Tag Archives: Edwards Air Force Base

9 November 1961

Major Robert M. White was the first pilot to exceed Mach 4, Mach 5, and on 9 November 1961, he flew to Mach 6.04. (NASA)
Major Robert M. White was the first pilot to exceed Mach 4, Mach 5, and on 9 November 1961, he flew to Mach 6.04. (U.S. Air Force)

9 November 1961: Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, became the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 6 when he flew the number two North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6671, to Mach 6.04.

This was the 45th flight of the X-15 program, and Bob White’s 11th flight. The purpose of this test flight was to accelerate 56-6671 to its maximum velocity, to gather data about aerodynamic heating at hypersonic speeds, and to evaluate the rocketplane’s stability and handling.

Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003 carries a North American Aviation X-15 piloted by Major Bob White. (NASA)
Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003 carries a North American Aviation X-15 piloted by Major Bob White. (NASA)

The X-15 was carried to approximately 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) while mounted to a pylon under the right wing of the “mothership,” a Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, nicknamed Balls 8. White was dropped over Mud Lake, Nevada, approximately 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of Edwards Air Force Base. Once clear of the B-52, he ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine, and with it producing 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons) at full throttle, the X-15 accelerated for 86.9 seconds. The rocketplane reached a peak altitude of 101,600 feet (30,968 meters). Its speed was Mach 6.04 (4,094 miles per hour/6,589 kilometers per hour).

White stated in his post-flight report, “When I leveled off at about 101,000 feet, I made a little downward pressure [on the control stick], because I didn’t want to be climbing. I remember . . . going along watching that [Mach] meter reading roughly 6,000 feet per second, [and] saying to myself, ‘Go, go, go, go!’ We did just crack it, because we knew that bringing all the proper things together, we could or should get just about Mach 6.”

In order to achieve the goal, the flight plan called for pushing the LR-99 to the point of exhaustion instead of manually shutting down the engine at an arbitrary point. White said, “The shutdown seemed to be a little bit different this time, compared with a shutdown by closing the throttle. It seemed to occur over a longer time interval.” 

The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space, by Michelle Evans, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2013, Chapter 3 at Page 87.

The number two North American Aviation X-15, 56-6671, is dropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003. The XLR99 rocket engine is just igniting. Frost from the cryogenic fuels coats the fuselage. (NASA)
The number two North American Aviation X-15, 56-6671, is dropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003. The XLR99 rocket engine is just igniting. Frost from the cryogenic fuels coats the fuselage. (NASA)

“The airplane really did get hot on those flights. Temperatures in excess of 1,300 °F. were recorded. Parts of the airplane glowed cherry red and softened up a bit during those flights. The airplane got so damned hot that it popped and banged like an old iron stove. It spewed smoke out of its bowels and it twitched like frog legs in a skillet. But it survived.”

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, at Page 98.

North American Aviation X-15 56-6671 accelerates after the XLR99 engine is ignited. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15 56-6671 accelerates after the XLR99 engine is ignited. (NASA)

As the X-15 decelerated through Mach 2.4, the right side windshield shattered, leaving it completely opaque. On Bob White’s previous flight, the left windshield had also broken. Fortunately, in both cases, only the outer layer of the dual pane glass broke. The reduced visibility made the approach difficult to judge, but White made a successful landing, touching down on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight of 9 minutes, 31.2 seconds duration.

The number three North American Aviation X-15 rocketplane, 56-6672, just before touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake. A Lockheed F-104 Starfighter chase plane escorts it. The green smoke helps the pilots judge wind direction and speed. Frost on the X-15's belly shows residual propellants in the tanks. (NASA)
The number three North American Aviation X-15 rocketplane, 56-6672, just before touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake. A Lockheed F-104 Starfighter chase plane escorts it. The green smoke helps the pilots judge wind direction and speed. Frost on the X-15’s belly shows residual propellants in the tanks. (NASA)
NASA ET62-0270
The shattered windshield of X-15 56-6671, 9 November 1961. (NASA)

A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in World War II, Robert M. White was shot down on his 52nd combat mission in February 1945 and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war until the war in Europe came to an end in April 1945. White was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He was a graduate of the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School and flew tests of many aircraft at Edwards before entering the X-15 program.

Major White had been the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He was the first to fly over 200,000 feet, then over 300,000 feet. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.

Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, with one of the three North American Aviation X-15s on Rogers Dry Lake, 1961. (NASA)
Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, with one of the three North American Aviation X-15s on Rogers Dry Lake, 1961. (NASA)

After leaving the X-15 program, Bob White returned to operational duties. Later, he flew 70 combat missions over North Vietnam in the Republic F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter bomber, including leading the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi, 11 August 1967, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross. He next went to Wright-Patterson AFB where he was director of the F-15 Eagle systems program. He returned to Edwards AFB as commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center. White was promoted to Major General in 1975.

General White retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981. He died 10 March 2010.

A North American Aviation support crew deactivates X-15 56-6671 on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight, while the mothership, NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003 flies overhead. (NASA)
A North American Aviation support crew deactivates X-15 56-6671 on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight, while the mothership, NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003 flies overhead. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 November 1960

At the left, Boeing NB-52A 52-003 carries X-15 56-6670 while on the right, NB-52B 52-008 carries X-15 56-6671.(NASA)
At the left, Boeing NB-52A 52-003 carries X-15 56-6670 while on the right, NB-52B 52-008 carries X-15 56-6671. (NASA)

4 November 1960: This photo shows one of the four attempts NASA made at launching two X-15 aircraft in one day. This attempt occurred November 4, 1960.

None of the four attempts was successful, although one of the two aircraft involved in each attempt usually made a research flight.

In this case, Air Force test pilot Major Robert A. Rushworth flew X-15 #1, 56-6670, on its sixteenth flight to a speed of Mach 1.95 and an altitude of 48,900 feet (14,905 meters).

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 November 1965

North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 on Rogers Dry Lake. In addition to the lengthened fuselage and external tanks, the nose wheel strut is longer and the windshields have been changed to an oval shape. A wheeled dolly supports the aft end of the rocketplane. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 on Rogers Dry Lake. In addition to the lengthened fuselage and external tanks, the nose wheel strut is longer and the windshields have been changed to an oval shape. A wheeled dolly supports the aft end of the rocketplane. (NASA)

3 November 1965: Major Robert A. Rushworth made the first flight of the modified X-15A-2 rocketplane, Air Force serial number 56-6671. After a landing accident which caused significant damage to the Number 2 X-15, it was rebuilt by North American Aviation. A 28-inch (0.71 meter) “plug” was installed in the fuselage forward of the wings to create space for a liquid hydrogen fuel tank which would be used for an experimental “scramjet” engine that would be mounted on the the ventral fin. The modified aircraft was also able to carry two external fuel tanks. It was hoped that additional propellant would allow the X-15A-2 to reach much higher speeds.

The first flight with the new configuration was an “envelope expansion” flight, intended to test the handling characteristics of the X-15A-2, and to jettison the tanks (which were empty on this flight) to evaluate the separation and trajectory as they fell away from the rocketplane in supersonic flight.

Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, with North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 mounted to the pylon under its right wing. The external propellant tanks have been brightly painted to aid tracking after they are jettisoned. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, with North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 mounted to the pylon under its right wing. The external propellant tanks have been brightly painted to aid tracking after they are jettisoned. (U.S. Air Force)

The X-15A-2 was dropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, over Cuddeback Lake, 37 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert of southern California. This was the only time during the 199-flight X-15 Program that this lake was used as a launch point.

The X-15 was released at 09:09:10.7 a.m., PST. Bob Rushworth ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and it ran for 84.1 seconds before its fuel supply was exhausted. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons).

The X-15 climbed to 70,600 feet (21,519 meters) and reached Mach 2.31 (1,514 miles per hour/2,437 kilometers per hour.)

The test flight went well. The external tanks jettisoned cleanly and fell away. The recovery parachute for the liquid oxygen tank did not deploy, however, and the tank was damaged beyond repair.

Rushworth and the X-15A-2 touched down on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight of 5 minutes, 1.6 seconds.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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28 October 1952

Douglas XA3D-1 Skywarrior, Bu. No. 125412. (U.S. Navy)
George R. Jansen, 1921–1991. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test & Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

28 October 1952: The prototype Douglas XA3D-1 Skywarrior, Bu. No. 125412, made its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Douglas test pilot George R. Jansen was in the cockpit. The Skywarrior was a carrier-based, twin-engine, swept-wing strategic bomber, designed to carry a 12,000 pound (5,443 kilogram) bomb load. The prototype was equipped with two Westinghouse XJ40-WE-12 turbojet engines producing 7,000 pounds of thrust (31.138 kilonewtons), each.

