3 August 1962: Following his record-setting flight into space aboard an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 17 July 1962, Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, was featured with a cover photograph on the LIFE Magazine issue for the week of 3 August 1962. LIFE was the most prestigious news magazine of its time.
This was the first time that a manned aircraft had gone higher than 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). It was also the first flight above 50 miles (80.47 kilometers). For that achievement, Bob White became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded U.S. Air Force astronaut wings. His 314,750-foot altitude (95,936 meters) also established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world altitude record, which will probably never be broken.
To qualify, a new record would have to exceed White’s altitude by at least 3%, or more than 324,419 feet (98,882.9 meters). As the FAI-recognized boundary of Space is the Kármán line (100 kilometers, or 328,083.99 feet), any prospective challenger would have to hit a very narrow band of the atmosphere.
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 (60,960 meters), then over 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). 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. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.
A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in World War II, Bob 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 and was assigned to a fighter squadron stationed in Japan. 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.
Colonel White next went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he was director of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle systems program. He then returned to Edwards Air Force Base, California, 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 17 March 2010.
17 July 1962: At 9:31:10.0 a.m., the Number 3 North American Aviation X-15, 56-6672, was airdropped from a Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003, over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Air Force project test pilot Major Robert M. (“Bob”) White was in the cockpit. This was the 62nd flight of the X-15 Program, and Bob White was making his 15th flight in an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane. The purpose of this flight was to verify the performance of the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system which had been installed in the Number 3 ship. Just one minute before drop, the MH-96 failed, but White reset his circuit breakers and it came back on line.
After dropping from the B-52’s wing, White fired the X-15’s Reaction Motors XLR-99 rocket engine and began to accelerate and climb. The planned burn time for the 57,000-pound-thrust engine was 80.0 seconds. It shut down 2 seconds late, driving the X-15 well beyond the planned peak altitude for this flight. Instead of reaching 280,000 feet (85,344 meters), Robert White reached 314,750 feet (95,936 meters). This was an altitude gain of 82,190 meters (269,652 feet), which was a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record.¹ The rocketplane reached Mach 5.45, 3,832 miles per hour (6,167 kilometers per hour).
Because of the increased speed and altitude, White was in danger of overshooting his landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He passed over the north end of Rogers Dry Lake and crossed the “high key”—the point where the X-15 landing maneuver begins—too high and too fast at Mach 3.5 at 80,000 feet (24,384 meters). Without power, White made a wide 360° turn over Rosamond Dry Lake then came back over the high key at a more normal 28,000 feet (8,534.4 meters) and subsonic speed. He glided to a perfect touch down, 10 minutes, 20.7 seconds after being dropped from the B-52.
This was the first time that a manned aircraft had gone higher than 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). It was also the first flight above 50 miles. For that achievement, Bob White became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded U.S. Air Force astronaut wings. His 314,750-foot altitude (95,936 meters) also established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world altitude record, which will probably never be broken. To qualify, a new record would have to exceed White’s altitude by at least 3%, or more than 324,419 feet (98,882.9 meters). As the FAI-recognized boundary of Space is 328,083.99 feet (100,000 meters), any prospective challenger would have to hit a very narrow band of the atmosphere.
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 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. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.
A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot with the 355th Fighter Group in World War II, he was shot down by ground fire on his fifty-third combat mission, 23 February 1945, and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war until the war in Europe came to an end in April 1945.
After the war, White accepted a reserve commission while he attended college to earn a degree in engineering. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, and assigned to a P-51 fighter squadron in South Korea. Later, he commanded the 22nd Tactical Fighter Squadron (flying the Republic F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter bomber) based in Germany, and later, the 53rd TFS. During the Vietnam War, Lieutenant Colonel White, as the deputy commander for operations of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, flew seventy combat missions over North Vietnam in the F-105D, 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 fighter program. In 1970 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.
