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 (126.77–266.89 kilonewtons). 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/7,264 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
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.
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.
9 November 1961: Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, became the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 6 when he flew the number two North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6671, to Mach 6.04.
This was the 45th flight of the X-15 program, and Bob White’s 11th flight. The purpose of this test flight was to accelerate 56-6671 to its maximum velocity, to gather data about aerodynamic heating at hypersonic speeds, and to evaluate the rocketplane’s stability and handling.
The X-15 was carried to approximately 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) while mounted to a pylon under the right wing of the “mothership,” a Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, nicknamed Balls 8. White was dropped over Mud Lake, Nevada, approximately 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of Edwards Air Force Base. Once clear of the B-52, he ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine, and with it producing 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons) at full throttle, the X-15 accelerated for 86.9 seconds. The rocketplane reached a peak altitude of 101,600 feet (30,968 meters). Its speed was Mach 6.04 (4,094 miles per hour/6,589 kilometers per hour).
White stated in his post-flight report, “When I leveled off at about 101,000 feet, I made a little downward pressure [on the control stick], because I didn’t want to be climbing. I remember . . . going along watching that [Mach] meter reading roughly 6,000 feet per second,[and] saying to myself, ‘Go, go, go, go!’ We did just crack it, because we knew that bringing all the proper things together, we could or should get just about Mach 6.”
In order to achieve the goal, the flight plan called for pushing the LR-99 to the point of exhaustion instead of manually shutting down the engine at an arbitrary point. White said, “The shutdown seemed to be a little bit different this time, compared with a shutdown by closing the throttle. It seemed to occur over a longer time interval.”
— The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space, by Michelle Evans, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2013, Chapter 3 at Page 87.
“The airplane really did get hot on those flights. Temperatures in excess of 1,300 °F. were recorded. Parts of the airplane glowed cherry red and softened up a bit during those flights. The airplane got so damned hot that it popped and banged like an old iron stove. It spewed smoke out of its bowels and it twitched like frog legs in a skillet. But it survived.”
— At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, at Page 98.
As the X-15 decelerated through Mach 2.4, the right side windshield shattered, leaving it completely opaque. On Bob White’s previous flight, the left windshield had also broken. Fortunately, in both cases, only the outer layer of the dual pane glass broke. The reduced visibility made the approach difficult to judge, but White made a successful landing, touching down on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight of 9 minutes, 31.2 seconds duration.
A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in World War II, Robert M. White was shot down on his 52nd combat mission in February 1945 and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war until the war in Europe came to an end in April 1945. White was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He was a graduate of the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School and flew tests of many aircraft at Edwards before entering the X-15 program.
Major White had been the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He was the first to fly over 200,000 feet, then over 300,000 feet. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.
After leaving the X-15 program, Bob White returned to operational duties. Later, he flew 70 combat missions over North Vietnam in the Republic F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter bomber, including leading the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi, 11 August 1967, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross. He next went to Wright-Patterson AFB where he was director of the F-15 Eagle systems program. He returned to Edwards AFB as commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center. White was promoted to Major General in 1975.
General White retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981. He died 10 March 2010.