Designed to be launched from an aircraft carrier, fly 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers), deliver a 3.8 megaton Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb on target, then return to the carrier, the Skywarrior was a considerable challenge for its designers. It was operated by a three man crew: pilot, navigator/bombardier and gunner.

Douglas XA3D-1 Bu. No. 125412 during its first flight, 28 October 1952. (U.S. Navy))

The production A3D-1 was 74 feet, 5 inches (22.682 meters) long with a wingspan of 72 feet, 6 inches (22.098 meters) and overall height of 22 feet, 10 inches (6.960 meters). The shoulder-mounted wings were swept back at a 36° angle and the wings and vertical fin were hinged so that they could be folded for storage aboard the aircraft carrier. The bomber’s empty weight was 35,900 pounds (16,284 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight was 70,000 pounds (31,752 kilograms).

When the two prototypes’ Westinghouse JX40 engines proved to be underpowered, they were replaced with Pratt & Whitney J57-P-1 turbojets, rated at 9,000 pounds of thrust (40.034 kilonewtons). The J57 was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet which had a 16-stage compressor section and a 3-stage turbine. (Both had high- and low-pressure stages.) The engine was 15 feet, 3.5 inches (4.661 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.0 inches (1.041 meters) in diameter, and weighed 4,390 pounds (1,991 kilograms). Production models were equipped with the J57-P-6, rated at 9,700 pounds of thrust (43.148 kilonewtons).

Douglas XA3D-1 Bu. No. 125412. (U.S. Navy)

The A3D-1 had a cruise speed of 519 miles per hour (835 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 621 miles per hour (999 kilometers per hour) at 1,000 feet (305 meters). The combat ceiling was 40,500 feet (12,344 meters). It had a range of 2,100 miles (3,380 kilometers). The combat radius was 1,150 miles (1,851 kilometers).

The Skywarrior could carry 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) of conventional or Special Weapons (MK 43 or MK 57 nuclear bombs) in its internal bomb bay. A remotely-operated turret in the tail was armed with two An-M3 20 mm cannon with 500 rounds per gun.

The first A3D-1 production aircraft were painted a glossy sea blue. This was soon changed to a flat light gray for the sides and upper surfaces with gloss white underneath. This provided better camouflage as well as thermal protection from nuclear blast.

A Douglas A3D-2 Skywarrior, Bu. No. 138974, redesignated A-3B after 1962, launches from the angled flight deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier. (U.S. Navy)
A Douglas A3D-2 Skywarrior, Bu. No. 138974, (redesignated A-3B after 1962) launches from the angled flight deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier. (U.S. Navy)

Douglas built 282 A3D Skywarriors between 1956 and 1961. They remained in service as late as 1991. The U.S. Air Force ordered 294 B-66 Destroyer medium bombers, which were developed from the A3D. The first XA3D-1, Bu. No. 125412, was used as a ground trainer after the test flight program was completed.

Major George R. Jansen, U.S. Army Air Forces. (U.S. Air Force)
Major George R. Jansen, U.S. Army Air Forces. (U.S. Air Force)

George R. Jansen was the Director of Flight Operations for the Douglas Aircraft Company. He had been a bomber pilot flying the B-24 Liberator during World War II. After one mission, his bomber, Margaret Ann, returned to base in England with more than 750 bullet and shrapnel holes, and one crewman dead and another wounded. He twice flew missions from North Africa against the refineries at Ploesti, Romania. At the age of 22, Jansen was a major in command of the 68th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy). He had been awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals.

After the war, George Jansen went to work for Douglas as a production test pilot. He graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1952. He flew many of Douglas’s new prototype aircraft, and also flew the modified Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress mother ship to carry the D-558-II Skyrocket to altitude. He made many of the first flights for Douglas, both military and civil. He passed away at the age of 70 years.

A Douglas A3D-1 Skywarrior is launched from a steam catapult aboard USS Shangri-La (CVA-38) while a second is readied for launch. (U.S. Navy)
A Douglas A3D-1 Skywarrior is launched from a steam catapult aboard USS Shangri-La (CVA-38) while a second is readied for launch. (U.S. Navy)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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27 October 1954

NACA's chief project test pilot for the Douglas X-3, in the cockpit of the research aircraft, circa 1954-1956. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
NACA’s chief project test pilot for the Douglas X-3, Joe Walker, in the cockpit of the research aircraft, circa 1954-1956. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

October 27, 1954: between August 1954 and May 1956, Joseph A. Walker, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ chief project test pilot for the Douglas X-3 supersonic research aircraft, made twenty research flights in the “Stiletto.”

On the tenth flight, 27 October, Walker took the X-3 to an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). With the rudder centered, he put the X-3 into abrupt left aileron rolls, first at 0.92 Mach and then at Mach 1.05. Both times, the aircraft violently yawed to the right and then pitched down. Walker was able to recover before the X-3 was completely out of control.

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The Douglas X-3 during NACA flight testing, 1954-1956. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

This was a new and little understood condition called inertial roll coupling. It was a result of the aircraft’s mass being concentrated within its fuselage, the gyroscopic effect of the turbojet engines and the inability of the wings and control surfaces to stabilize the airplane and overcome its rolling tendency. (Just two weeks earlier, North American Aviation’s Chief Test Pilot George S. Welch had been killed when the F-100A Super Sabre that he was testing also encountered inertial roll coupling and disintegrated.)

A post-flight inspection found that the X-3 had reached its maximum design load. The airplane was grounded for the next 11 months.

Unlike its predecessors, the Bell Aircraft Corporation's X1 and and X-2 rocketplanes, teh turbojet-powered Douglas X-3 took off under its own power. here, its two Westinghouse J37 engines are stirring up teh sand on Runway 35 at Rogers Dry Lake. (LIFE Magazine via jet Pilot Overseas)
Unlike its predecessors, the Bell Aircraft Corporation’s X1 and and X-2 rocketplanes, the turbojet-powered Douglas X-3 took off under its own power. Here, its two Westinghouse J37 engines are stirring up the sand on Runway 35 at Rogers Dry Lake. (LIFE Magazine via jet Pilot Overseas)

The Douglas X-3, serial number 49-2892, was built for the Air Force and NACA to explore flight in the Mach 1 to Mach 2 range. It was radically shaped, with a needle-sharp nose, very long thin fuselage and small straight wings. Two X-3 aircraft had been ordered from Douglas, but only one completed.

The X-3 was 66 feet, 9 inches (20.345 meters) long, with a wing span of just 22 feet, 8.25 inches (6.915 meters). The overall height was 12 feet, 6.3 inches (3.818 meters). The X-3 had an empty weight of 16,120 pounds (7,312 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 23,840 pounds (10,814 kilograms).

It was to have been powered by two Westinghouse J46 engines, but when those were unsatisfactory, two Westinghouse XJ34-WE-17 engines were substituted. This was an axial flow turbojet with an 11-stage compressor and 2-stage turbine. It was rated at 3,370 pounds (14.99 kilonewtons) of thrust, and 4,900 pounds (21.80 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The XJ34-WE-17 was 14 feet, 9.0 inches (4.496 meters) long, 2 feet, 1.0 inch (0.635 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,698 pounds (770 kilograms).

The X-3 had a maximum speed of 706 miles per hour (1,136 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 38,000 feet (11,582 meters).

The X-3 was very underpowered with the J37 engines, and could just reach Mach 1 in a shallow dive. The X-3′s highest speed, Mach 1.208, required a 30° dive. It was therefore never able to be used in flight testing the supersonic speed range for which it was designed. Because of its design characteristics, though, it was very useful in exploring stability and control in the transonic range.

At one point, replacing the X-3’s turbojet engines with two Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engines was considered. Predictions were that a rocket-powered X-3 could reach Mach 4.2. However, with Mach 2 Lockheed F-104 becoming operational and North American Aviation’s X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane under construction, the idea was dropped. Technology had passed the X-3 by.

In addition to Douglas Aircraft test pilot Bill Bridgeman, the Douglas X-3 was flown by Air Force test pilots Lieutenant Colonel Frank Everest and Major Chuck Yeager and  NACA pilot Joe Walker.

Joe Walker resumed flight testing the X-3 in 1955. Its final flight was 23 May 1956. After the flight test program came to an end, the X-3 was turned over to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

NACA test pilot Joe Walker with the Douglas X-3. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
NACA test pilot Joe Walker with the Douglas X-3. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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