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.
15 November 1967: Major Michael J. Adams, U.S. Air Force, was killed in the crash of the number three North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6672.
Flight 191 of the X-15 program was Mike Adams’ seventh flight in the rocketplane. It was the 56-6672’s 65th flight. The flight plan called for 79 seconds of engine burn, accelerating the X-15 to Mach 5.10 while climbing to 250,000 feet (76,200 meters). Adams’ wife and mother were visiting in the NASA control room at Edwards Air Force Base.
Balls 8, the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, flown by Colonel Joe Cotton, took off from Edwards at 9:12 a.m., carrying -672 on a pylon under its right wing, and headed north toward the drop point over Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada. The drop ship climbed to the launch altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).
The X-15 launch was delayed while waiting for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules rescue aircraft to arrive on station. This required Adams to reset the Honeywell MH-96 Automatic Flight Control System to compensate for the changing position of the sun in the sky.
56-6672 was launched by Balls 8 at 10:30:07.4 a.m., Pacific Standard Time. As it dropped clear of the bomber, the rocketplane rolled 20° to the right, a normal reaction. Within one second, Mike Adams had started the XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine while bringing the wings level. The engine ignited within one-half second and was up to its full 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons) one second later. The engine ran for 82.3 seconds, 3.3 seconds longer than planned, causing the X-15 to reach Mach 5.20 (3,617 miles per hour/5,821 kilometers per hour) and to overshoot the planned altitude to peak at 266,000 feet (81,077 meters).
With the X-15 climbing through 140,000 feet (42,672 meters), the Inertial Flight Data System computer malfunctioned. Adams radioed ground controllers that the system’s malfunction lights had come on.
The flight plan called for a wing-rocking maneuver at peak altitude so that a camera on board could scan from horizon to horizon. During this maneuver, the Reaction Control System thrusters did not respond properly to Adams’ control inputs. The X-15 began to yaw to the right.
As it reached its peak altitude, 56-6672 yawed 15° to the left. Going over the top, the nose yawed back, then went to the left again. By the time the aircraft has descended to 230,000 feet (70,104 meters), it had pitched 40° nose up and yawed 90° to the right its flight path. The X-15 was also rolling at 20° per second. The rocketplane went into a spin at Mach 5.
10:33:37 Chase 1: “Dampers still on, Mike?”
10:33:39 Adams: “Yeah, and it seems squirrelly.”
10:34:02 Adams: “I’m in a spin, Pete.” [Major William J. “Pete” Knight, another X-15 pilot, was the flight controller, NASA 1]
10:34:05 NASA 1: “Let’s get your experiment in and the cameras on.”
10:34:13 NASA 1: “Let’s watch your theta, Mike.”
10:34:16 Adams: “I’m in a spin.”
10:34:18 NASA 1: “Say again.”
10:34:19 Adams: “I’m in a spin.”
Adams fought to recover, and at 118,000 feet (35,967 meters) came out of the spin, but he was in an inverted 45° dive at Mach 4.7. The X-15’s MH-96 Automatic Flight Control System entered a series of diverging oscillations in the pitch and roll axes, with accelerations up to 15g. Dynamic pressures on the airframe rapidly increased from 200 pounds per square foot (9.576 kilopascals) to 1,300 pounds per square foot (62.244 kilopascals).
At 62,000 feet (18,898 meters), still at Mach 3.93, the aircraft structure failed and it broke up.
10:34:59 X-15 telemetry failed. Last data indicated it was oscillating +/- 13 g. Radar altitude was 62,000 feet (18,898 meters). The aircraft was descending at 2,500 feet per second (762 meters per second) and broke into many pieces at this time.
10:35:42 NASA 1: “Chase 4, do you have anything on him?”
10:35:44 Chase 4: “Chase 4, negative.”
10:35:47 NASA 1: “OK, Mike, do you read?”
10:35:52 Chase 4: “Pete, I got dust on the lake down there.”
North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672 crashed in a remote area approximately 5½ miles (9 kilometers) north-northeast of Randsburg, California, a small village along U.S. Highway 395.
Major Michael James Adams was killed. This was the only pilot fatality of the entire 199-flight X-15 program.
An investigation by NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center determined that, “. . . the root cause of the accident was an electrical disturbance originating from an experiment package using a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) component that had not been properly qualified for the X-15 environment. . .”and that there is“. . . no conclusive evidence to support the hypothesis that SD [spatial disorientation] was a causal factor. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that poor design of the pilot-aircraft interface and ineffective operational procedures prevented the pilot and ground control from recognizing and isolating the numerous failures before the aircraft’s departure from controlled flight was inevitable.”
—A Comprehensive Analysis of the X-15 Flight 3-65 Accident, NASA/TM—2014-218538 (Corrected Copy)
9 November 1962: Flight 74 of the X-15 Program was the Number Two aircraft’s 31st flight. X-15 56-6671 was carried aloft by Balls 8, the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 53-008, for launch over Mud Lake, Nevada. NASA test pilot John Barron (“Jack”) McKay was to take the rocketplane to 125,000 feet at Mach 5.5 to investigate the stability and handling of the X-15 with the lower half of the ventral fin removed, and to investigate aerodynamic boundary layer phenomena.
The B-52 mothership dropped Jack McKay and the X-15 right on schedule at 10:23:07.0 a.m., local time, from an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) and speed of approximately 450 knots (833 kilometers per hour). McKay advanced the throttle to ignite the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. It fired immediately but when McKay advanced the throttle for the full 57,000 pounds of thrust, the engine remained at just 30%.
The X-15 could have flown back to Edwards Air Force Base, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the south, but with the engine not responding to the throttle, it was uncertain that it would continue running. The decision was made to make an emergency landing at Mud Lake.
Having reached a peak altitude of 53,950 feet (16,444 meters) and Mach 1.49 (1,109 miles per hour/1,785 kilometers per hour), Jack McKay continued to circle the lake burning off propellants as he lost altitude. The engine was shut down at 70.5 seconds. McKay positioned the aircraft for landing as he continued to dump unused propellant and liquid oxygen, but a considerable amount remained on board.
As he neared touchdown, he tried to lower the flaps but they did not deploy. The X-15 touched down on the dry lake bed at 296 miles per hour (476.4 kilometers per hour), 66 miles per hour (106 kilometers per hour) faster than normal.
Duration of the flight from air launch to touchdown was 6 minutes, 31.1 seconds.
The high speed and extra weight caused the X-15’s rear skids to hit harder than normal. When the nose wheels hit, a rebound effect placed even higher loads on the rear struts. At the same time, with the elevators in an extreme nose-up position, the higher aerodynamic loads pushed the skids deeper into the lake bed. This higher loading caused the left rear strut to collapse. The X-15 rolled to the left and the left elevator dug into the lake bed. This caused the aircraft to start sliding to the left. Jack McKay jettisoned the canopy and as the right wing tip dug into the surface, the X-15 flipped over and came to rest upside down.
McKay was seriously injured. He was trapped in the upside down X-15 and was in danger from the vapors of the ammonia propellants and liquid oxygen. An H-21 rescue helicopter hovered overhead to blow the vapor away.
Prior to the flight, an Air Force C-130 had brought a fire engine and crew to standby at Mud Lake, returned to Edwards and picked up a second fire engine and its crew, then remained airborne should an emergency landing be made at another intermediate dry lake.
These propositioned emergency assets were able to rescue McKay and to transport him to the hospital back at Edwards.
McKay eventually recovered sufficiently to return to flight status, but ultimately his injuries forced him to retire.
The Number Two X-15 was severely damaged. It was taken back to North American and was rebuilt into the X-15A-2, intended to reach speeds up to Mach 8. It would be more than a year and a half before it flew again.