Tag Archives: Edwards Air Force Base

20 November 1953

NACA test pilot Scott Crossfield in the cockpit of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket after his record-setting flight, 20 November 1953. (NASA) 20 November 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, NACA’s High Speed Flight Station research test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., 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.

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket Bu. No. 37974, NACA 144, on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

The Douglas D-558-II was Phase II of a United States 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). 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) drop ship. Without the need to climb to the test altitude, the Skyrocket’s fuel load was available for the high speed runs.

NACA 144. a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

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.

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, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)

Going above the planned launch altitude, the Superfortress was placed in a slight dive to build to its maximum speed. At the bomber’s critical Mach number (Mcr), the Skyrocket was just above its stall speed. At 32,000 feet (9,754 meters), Crossfield and the Skyrocket were released. The rocketplane fell for about 400 feet (122 meters) until the rocket engine ignited and then it began to accelerate.

Crossfield climbed at a steep angle until he reached 72,000 feet (21,946 meters), and then leveled off. Now in level flight, the D-558-II accelerated, quickly passing Mach 1, then Mach 1.5. Crossfield pushed the nose down and began a shallow dive. The Skyrocket, still under full power, built up speed. As it passed through 62,000 feet (18,998 meters) the Skyrocket reached its maximum speed, Mach 2.005, or 1,291 miles per hour (2,078 kilometers per hour).

Scott Crossfield and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, with their support team: two North American F-86 Sabre chase planes and the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress mothership, at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1 January 1954. (NASA)
Scott Crossfield and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, with their support team: two North American F-86 Sabre chase planes and the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress mothership, at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1 January 1954. (NASA)

Scott Crossfield was the first pilot to fly an aircraft beyond Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. During his career as a test pilot, he flew the Douglas D-558-II, the Bell X-1, Bell X-2 and North American X-15. He made 112 flights in rocket-powered aircraft, more than any other pilot.

NACA Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., Aeronautical Engineer and Test Pilot, 1921–2006. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 November 1952

Captain J. Slade Nash, U.S. Air Force, with the record setting North American Aviation F-86D Sabre. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain J. Slade Nash, U.S. Air Force, with the record setting North American Aviation F-86D Sabre. (U.S. Air Force)
The Henry De la Vaulx Medal.
The Henry De la Vaulx Medal.

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, in the Colorado Desert of southeastern 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.

North American Aviation F-86D-20-NA Sabre 51-2945, holder of the World Absolute Speed Record, 1952. This was the second of 188 Block 20 aircraft built. (U.S. Air Force) (U.S. Air Force)

The Desert Sun reported:

Sabre-Jet Sets new Wold Speed Mark at Salton Sea

Record of 699.9 Mile Per Hour Established in Four Flights over Below Sea Level Course

     The desert area,  few miles east of Palm Springs, was the setting for a new international airplane speed record last week when an F-86D Sabre jet roared over Salton Sea at 699.9 miles an hour. It was reported that in test runs previously the plane had exceeded 700 miles an hour.

     Risking his life to set the new record was Capt. Slade Nash, a 31-year-old Sioux City, Iowa man with three children. His wife, but not his three daughters, watched as Captain Nash barreled the swept-wing North American interceptor jet four times over the course, as close as 100 feet to the ground although he could have flown it at 328 feet.

      Nash had only to hit 676 miles an hour to shatter the previous world speed record set September 15, 1948, by Maj. Richard L. Johnson, air material command test pilot, at Edwards Air Force Base in an earlier Sabrejet—the F-86A. Johnson’s Mark was 670.981 m.p.h. and Nash was required to fly 5 m.p.h. faster to set a new record.

     NASH’S SABRE jet carried a full rocket load. Adding hazard to the inherent danger of gunning a plane to near 700 m.p.h. was the low altitude below sea level—at when the run for record was made.

     Fuel requirements are much higher at sea level than at high levels and air pressure on the plane is about four times greater. In addition, aerodynamic problems of drag, buffet, stability and structural strength are greatly increased at sea level. However, low altitude and higher temperatures make higher speeds possible.

     CONDITIONS WERE NOT ideal for the test. Officials had hopes for 85-degree temperatures, but, at approximately 1:45 p.m., when the speed runs were made, the reading was only 75.5 degrees.

     Nash came within shouting distance of the speed of sound—about 760 m.p.h. at sea level. The speed of sound—called MACH 1—has many times been surpassed by jet planes in dives at high altitudes—in fact, most jet pilots pass this barrier at some time or another—but never under the considerably more difficult conditions of an official attempt to break the world speed record.

     NASH ALSO SET another record—being the first pilot to break a world speed record at below-sea-level altitudes. The Salton Sea is 235 feet below sea level and Nash’s Sabre jet was not believed to have gone above the sea level mark during his speed runs.

     Scene of the run was a desolate, gully-slashed barren shore land about a mile and a half below Durmid, a railroad crossing, and just south of the Riverside-Imperial county lines.

