Tag Archives: David Clark Co.

21 August 1953

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)
Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029. (NASA)

21 August 1953: Major Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps, flew the number three Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, to an unofficial world altitude record of 83,235 feet (25,370 meters).

The supersonic research rocketplane had been dropped from a Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) over Edwards Air Force Base. During this flight the Skyrocket reached Mach 1.728.

The Associated Press wire service reported the event:

Altitude Record Set By Hubbard Pilot

     WASHINGTON (AP) —The Navy said Monday Lt. Col. Marion E. Carl, a Marine Corps pilot set a new altitude record of 83,235 feet in the Douglas Skyrocket research plane on Aug. 21.

    The Navy said the unofficial world mark was established during a test of a newly developed high-altitude flying suit. ¹

     The previous altitude record was 79,494 feet, set in the same airplane by Douglas test pilot Bill Bridgeman on Aug. 7, 1951.

     A Navy spokesman said Carl is at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. for an attempt Monday or Tuesday on the speed mark of 1,238 miles an hour set by Bridgeman in the Navy D-558-2 Skyrocket Aug. 1, 1951.

     As in Bridgeman’s altitude and speed record flight, Carl’s runs are being made through aerial launching. The Skyrocket is carried to an altitude of 30,000 feet or better by a B29 “mother plane,” and then released.

     National Aeronautic Assn. rules require that altitude record attempts be launched from the ground and that speed runs be made at specified altitudes.

     For these reasons, none of the Skyrocket records is, or likely to become, official. Some flying authorities have urged that official rules be rewritten to conform to modern developments in flying technique.

     Carl is from Hubbard, Ore. and is stationed at the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps Air Station. He has been assigned as assistant Marine Corps project officer for the national aircraft show at Dayton next week.

     Five Years ago Carl set a world speed mark of 650.8 miles an hour in the Skyrocket’s Navy predecessor, the D-558-1 Skystreak.

Eugene Register-Guard, Vol. XXCVII, No. 243, 31 August 1951, at Page 1A, Columns 6 and 7

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 11.13.14

20 November 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, NACA’s High Speed Flight Station test pilot Albert Scott Walker rode behind the flight crew of the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress as it carried the Douglas Aircraft Company D-558-II Skyrocket supersonic research rocketplane to its launch altitude. As the four-engine bomber climbed through 18,000 feet (5,486 meters), Crossfield headed back to the bomb bay to enter the Skyrocket’s cockpit and prepare for his flight.

The Douglas D-558-II was Phase II of a U.S. Navy/Douglas Aircraft Company/National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics joint research project exploring supersonic flight. It was a swept-wing airplane powered by a single Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine. The Skyrocket was fueled with alcohol and liquid oxygen. The engine was rated at 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.69 kilonewtons) at Sea Level.

There were three Phase II aircraft. Originally, they were also equipped with a Westinghouse J34-W-40 turbojet engine which produced 3,000 pounds of thrust (13.35 kilonewtons) and the Skyrockets took off from the surface of Rogers Dry Lake. Once the D-558-II reached altitude, the rocket engine was fired for the speed runs. As higher speeds were required, the program shifted to an air launch from a B-29 (P2B-1S) “mothership”. Without the need to climb to the test altitude, the Skyrocket’s fuel load was available for the high speed runs.

The D-558-II was 42.0 feet (12.80 meters) long, with a wingspan of 25.0 feet (7.62 meters). The leading edge of the wing was swept at a 35° angle and the tail surfaces were swept to 40°. The aircraft weighed 9,421 pounds (4,273 kilograms) empty and had a maximum takeoff weight of 15,787 pounds (7,161 kilograms). It carried 378 gallons (1,431 liters) of water/ethyl alcohol and 345 gallons (1,306 liters) of liquid oxygen.

The mothership, NACA 137, was a Boeing Wichita B-29-95-BW Superfortress, U.S. Air Force serial number 45-21787. It was transferred to the U.S. Navy, redesignated P2B-1S and assigned Bureau of Aeronautics number 84029. Douglas Aircraft modified the bomber for its drop ship role at the El Segundo plant.

Between 4 February 1948 and 28 August 1956, the three rocketplanes made a total of 313 flights.

Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974. (NASA)
The rocket-powered Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974 (NACA 144). (NASA)

Marion Eugene Carlwas born at Hubbard, Oregon, 1 November 1915. He was the second of four children of Herman Lee Carl, a dairy farmer, and Ellen Lavine Ellingsen Carl.

Marion E. Carl 1935

Carl graduated from Oregon State College at Corvallis, Oregon, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve, 31 May 1938. Lieutenant Carl soon resigned this commission to accept an appointment as an Aviation Cadet, United States Navy. He enlisted as a private, first class, Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve, 17 July 1938, and was designated a student Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot assigned to the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Squantum, Massachusetts. He entered flight school as an Aviation Cadet at Naval Air Station Pensacola near Pensacola, Florida, 26 July 1938.

Lieutenant Marion E. Carl, USMC, Naval Aviator. (U.S. Navy)

After completing flight training, Carl was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps Reserve, 20 October 1939. He was then assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron One (VMF-1) at Brown Field, Quantico, Virginia.

In 1940, Lieutenant Carl returned to NAS Pensacola as a flight instructor. On 25 February 1941, Second Lieutenant Carl, U.S.M.C.R., was appointed a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps.

Lieutenant Carl was transferred to VMF-221 at San Diego, California, as a fighter pilot. The unit was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) for transportation to MCAS Ewa, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. On 25 December 1941, VMF-221 was deployed to Midway Atoll.

Marion Carl and his squadron fought during the Battle of Midway. Flying a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, Bu. No. 1864,² on 4 June 1942, he shot down his first enemy airplane, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, and damaged two others. Lieutenant Carl was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in that decisive battle.

Marion Carl was next assigned to VMF-223 under the command of Captain John L. Smith. The Marine fighter squadron was the first air unit to arrive at Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons, 20 August 1942. This was a critical airfield, originally built by the Japanese military but occupied by Allied forces. On 26 August, Lieutenant Carl became the Marine Corps’ first “ace.”

Carl was shot down in 9 September 1942 and was missing for five days. He was helped by islanders who eventually returned him to his base.

The squadron departed Guadalcanal 16 October 1942, and sailed to San Francisco, California. VMF-223 was credited with destroying 110½ enemy aircraft. Carl was credited with 16.

Lieutenant Carl married Miss Edna T. Kirvin at New York City, New York, 7 January 1943.

On 26 January, he took command of VMF-223. On 8 May 1943, Lieutenant Carl was promoted to the temporary rank of captain. The squadron was re-equipped with the new Vought-Sikorsky F4U-1 Corsair. Training in the new fighter took place at MCAS El Toro, in southern California.

Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, commanding VMF-223 in 1943. The aircraft is a Vought F4U Corsair in which Carl shot down two enemy aircraft in December 1943. (U.S. Navy)

In August, the squadron returned to combat in the Solomons. By the end of 1943, Major Carl’s total of enemy aircraft destroyed was 18½ with 3 damaged, making him the seventh highest-scoring Marine fighter pilot of World War II.

Marion Carl is dressing in teh Model 7 pressure suit aboard the P2BS-1 drop ship, 21 August 1953. (U.S. Navy)
Marion Carl is dressing in the David Clark Company Model 7 full-pressure suit aboard the P2B-1S drop ship, 21 August 1953. (U.S. Navy)

After the War Marion Carl trained as a test pilot at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, testing jet aircraft on aircraft carriers and he was also the first Marine Corps pilot to fly a helicopter. He commanded the Marine’s first jet squadron, VMF-122, which flew the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel 7 August 1947.

In May 1955, Colonel Carl commanded Marine Photo Reconnaisance Squadron One (VMJ-1). The squadron flew the McDonnell FH-2 Banshee from air bases on Taiwan on secret missions over the People’s Republic of China.

At Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) he tested the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, setting world records for speed and altitude. He was promoted to colonel, 1 October 1956.

By 1962 Colonel Carl was Director of Marine Corps Aviation. He was promoted to brigadier general, 1 June 1964.

Brigadier General Carl commanded the First Marine Brigade during the Vietnam War and flew combat missions in jet fighters and helicopter gun ships.

Promoted to major general in August 1967, with his date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1964. Carl commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, then served as Inspector General of the Marine Corps from 1970 until 1973. When he retired in 1973, General Carl had accumulated more that 13,000 flight hours.

During his military career, Major General Carl was awarded the Navy Cross with two gold stars (three awards); The Legion of Merit with valor device and three gold stars (four awards); The Distinguished Flying Cross with four gold stars (five awards); and the Air Medal with two gold and two silver stars (twelve awards).

Tragically, General Carl was murdered in Roseburg, Oregon, 28 June 1998, as he defended his wife, Edna, during a home-invasion robbery. Mrs. Carl was wounded, but survived.

Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps (1915–1998)
Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps (1915–1998)

¹ The pressure suit Lieutenant Colonel Carl was testing was a David Clark Co. Model 7 full-pressure suit.

² Often cited as Grumman F4F-3 Bu. No. 4000 (second bureau number series, 1935–1940) the entry in Carl’s certified pilot logbook for 4 June 1942 states the airplane he flew to shoot down the enemy fighter was F4F-3 Bu. No. 1864.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 August 1960

Captain Kittinger steps out of the Excelsior III gondola, 102,800 feet above the Earth, 7:12 a.m., 16 August 1960. (U.S. Air Force)

16 August 1960: At 7:12 a.m., Captain Joseph William (“Red”) Kittinger II, U.S. Air Force, stepped out of a balloon gondola, 102,800 feet (31,333 meters, 19.47 miles) above the Tularosa Valley, New Mexico. This was his third balloon ascent and high altitude parachute jump during Project Excelsior, a series of experiments to investigate the effects of high altitude bailouts.

For protection at the extreme high altitude—above 99% of the atmosphere—Joe Kittinger wore a modified David Clark Co. MC-3A capstan-type partial-pressure suit and MA-3 helmet. Over this was a coverall garment to keep the pressure suit’s lacings and capstans from catching on anything as he jumped from the balloon gondola. He breathed a combination of 60% oxygen, 20% nitrogen and 20% helium. During the 1 hour, 31 minute ascent, the pressure seal of Kittinger’s right glove failed, allowing his hand to painfully swell with the decreasing atmospheric pressure.

In temperatures as low as -94 °F. (-70 °C.) Captain Kittinger free-fell for 4 minutes, 36 seconds, and reached a speed of 614 miles per hour (988 kilometers per hour). During the free fall descent, he trailed a small drogue parachute for stabilization. His 28-foot (8.5 meter) diameter main parachute opened at 17,500 feet (5,334 meters) and he touched the ground 9 minutes, 9 seconds later. The total duration of Kittinger’s descent was 13 minutes, 45 seconds. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (his second) and the Harmon Trophy.

Joseph Kittinger had previously worked on Project Man High, and would go on to a third high altitude balloon project, Stargazer.

A recovery team assists Captain Kittinger after his 102,800-foot free fall, 16 August 1960. The helicopter in the background is a Piasecki H-21. (U.S. Air Force)

After returning to operations, Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. After two tours flying the Douglas B-26K Invader, he transitioned to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II and returned to Southeast Asia for a voluntary third tour with the famed 555th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (“The Triple Nickel”). He is credited with shooting down a MiG 21 fighter.

Almost to the end of his third combat tour, Lieutenant Colonel Kittinger was himself shot down and and he and his Weapons System Officer were captured. They spent 11 months at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Captain Joseph W. Kitinger, United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force. Captain Kittinger is wearing the wings of an Air Force Senior Pilot and an Air Force Basic Parachutist Badge. The red, white and blue striped ribbon represents the Distinguished Flying Cross. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 August 1955

Right profile illustration of the first Lockheed U-2. Image courtesy of Tim Bradley Imaging, © 2015
Right profile illustration of the first Lockheed U-2, Article 341. Image courtesy of Tim Bradley Imaging, © 2015

1 August 1955: Test pilot Anthony W. LeVier made the first flight flight of the Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance airplane at Groom Lake, Nevada. LeVier was conducting taxi tests in preparation for the planned first flight a few days away, when at 70 knots the U-2 unexpectedly became airborne.

LeVier later said, “I had no intentions whatsoever of flying. I immediately started back toward the ground, but had difficutly determining my height because the lakebed had no markings to judge distance or height. I made contact with the ground in a left bank of approximately 10 degrees.”

On touching down on the dry lake, the U-2’s tires blew out and the brakes caught fire. A landing gear oleostrut was leaking. Damage was minor and the airplane was soon ready to fly. Tony LeVier was again in the cockpit for the first actual test flight on 4 August.

The Lockheed U-2A is a single-place, single-engine aircraft powered by a turbojet engine, intended for very high altitude photographic reconnaissance. Thirty U-2A aircraft were designed and built for the Central Intelligence Agency by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s secret “Skunk Works” under the supervision of Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

The company designation for the proposed aircraft was CL-282. Its fuselage was very similar to the XF-104 Starfighter and could be built using the same tooling. The reconnaissance airplane was produced under the code name Operation AQUATONE.

The U-2A was 46 feet, 6 inches (14.173 meters) long with a wingspan of 80 feet (24.384 meters). Its empty weight was 10,700 pounds (5,307 kilograms) and the gross weight was 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms). The engine was a Pratt and Whitney J57-P-37A which produced 10,200 pounds of thrust. This gave the U-2A a maximum speed of 528 miles per hour (850 kilometers per hour) and a ceiling of 85,000 feet (25,908 meters). It had a range of 2,200 miles (3,541 kilometers).

Because of the very high altitudes that the U-2 was flown, the pilot had to wear a David Clark Co. MC-3 partial-pressure suit with an International Latex Corporation  MA-2 helmet and faceplate. The partial-pressure suit used a system of capstans and air bladders to apply pressure to the body as a substitute for a loss of atmospheric pressure. Each suit was custom-tailored for the individual pilot.

Robert Sieker
Robert Sieker

On 4 April 1957, Article 341 was flown by Lockheed test pilot Robert Sieker. At 72,000 feet (21,946 meters) the engine flamed out and the cockpit pressurization failed. Parts of the U-2 had been coated with a plastic material designed to absorb radar pulses to provide a “stealth” capability. However, this material acted as insulation, trapping heat from the engine inside the fuselage. This lead to a number of engine flameouts.

Sieker’s partial-pressure suit inflated, but the helmet’s faceplate did not properly seal. He lost conciousness and at 65,000 feet (19,812 meters) the U-2 stalled, then entered a flat spin. Sieker eventually regained consciousness at lower altitude and bailed out. He was struck by the airplane’s tail and was killed. The first U-2 crashed northwest of Pioche, Nevada and caught fire. Robert Sieker’s body was found approximately 200 feet (61 meters) away.

Because of the slow rate of descent of the airplane while in a flat spin, the impact was not severe. Portions of Article 341 that were not damaged by fire were salvaged by Lockheed and used to produce another airframe.

The first Lockheed U-2A, Article 341. (Lockheed)
The first Lockheed U-2A, Article 341. (Lockheed)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 April 1955

Lockheed XF-104 Starfighter 083-1002, serial number 53-7787, the second prototype, in flight near Edwards AFB. (Lockheed Martin/Code One Magazine)

19 April 1955¹: Lockheed test pilot Herman Richard (“Fish”) Salmon was flying the second prototype Lockheed XF-104 interceptor, 53-7787, conducting tests of the General Electric T171 Vulcan gun system.

At 47,000 feet (14,326 meters), Salmon fired two bursts from the T171. On the second burst, vibrations from the gun loosened the airplane’s ejection hatch, located beneath the cockpit, resulting in explosive decompression.

Lockheed Chief Test Pilot Anthony W. LeVier (left) and Test Pilot Herman R. Salmon. An F-104 Starfighter is behind them. (Lockheed)
Lockheed Chief Test Pilot Anthony W. LeVier (left) and Test Pilot Herman R. Salmon. An F-104 Starfighter is behind them. (Lockheed Martin)

The Associated Press reported:

Test Pilot Leaps From New Jet

     INYOKERN, Calif., April 20 (AP)—Herman R. (Fish) Salmon, former racing pilot and now a top test pilot, bailed safely from one of the Air Force’s hot new F104 jet fighters over the Mojave dessert [sic] Tuesday.

