20 April 1962: “Neil’s Cross-Country.” NASA Research Test Pilot Neil Alden Armstrong conducts a flight to test the Minneapolis-Honeywell MH-96 flight control system installed in the third North American Aviation X-15, serial number 56-6672. The new system combined both aerodynamic and reaction thruster flight controls in one hand controller rather than the two used in X-15s -670 and -671, simplifying the tasks for the pilot.
On its fourth flight, -672 was air-dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress drop ship, Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada. Armstrong fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 engine and let it burn for 82.4 seconds. The X-15 accelerated to Mach 5.31 (3,789 miles per hour/6,098 kilometers per hour). After the engine was shut down, the rocketplane continued to its peak altitude on a ballistic trajectory, reaching 207,500 feet (63,246 meters) before going over the top and beginning its descent back toward the atmosphere. The test of the new flight control system went well.
Neil Armstrong began to pull out of the descent at about 100,000 feet (30,480 meters), but the X-15 “ricocheted” off the top of the atmosphere and climbed back to 115,000 feet (35,052 meters) where the aerodynamic control surfaces could not function. He used the reaction thrusters to turn toward the dry lake landing area at Edwards Air Force Base, but although the X-15 rolled into a left bank, it would not change direction and still in ballistic flight, went zooming by Edwards at Mach 3 and 100,000 feet in a 90° left bank.
As the X-15 dropped back into the atmosphere, Armstrong was finally able to get it slowed down, but he was far south of his planned landing site. By the time he got -672 turned around he was 45 miles (72.4 kilometers) to the south, over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and gliding through 45,000 feet (13,716 meters). There was real doubt that he would be able to make the X-15 stretch its glide to reach the dry lake.
In a masterful display of airmanship, Neil Armstrong was able to get the X-15 to reach the south end of the dry lake, 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) from the planned landing spot to the north. But it was a very close call. In debriefing, the pilots of the four F-104 chase planes were asked how much clearance Armstrong had as he crossed over the Joshua trees at the edge of the lake bed. One of them answered, “Oh, at least 100 feet—on either side.”
At 12 minutes, 28.7 seconds, this was the longest flight of the entire X-15 program. It is called “Neil’s cross-country flight.”
A U.S. Navy fighter pilot who flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War, Neil Armstrong became a civilian test pilot at NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA) in 1955. He made 7 flights in the X-15 before transferring to NASA’s Project Gemini in 1962.
Armstrong was command pilot for Gemini 8 and Gemini 11, commander of the backup flight crew of the Apollo 8 mission, and was commander of Apollo 11.
On 20 July 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong was the First Man To Stand on the Surface of The Moon.
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
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)
22 August 1963: On his twenty-fifth and last flight with the X-15 program, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker would attempt a flight to Maximum Altitude. Engineers had predicted that the X-15 was capable of reaching 400,000 feet (121,920 meters) but simulations had shown that a safe reentry from that altitude was risky. For this flight, Flight 91, the flight plan called for 360,000 feet (109,728 meters) to give Walker a safety margin. Experience had shown that slight variations in engine thrust and climb angle could cause large overshoots in peak altitude, so this was not considered an excessive safety margin.
For this flight, Joe Walker flew the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672. It was the only one of the three North American Aviation X-15s equipped with the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system, which had been developed to improve control of the rocketplane outside Earth’s atmosphere. This flight was the twenty-second for Number 3.
Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) above Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada, about half-way between the city of Reno and the NASA High Range Tracking Station at Ely. Launch time was 10:05:57.0 a.m., PDT. Walker ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust. Experience had shown that different engines varied from flight to flight and that atmospheric conditions were a factor. Thrust beyond 60,000 pounds was often seen, but this could not be predicted in advance. The flight plan called for the duration of burn to be 84.5 seconds on this flight. The X-15 climbed at a 45° angle.
As Walker was about to shut down the engine according to plan, it ran out of fuel. The total burn time was 85.8 seconds, just slightly longer than planned.
“At burnout, Joe was passing 176,000 feet [53,645 meters] and traveling at 5,600 feet per second [1,707 meters per second]. He then began the long coast to peak altitude. It would take almost 2 minutes to reach peak altitude after burn out. Two minutes does not seem like a lot of time, but try timing it. Just sit back in your easy chair and count off the seconds. It is almost impossible to believe that you can continue to coast up in altitude for that length of time after the engine burns out. It gives you some feel for how much energy is involved at those speeds. For comparison, when you throw a ball up in the air as hard as you can, it only coasts upward a maximum of 4 or 5 seconds. The X-15 coasted up for 120 seconds.
“The airplane would coast up another 178,000 feet during that time to peak out at 354,200feet. . . .”
—At The Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, Chapter 5 at Page 125.
Joe Walker and the X-15 reached the peak of their ballistic trajectory at 354,200 feet (67.083 miles, 107,960 meters). Walker pitched the nose down to be in the proper attitude for atmospheric reentry. The X-15 decelerated as it hit the atmosphere and Walker experienced as much as 7 Gs. The rocketplane’s aerodynamic control surfaces again became operational as it descended through 95,000 feet (28,956 meters) and Walker leveled at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). He then glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after 11 minutes, 8.6 seconds of flight.
Flight 91 was the highest flight achieved by any of the X-15s. It was Joe Walker’s second flight into space. His record would stand for the next 41 years.
19 July 1963: Between 1960 and 1963, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker made 25 flights in the North American Aviation X-15A hypersonic research rocketplanes. His 24th flight was the 21st for the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672, and the 90th of the X-15 program.
At 10:20:05.0 a.m., Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 53-008, Balls 8, over Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada. Walker fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and over the next 84.6 seconds the engine’s 60,000 pounds of thrust drove the X-15 upward. The engine’s thrust on this flight was higher than expected, shutdown was 1.6 seconds late, and Walker’s climb angle was 1½° too high, so the X-15 overshot the predicted maximum altitude and its ballistic arc peaked at 347,800 feet (106,010 meters, 65.8 miles). The maximum speed was Mach 5.50 (3,714 miles per hour, 5,977 kilometers per hour).
Walker glided to a touch down at Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base California, after flying 311 miles in 11 minutes, 24.1 seconds of flight. On this flight, Joe Walker became the first American civilian to fly into Space.