     About 100 newsmen, cameramen, manufacturers’ representatives and Air Force members were present. Head timer was C.S. Logsdon of Washington, D.C., director of the NAA Contest Division. Rules of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale and the Nationals Aeronautics [sic] Association (NAA) were followed.

     Official timing was made with high speed movie cameras. Processing of those films was necessary before the exact official speed of the run could be determined.

The Desert Sun, Palm Springs, California, Vol. XXVI, No. 17, Thursday, November 27, 1952, Page 2, Columns 1 and 2

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.

North American Aviation F-86D-1-NA Sabre 50-463, the eighth production aircraft. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The The North American Aviation, Inc. F-86D Sabre was an all-weather interceptor developed from North American Aviation F-86 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 search radar and armed with twenty-four unguided 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) rockets carried in a retractable tray in its belly.

The aircraft was so complex that the pilot training course was the longest of any aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, including the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.

North American Aviation F-86D-20-NA Sabre 51-3045. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-86D was larger than the F-86A, E and F fighters, with a longer and wider fuselage. It was also considerably heavier. The day fighter’s sliding canopy was replaced with a hinged “clamshell” canopy. A large, streamlined radome was above the reshaped engine intake.

The F-86D Sabre was 40 feet, 3¼ inches (12.275 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1½ inches (11.316 meters), and overal height of 15 feet, 0 inches (4.572 meters). The interceptor had an empty weight of 13,518 pounds (6,131.7 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 19,975 pounds (9,060.5 kilograms). It retained the leading edge slats of the F-86A, F-86E and early F-86F fighters. The horizontal stabilizer and elevators were replaced by a single, all-moving stabilator. All flight controls were hydraulically boosted. A “clamshell” canopy replaced the sliding unit of earlier models.

The F-86D was powered by a General Electric J47-GE-17 engine. This was a single-shaft, axial-flow turbojet with afterburner. The engine had a 12-stage compressor, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J47-GE-17 was equipped with an electronic fuel control system which substantially reduced the pilot’s workload. It had a normal (continuous) power rating of 4,990 pounds of thrust (22.20 kilonewtons); military power, 5,425 pounds (24.13 kilonewtons) (30 minute limit), and maximum 7,500 pounds of thrust (33.36 kilonewtons) with afterburner (15 minute limit). (All power ratings at 7,950 r.p.m.) It was 18 feet, 10.0 inches (5.740 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.75 inches (1.010 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms).

The maximum speed of the F-86D was 601 knots (692 miles per hour/1,113 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, 532 knots (612 miles per hour/985 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), and 504 knots (580 miles per hour/933 kilometers per hour)at 47,800 feet (14,569 meters).

The F-86D had an area intercept range of 241 nautical miles (277 statute miles/446 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 49,750 feet (15,164 meters). The maximum ferry range with external tanks was 668 nautical miles (769 statute miles/1,237 kilometers). Its initial rate of climb was 12,150 feet per minute (61.7 meters per second) from Sea Level at 16,068 pounds (7,288 kilograms). From a standing start, the F-86D could reach its service ceiling in 22.2 minutes.

North American Aviation F-86D-60-NA Sabre 53-4061 firing FFARs
North American Aviation F-86D-60-NA Sabre 53-4061 firing FFARs. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-86D was armed with twenty-four 2.75-inch (69.85 millimeter) unguided Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets (FFAR) with explosive warheads. They were carried in a retractable tray, and could be fired in salvos of 6, 12, or 24 rockets. The FFAR was a solid-fuel rocket. The 7.55 pound (3.43 kilogram) warhead was proximity-fused, or could be set for contact detonation, or to explode when the rocket engine burned out.

The F-86D’s radar could detect a target at 30 miles (48 kilometers). The fire control system calculated a lead-collision-curve and provided guidance to the pilot through his radar scope. Once the interceptor was within 20 seconds of its target, the pilot selected the number of rockets to fire and pulled the trigger, which armed the system. At a range of 500 yards (457 meters), the fire control system launched the rockets.

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.

North American Aviation, Inc., F-86D-50-NA Sabre 52-10143.

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.

Northrop RF-61C  Reporter reconnaissance aircraft.

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.

McDonnell F-101C Voodoo 56-0014, 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, RAF Bentwaters. circa 1965. (U.S. Air Force)
McDonnell F-101C-45-MC Voodoo 56-0014, 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, RAF Bentwaters. circa 1965. The three colors on the vertical fin identify this airplane as the wing commander’s aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

MG James Slade, Nash, USAF, Chief, Military Assistance Advisory Group, republic of China, 1973.
MG James Slade, Nash, USAF, Chief, Military Assistance Advisory Group, Republic of China, 1973.

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.

¹ FAI Record File Number 9867

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 November 1955

Major Frank Kendall Everest, Jr., U.S. Air Force, with the Bell X-2 supersonic research rocketplane, on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards AFB, California, 1955. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Frank Kendall Everest, Jr., U.S. Air Force, with the Bell X-2 supersonic research rocketplane, on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards AFB, California, 1955. (U.S. Air Force)

18 November 1955: Major Frank Kendall Everest, Jr., USAF, makes the first powered flight in the Bell X-2 research rocketplane, 46-674, at Edwards AFB, California. The rocketplane was airdropped from a Boeing EB-50D Superfortress, 48-096. Only one 5,000-lb. thrust rocket tube ignited, but that was enough to accelerate “Pete” Everest to Mach 0.992 (655.4 miles per hour/1,054.5 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters).

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from stainless steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

The Bell X-2 being loaded into the EB-50D Superfortress "mothership" at Edwards AFB, California. (LIFE Magazine)
The Bell X-2 being loaded into the EB-50D Superfortress “mothership” at Edwards AFB, California. (LIFE Magazine)

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable two-chamber Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons)

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50D-95-BO Superfortress bomber, serial number 48-096, was modified as the drop ship and redesignated EB-50D.

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Bell X-2 and Boeing EB-50D Superfortress in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
The Bell X-2 and Boeing EB-50D Superfortress in flight. (U.S. Air Force)

Pete Everest joined the United States Army Air Corps shortly before the United States entered World War II. He graduated from pilot training in 1942 and was assigned as a P-40 Warhawk pilot, flying combat missions in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He was credited with shooting down two German airplanes and damaging a third.

Everest was returned to the United States to serve as a flight instructor. He requested a return to combat and was then sent to the China-Burma-India theater of operations where he shot down four Japanese airplanes. He was himself shot down by ground fire in May 1945. Everest was captured by the Japanese and suffered torture and inhumane conditions before being freed at the end of the war.

The Bell X-2 was dropped from a Boeing EB-50D Superfortress, 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)

After the war, Everest was assigned as a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, before going west to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. At Edwards, he was involved in nearly every flight test program, flying the F-88, F-92, F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104 and F-105 fighters, the XB-51, YB-52, B-57 and B-66 bombers. He also flew the pure research aircraft, the “X planes:” the X-1, X-1B, X-2, X-3, X-4 and X-5. Pete Everest flew the X-1B to Mach 2.3, and he set a world speed record with the X-2 at Mach 2.9 (1,957 miles per hour, 3,149.5 kilometers per hour) which earned him the title, “The Fastest Man Alive.”

Pete Everest gives some technical advice to William Holden ("Major Lincoln Bond"), with Bell X-2 46-674, on the set of "Toward The Unknown", 1956.
Pete Everest gives some technical advice to actor William Holden (“Major Lincoln Bond”), with Bell X-2 46-674, on the set of “Toward The Unknown,” 1956. (Toluca Productions)

Frank Everest returned to operational assignments and commanded a fighter squadron, two combat crew training wings, and was assigned staff positions at the Pentagon. On 20 November 1963, Colonel Everest, commanding the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Squadron, flew one of the first two operational McDonnell F-4C Phantom II fighters from the factory in St. Louis to MacDill Air Force Base. In 1965, Pete Everest was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He was commander of the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service. He retired from the Air Force in 1973 after 33 years of service. General Everest died in 2004.

Brigadier General Frank Kendall Everest, Jr., United States Air Force, 1920–2004. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Frank Kendall Everest, Jr., United States Air Force, 1920–2004. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 November 2004

Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008, Balls 8, escorted by two NASA F-18 chase planes, performs a farewell flyover during its final flight, 16 November 2004. (NASA)
Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008, Balls 8, escorted by two NASA F-18 chase planes, performs a farewell flyover during its final flight, 16 November 2004. (NASA)

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.

NASA 008, known as “Balls 8”, a modified Boeing RB-52-10-BO Stratofortress, 52-008, with NASA 824, a Lockheed TF-104G Starfighter, N824NA. (NASA)

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.

Balls 8 lands on a runway marked on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The drogue parachute helps to slow the airplane. (NASA)
A visual reminder of the missions flown by “mothership” Balls 8. (NASA)
A visual reminder of the missions flown by “mothership” Balls 8. (NASA)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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15 November 1967

Major Michael J. Adams, United States Air Force, with an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
Major Michael J. Adams, United States Air Force, with a North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6670, on Rogers Dry Lake, after his third flight in the program, 22 March 1967. (NASA)

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.

X-15A-3
North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672 immediately after launch over Delamar Lake, Nevada. Date unknown. (U.S. Air Force)

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).

A North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane leaves a contrail as it climbs toward the edge of space. (NASA)
A North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane leaves a contrail as it climbs toward the edge of space. (NASA)

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.

North American Aviation X-15A 56-6672 on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672 on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

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)

Crushed forward fuseleage of X-15 56-6672. (NASA)
Crushed forward fuselage of North American Aviation X-15A-3 56-6672. (NASA)

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.

Michael Adams throws a javelin at Sacramento J.C. (1949 Pioneer)

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.

Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Adams, 15 January 1955. (Freida Adams Collection)

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.

Michael J. Adams, 1958

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.

Captain Michael J. Adams with a Northrop F-5A. (NASA)

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 operational 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.

Artists conception of the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (M.O.L.)

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.

A North American Aviation X-15 at Cuddeback Lake after an emergency landing. A Piasceki HH-21C is standing by. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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