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
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 to 1966, Bob Rushworth made 34 flights in the three X-15s, more than any other pilot.
16 November 2004: Balls 8, the Boeing NB-52B “mothership” at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (located at Edwards Air Force Base, California) 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 James Adams, United States 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, Freida, and his mother, Georgia Adams, 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 right, 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 15 gs. 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 apart.
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)
Michael James Adams was born at Sacramento, California, 5 May 1930. He was the first of two sons of Michael Louis Adams, a telephone company technician, and Georgia E. Domingos Adams.
After high school, Mike Adams attended Sacramento Junior College, graduating in 1949. He was an outfielder for the college baseball team, and threw the javelin in track & field.
Adams enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1950. He completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. In October 1951, he was selected as an aviation cadet and sent to Spence Air Force Base, near Moultrie, Georgia, for primary flight training. Cadet Adams completed flight training at Webb Air Force Base, Big Spring, Texas. He graduated 25 October 1952. Adams was one of two distinguished graduates in his class and received a commission as an officer in the regular Air Force.
Second Lieutenant Adams was assigned to advanced flight training at Nellis Air Force Base, where he flew the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and North American Aviation F-86 Sabre.
In April 1953, lieutenant Adams joined the 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron at K-13, Suwon, Republic of Korea. He flew 49 combat missions.
Following the Korean War, Lieutenant Adams was assigned to the 613th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 401st Fighter-Bomber Group, at England Air Force Base, Alexandria, Louisiana. The Squadron initially flew the F-86F Sabre and then transitioned to the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak. Adams deployed to Chaumont Air Base, France, for a six-month temporary assignment.
While stationed at England AFB, Lieutenant Adams met Miss Freida Beard. They were married in a ceremony at the Homewood Baptist Church in Alexandria, 15 January 1955. They would have three children, Michael James, Jr., Brent, and Liese Faye Adams.
In 1958, Adams graduated from the University of Oklahoma at Norman, with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He was a member of the university’s Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. Adams was next assigned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he studied astronautics.
Adams’ next military assignment was as a maintenance officer course instructor at Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul, Illinois.
In 1962, Captain Adams entered an eight-month training program at the Air Force Test Pilot School, Class 62C, at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California. He was awarded the A.B. Honts Trophy as the class’s outstanding graduate.
On 17 June 1963, Captain Adams entered the Aerospace Research Pilots School, which was also at Edwards. This was a seven-month course that taught flying skills in advanced vehicles, with an aim to prepare the graduates for space flight, and to create a pool of qualified military test pilots to be selected as astronauts. The Air Force estimated a need for 20 pilots a year for the upcoming X-20 Dyna-Soar and Manned Orbiting Laboratory (M.O.L.) programs. Adams graduated with the second of the four ARPS classes.
Adams then became an operation test pilot, conducting stability and control tests for the Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter. That was followed by an assignment as a project pilot for the Cornell Aeronautical laboratory.
On 13 November 1963, it was announced that Michael Adams was on of the selectees for the M.O.L. program. As a designated Air Force astronaut, Adams was involved in lunar landing simulations during the development of the Apollo Program lunar lander.
Major Adams was selected as a pilot of the NASA/Air Force X-15 Hypersonic Research Flight Program. (He was the twelfth and final pilot to be accepted into the project.) He made his first X-15 flight on 6 October 1966. He flew the first X-15, 56-6770. A ruptured fuel tank forced him to make an emergency landing at Cuddeback Dry Lake, one of several pre-selected emergency landing sites, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Edwards. The duration of the flight was 8 minutes, 26.4 seconds. The X-15 had only reached an altitude of 75,400 feet (22,982 meters) and Mach 3.00.
His second flight took place on 29 November 1966. On this flight, he took the # 3 ship, 56-6672, to 92,100 feet (28,072 meters) and Mach 4.65. The flight lasted 7 minutes, 55.9 seconds.
For his third flight, Mike Adams was back in 56-6670, which had been repaired. He flew to an altitude of 133,100 feet (40,569 meters) and reached Mach 5.59 (3,822 miles per hour/6,151 kilometers per hour). This was Adams fastest flight. He landed at Edwards after 9 minutes, 27.9 seconds.
Flight number four for Adams took place on 28 April 1967. Again he flew the # 1 X-15. On this flight, he reached 167,200 feet (50,963 meters) and Mach 5.44. Elapsed time was 9 minutes, 16.0 seconds.
On 15 June 1967, Adams flew # 1 to 229,300 feet (69,891 meters) and Mach 5.14. Duration 9 minutes, 11.0 seconds.
On 25 August 1967, Adams made his sixth flight, his second in the third X-15, 56-6672. The rocket engine shut down after sixteen seconds and had to be restarted. The maximum altitude was 84,400 feet (25,725 meters) and Mach 4.63. The duration of this flight was 7 minutes. 37.0 seconds.
Mike Adams’ seventh flight in an X-15 took place 15 November 1967. This was the 191st X-15 flight, and the 65th for X-15 56-6672. Tests to be conducted were an ultraviolet study of the rocketplane’s exhaust plume; solar spectrum measurements; micrometeorite collection, and a test of ablative material for the Saturn rocket.
Adams reached 266,000 feet (81,077 meters) and Mach 5.20.
Having met the U.S. Air Force qualification for flight in excess of 50 miles (80.47 kilometers), Michael Adams was posthumously awarded the wings of an astronaut.
Major Michael James Adams, United States Air Force, was buried at Mulhearn Memorial Park, in Monroe, Louisiana.