He was  spotted on the desert after a two-hour search by military planes and brought to the Naval ordinance [sic] test station here for a physical examination. A preliminary checkup indicated he was not injured.

     Salmon, 41, was on a routine test flight when he hit the silk. Authorities gave no hint what happened to the supersecret plane to make the bailout necessary. The craft’s height at the time it was abandoned was not given. The plane’s top speed has been unofficially estimated at 1,200 m. p. h.

     Wreckage of the F104, one of two prototypes now being tested by Lockheed Aircraft Corp. for the Air Force, was found several miles south of the China Lake area.

     A Lockheed spokesman said Salmon, of Van Nuys, Calif., was spotted by a search plane and apparently picked up by a Navy helicopter and flown here. Salmon took off on the test flight from Palmdale, about 70 miles south of here.

Reno Evening Gazette, Volume LXXIX, Number 21, Wednesday, 20 April 1955, Page 24 at Columns 5–7.

Fish Salmon was wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit and International Latex Corporation (I.L.C. Dover) K-1 helmet for protection in just such an emergency. The capstans are pneumatic tubes surrounded by fabric lacings, running along the arms, torso and legs. As the tubes inflated, the lacings pulled the fabric of the suit very tight and applied pressure to his body as a substitute for normal atmospheric pressure. The partial-pressure garment also enclosed his head, with a fiberglass helmet and a clear visor or face plate providing for vision.

Test pilot Herman R. Salmon with a prototype Lockheed XF-104 parked on Rogers Dry Lake. (Lockheed Martin)
Test pilot Herman R. (“Fish”) Salmon with a prototype Lockheed XF-104, parked on Rogers Dry Lake. (Lockheed Martin)

The sudden loss of cabin pressure and drop to subfreezing temperatures caused Salmon’s face plate to fog over. Inflating air bladders pushed his helmet high on his head.  The cockpit was filled with dust, fiberglass insulation and other debris. All this restricted his visibility, both inside and outside the airplane. The very tight pressure suit restricted his movements.

Fish Salmon cut the throttle, opened the speed brakes and began a descending turn to the left to reach a lower altitude. By the time he had reached 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) he had been unable to find a place on the desert floor to make an emergency landing. It was time to leave the crippled XF-104.

At 250 knots (288 miles per hour/463 kilometers per hour) the ejection seat fired Salmon out of the bottom of the cockpit. He had to open his parachute manually (the seat timer did not operate) and he made a safe landing.

The XF-104 had a downward-firing ejection seat, intended to avoid the airplane's tall vertical tail. Production aircraft used an upward-firing seat. (Lockheed)
The XF-104 had a downward-firing ejection seat, built by Stanley Aviation Inc. It was intended to avoid the airplane’s tall vertical tail. Later production aircraft used an upward-firing Martin-Baker seat. This airplane is the second prototype XF-104, 53-7787. (Lockheed Martin)

The prototype XF-104 impacted the desert approximately 73 miles (117 kilometers) east-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base. It was completely destroyed. Fish Salmon landed about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away. He was found two hours later and rescued by an Air Force helicopter.

Occasionally, a satisfied user thanked the researchers at the Aero Medical Laboratory. One of these was Lockheed test pilot Herman R. “Fish” Salmon. On April 14, 1955,¹ Salmon was flying the second XF-104 (53-7787) at 47,500 feet while wearing a T-1 suit, K-1 helmet, and strap-fastened boots. As he triggered the General Electric M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon for a test firing, severe vibrations loosened the floor-mounted ejection hatch and the cockpit explosively depressurized at the same time as the engine flamed out. The suit inflated immediately. Repeated attempts to restart the engine failed, and Salmon ejected at 15,000 feet. Fish reported, “I landed in a field of rocks ranging from one foot to five feet in diameter. My right arm was injured and my head struck a rock. The K-1 helmet hard shell was cracked, but there was no injury to my head. It took me 10 to 15 minutes to get out of the suit with my injured arm. Rescue was effected [sic] by helicopter approximately two hour after escape.” Salmon reported that the K-1 helmet was excellent for rugged parachute landings, and his only complaint was that the visor may impair vision at extreme altitudes.”

Dressing for Altitude: U.S. Aviation Pressure Suits—Wiley Post to Space Shuttle, by Dennis R., Jenkins, National Aeronautics and Space Administration SP–2011–595, Washington, D.C., 2012, Chapter 4 at Page 141.

Lockheed's Chief Test Pilot, Anthony W. ("Tony") LeVier, is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit and K-1 helmet. The first prototype XF-104, 53-7786, is behind him. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed’s Chief Test Pilot, Anthony W. (“Tony”) LeVier, is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit and International Latex Corporation K-1 helmet. The first prototype XF-104, 53-7786, is behind him. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

There were two Lockheed XF-104 prototypes. Initial flight testing was performed with 083-1001 (USAF serial number 53-7786). The second prototype, 083-1002 (53-7787) was the armament test aircraft. Both were single-seat, single-engine supersonic interceptors. The XF-104 was 49 feet, 2 inches (14.986 meters) long with a wingspan of 21 feet, 11 inches (6.680 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 6 inches (4.115 meters). The prototypes had an empty weight of 11,500 pounds (5,216 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 15,700 pounds (7,121 kilograms).

The production aircraft was planned for a General Electric J79 turbojet but that engine would not be ready soon enough, so both prototypes were designed to use a Buick-built J65-B-3, a licensed version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet engine. XF-104 53-7787 had been built with an afterburning Wright J65-W-7 turbojet, rated at 7,800 pounds of thrust, and 10,200 pounds of thrust with afterburner.

The XF-104 had a maximum speed of 1,324 miles per hour (2,131 kilometers per hour), a range of 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 50,500 feet (15,392 meters).

The General Electric T171 Vulcan was a prototype 6-barrelled 20 mm “Gatling Gun” automatic cannon. The barrels were rotated at high speed by a hydraulic drive. The gun is capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute. The initial production version was designated M61. The cannon system was installed in a weapons bay on the left side of the F-104, between the cockpit and engine intakes.

The first prototype Lockheed XF-104, 53-7786, was also destroyed, 11 July 1957 when the vertical fin was ripped off by uncontrollable flutter. The pilot, William C. Park, safely ejected.

¹ Reliable sources give the date of this incident as both 14 April and 19 April. Contemporary news reports, published Wednesday, 20 April 1955, say that the accident took place “yesterday” and “Tuesday,” suggesting that the correct date is 19 April.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A Hypersonic Research Rocketplane

Rollout AFFTC History Office
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, at Los Angeles Division, October 1958. (Air Force Flight Test Center History Office)

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. 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.

North American Aviation, Inc. X-15A 56-6670 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (NASA)
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (NASA Image E-5251)

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.

 North American Aviation X-15A 56-6672 touches down on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-3 56-6672 just before touch down on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA Image E-7469)

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.

X-15A cockpit with original Lear Siegler instrument panel. (NASA)
X-15 cockpit with original Lear Siegler instrument panel. (NASA image E63-9834)

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.

Neil Armstrong with the first North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6670, on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight, 1960. His hand is resting on the rocketplane's ball nose sensor. (NASA)
NASA Research Test Pilot Neil A. Armstrong with the first North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6670, on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight, 1960. His right hand is resting on the rocketplane’s ball nose sensor. (NASA Image E60-6286)

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-5 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 XLR-11 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.

Two Reaction Motors Division XLR11-RM-5 four-chamber rocket engines installed on an X-15. (NASA)
Two Reaction Motors Division XLR11-RM-5 four-chamber rocket engines installed on an X-15. (NASA)

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.

Thiokol Reaction Motors Division XLR-RM-1 rocket engine. (U.S. Air Force)
Thiokol Corporation Reaction Motors Division XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

A North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre chase plane follows NB-52A 52-003 prior to launch of an X-15. (NASA)
A North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre chase plane follows NB-52A 52-003 prior to launch of an X-15. (NASA)

Recommended reading:

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

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 21.18.14
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-2 56-6671 accelerates after igniting its Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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