19 November 1952. Captain James Slade Nash, U.S. Air Force, a test pilot at the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California, flew a North American Aviation F-86D-20-NA Sabre, 51-2945, to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Absolute Speed Record at the Salton Sea, California. Operating out of NAS El Centro, Captain Nash flew four passes over a 3-kilometer course at an altitude of 125 feet (38 meters). The official average speed was 1,124.14 kilometers per hour (698.508 miles per hour).¹ He was awarded the FAI’s Henry de la Vaulx Medal for achieving the World Absolute Speed Record.
The record-setting F-86D, 51-2945, was damaged in a ground collision with a Douglas RB-26C Invader, 44-35942, 29 October 1953, at K-14, Kinpo, Korea.
The F-86D was an all-weather interceptor developed from North American Aviation F-86 Sabre day fighter. It was the first single-seat interceptor, and it used a very sophisticated—for its time—electronic fire control system. It was equipped with radar and armed with twenty-four unguided 2.75-inch (70 millimeter) Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) rockets carried in a retractable tray in its belly.
The F-86D was larger than the F-86A, E and F fighters, with a wider fuselage. The day fighter’s sliding canopy was replaced with a hinged “clamshell” canopy. Its length was increased to 40 feet, 3 inches (12.27 meters) with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1.5 inches (11.32 meters). The F-86D had an empty weight of 13,518 pounds (6,132 kilograms) and its gross weight was 19,975 pounds (9,061 kilograms).
The F-86D was equipped with a General Electric J47-GE-17 single-shaft axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 5,425 pounds of thrust (24.132 kilonewtons) at 7,950 r.p.m., or 7,500 pounds (33.362 kilonewtons) with afterburner. This engine was equipped with an electronic fuel control system which substantially reduced the pilot’s workload. The engine had a 12-stage compressor, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. It was 226.0 inches (5.740 meters) long, 39.75 inches (1.010 meters) in diameters, and weighed 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms).
The F-86D had a range of 330 miles (531 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 49,750 feet (15,164 meters). Its rate of climb was 12,150 feet per minute (61.7 meters per second).
Between December 1949 and September 1954, 2,505 F-86D Sabres (sometimes called the “Sabre Dog”) were built by North American Aviation. There were many variants (“block numbers”) and by 1955, almost all the D-models had been returned to maintenance depots or the manufacturer for standardization. 981 of these aircraft were modified to a new F-86L standard. The last F-86D was removed from U.S. Air Force service in 1961.
James Slade Nash was born at Sioux City, Iowa, 26 June 1921. He was the older of two sons of Harry Slade Nash, a farmer, and Gertrude E. Parke Nash. He attended Iowa State University before entering the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, 1 July 1942. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 5 June 1945.
Slade Nash completed flight training and was promoted to First Lieutenant, 29 April 1947. He served as a pilot with the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron at Johnson Air Base, Sayama, Japan, and the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo, Japan, flying the Northrop RF-61C Reporter.
Nash began training as a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in September 1948. Captain Nash was then assigned to the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base, and remained in that assignment for six years. He was involved in testing the delta-wing Convair XF-92 and YF-102, and flew many operational U.S. fighters and bombers.
After overseas staff assignments, Nash attended the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, graduating July 1960. He served in the office of the Secretary of the Air Force until 1963, and as a liaison officer to the United States Congress. From August 1964 to October 1965, Nash attended the Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
Major Nash commanded the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, England, and next was the deputy wing commander of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he was assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
Colonel Nash served as vice commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon-Rachitani RTAFB, and flew 149 combat missions in the new gun-equipped McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II.
Nash was promoted to Brigadier General in 1969, serving as Vice Commander, Air Defense Weapons Center, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and next, Vice Commander, Defense Special Projects Group. He was promoted to Major General on 1 September 1973, with date of rank retroactive to 1 February 1971.
General Nash served as Chief, Military Assistance Advisory Group to the Republic of China, and later, to Spain. From 1973 until 1976, Major General Nash was head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group to the United Kingdom. He retired from the Air Force in 1979.
During his military career, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster (two awards), and eight Air Medals. He was rated a command pilot with more than 6,000 flight hours.
Major General James Slade Nash died 19 March 2005 at the age of 84 years. He is buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado.