16 September 1999: 44 years, 3 months and 6 days after its very first flight, NASA’s airborne launch aircraft, or “mothership,” Balls 8, completed its 1,000th flight.
Balls 8, so-called because of the double zeros in it U.S. Air Force serial number, 52-008, is a Boeing NB-52, modified as a drop ship from its original configuration as an RB-52B-10-BO Stratofortress reconnaissance bomber assigned to the Strategic Air Command. It made its first flight 11 June 1955 and was reassigned from SAC to Edwards Air Force Base to support NASA flight testing operations, 8 June 1959. Balls 8 served NASA until 17 December 2004, when it was replaced by a newer NB-52H Stratofortress.
52-008 was altered at the North American Aviation facility at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. A pylon was mounted under the bomber’s right wing. A large notch was cut into the trailing edge of the inboard flap for the X-15’s vertical fin. A 1,500 gallon (5,678 liter) liquid oxygen tank was installed in the bomb bay. A station for a launch operator was installed on the upper deck of the B-52 at the former electronic countermeasures position. A series of control panels allowed the panel operator to monitor the X-15’s systems, provide electrical power, and to keep the rocketplane’s liquid oxygen tank full as the LOX boiled off during the climb to launch altitude. The operator could see the X-15 through a plexiglas dome, and there were two television monitors.
The NB-52B was used during the X-15 Program and carried the three hypersonic research aircraft aloft on 159 of their 199 flights. (NB-52A 52-003, The High and Mighty One, made the other 40 launches.) It has also been used to carry the X-24 and HiMat lifting body research aircraft and to launch Pegasus research rockets.
At the time of its retirement, Balls 8 was the oldest B-52 in service, and also the lowest time B-52. It is on display near the north gate at Edwards Air Force Base.
Of the 744 B-52 Stratofortresses built by Boeing, 50 were B-52Bs and 27 of these were RB-52B reconnaissance bombers.
The airplane was 156 feet, 6.9 inches (47.724 meters) long with a wingspan of 185 feet, 0 inches (56.388 meters) and overall height of 48 feet, 3.6 inches (14.722 meters). The wings were mounted high on the fuselage (“shoulder-mounted”) to provide clearance for the engines which were suspended on pylons. The wings’ leading edges were swept 35°. The bomber’s empty weight was 164,081 pounds (74,226 kilograms), with a combat weight of 272,000 pounds (123,377 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 420,000 pounds (190,509 kilograms).
Early production B-52Bs were powered by eight Pratt & Whitney J57-P-1W turbojet engines, while later aircraft were equipped with J57-P-19W and J57-P-29W or WA turbojets. The engines were grouped in two-engine pods on four under-wing pylons. The J57 was a two-spool, axial-flow engine with a 16-stage compressor section (9 low- and 7-high-pressure stages) and a 3-stage turbine section (1 high- and 2 low-pressure stages). These engines were rated at 10,500 pounds of thrust (46.71 kilonewtons), each, or 12,100 pounds (53.82 kilonewtons) with water injection.
The B-52B/RB-52B had a cruise speed of 523 miles per hour (842 kilometers per hour). The maximum speed varied with altitude: 630 miles per hour (1,014 kilometers per hour) at 19,800 feet (6,035 meters), 598 miles per hour (962 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and 571 miles per hour (919 kilometers per hour) at 45,750 feet (13,945 meters). The service ceiling at combat weight was 47,300 feet (14,417 meters).
Maximum ferry range was 7,343 miles (11,817 kilometers). With a 10,000 pound (4,536 kilogram) bomb load, the B-52B had a combat radius of 3,590 miles (5,778 kilometers). With inflight refueling, the range was essentially world-wide.
Defensive armament consisted of four Browning Aircraft Machine Guns, Caliber .50, AN-M3, mounted in a tail turret with 600 rounds of ammunition per gun. These guns had a combined rate of fire in excess of 4,000 rounds per minute. (Eighteen RB-52Bs were equipped with two M24A1 20 mm autocannon in the tail turret in place of the standard four .50-caliber machine guns.)
The B-52B’s maximum bomb load was 43,000 pounds (19,505 kilograms). It could carry a 15-megaton Mark 17 thermonuclear bomb, or two Mark 15s, each with a maximum yield of 3.8 megatons.
21 August 1967: On the 186th flight of the X-15 program, the modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, made the first of two flights with a heat-protective ablative coating, designed to protect the steel structure of the rocketplane from the extreme heat of flight at high Mach numbers.
After a landing accident which caused significant damage to the Number 2 X-15, it was rebuilt by North American. A 28-inch (0.71 meter) “plug” was installed in the fuselage forward of the wings to create space for a liquid hydrogen fuel tank which would be used for an experimental “scramjet” engine that would be mounted the the ventral fin. The modified aircraft was also able to carry two external fuel tanks. It was hoped that additional propellant would allow the X-15A-2 to reach much higher speeds. The external tanks were not carried on the 21 August 1967 flight.
With Major William J. (“Pete”) Knight, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit, the X-15A-2 was airdropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, known as Balls 8, over Hidden Hills Dry Lake, just on the California side of the border with Nevada. This was Knight’s 11th X-15 flight, and the 52nd flight for 56-6671. The launch time was 10:59:16.0 a.m., PDT. Knight fired the 57,000-pound-thrust Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and accelerated for 82.2 seconds. The purpose of this flight was to attain a high speed rather than altitude. The X-15A-2 reached Mach 4.94 (3,368 miles per hour, 5,420 kilometers per hour) at 85,000 feet (25,908 meters) and reached a peak altitude of 91,000 feet (27,737 meters). Pete Knight touched down on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, just 7 minutes, 40.0 seconds after launch.
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.
27 June 1963: At 09:56:03.0 PDT, Major Robert A. Rushworth, United States Air Force, flying the Number Three North American Aviation X-15 research rocketplane, 56-6672, was air-dropped from the NB-52B Stratofortress mothership, Balls 8, over Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada.
This was the 87th flight of the X-15 Program, and Bob Rushworth’s 14th.
Rushworth fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 engine for 80.1 seconds and accelerated to Mach 4.89 (3,425 miles per hour, 5,512 kilometers per hour). The X-15 climbed to an altitude of 285,000 feet (86,868 meters, 53.98 miles). Rushworth touched down at Edwards Air Force Base after 10 minutes, 28.0 seconds of flight.
Major Rushworth qualified for Astronaut wings on this flight, the second X-15 pilot to do so.
From 1960 and 1966, Bob Rushworth made 34 flights in the three X-15s, more than any other pilot.
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