than 6 times an increase in speed.
On this date, NASA made an attempt to launch two X-15s, -671 and -672, using the NB-52A 52-003 and NB-52B 52-008. However -672, the number three ship, had to abort the mission.
Balls 8, the NB-52B, flown by NASA test pilot Fitz Fulton and Colonel Joe Cotton, USAF, carried 56-6671 to the launch point over Mud Lake, Nevada, approximately 200 miles to the north of Edwards AFB. (This was the lake where -671 was severely damaged in an emergency landing, 9 November 1962. It was returned to North American to be rebuilt to the X-15A-2 configuration and returned to flight operation 19 months later.)
At 1:24:07.2 p.m. local time, Pete Knight and the X-15 were dropped from the pylon under the right wing of the B-52. He ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 and began to accelerate with its 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons).
Since this was to be a high temperature test flight, it was planned to fly no higher than 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). The denser atmosphere would result in greater aerodynamic heating of the rocketplane.
With the two external propellant tanks carrying an additional 1,800 gallons (6,814 liters) of liquid ammonia and liquid oxygen, the engine ran for 2 minutes, 16.4 seconds. The rocketplane had accelerated to Mach 2. The external tanks emptied in about 60 seconds and were jettisoned. The tanks were equipped with parachutes. They were recovered to be reused on later flights.
The X-15, now about 25,000 pounds (11,340 kilograms) lighter and without the aerodynamic drag of the tanks, continued to accelerate. At its highest speed, the rocketplane was travelling approximately 6,500 feet per second (1,981 meters per second), more than twice as fast as a high-powered rifle bullet. Its surface temperatures exceeded 1,200 °F. (649 °C.)
Knight landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. The duration of this flight had been 8 minutes, 26.8 seconds.
16 November 2004: Balls 8, the Boeing NB-52B “mothership” at Edwards Air Force Base, performs a farewell flyover during its final flight. 52-008 was both the oldest airplane in the U.S. Air Force inventory and the lowest time B-52 Stratofortress still operational.
Boeing RB-52B-10-BO Stratofortress 52-008 was built at Seattle, Washington and made its first flight 11 June 1955. It was turned over to NASA 8 June 1959 for use as a air launch vehicle for the X-15 rocketplane. North American Aviation modified the bomber for its new role at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. It was redesignated NB-52B.
52-008 carried an X-15 for the first time 23 January 1960. Sharing the mothership responsibilities with the earlier NB-52A 52-003, Balls 8 carried the X-15s aloft on 159 flights, dropping them 106 times.