23 June 1961: Major Robert Michael White, United States Air Force, became the first pilot to exceed Mach 5 in an aircraft. This was the 38th flight of the X-15 Program. Flights during this phase incrementally increased the speed and altitude of the X-15 up to its design limits of Mach 6 and 250,000 feet (76,200 meters).
The second North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6671, was air-dropped from the NB-52A Stratofortress mothership, 52-003, over Mud Lake, Nevada at 2:00:05.0 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time (21:00 UTC). White fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 engine for 78.7 seconds, reaching Mach 5.27 (3,603 miles per hour, 5,799 kilometers per hour) and climbed to 107,700 feet (32,827 meters). 10 minutes, 5.7 seconds after being dropped from the B-52, White touched down on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.
Bob White was the first pilot to exceed Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He also flew an X-15 to an altitude of 314,750 feet (95,936 meters), qualifying for U.S. Air Force astronaut wings.
After leaving the X-15 program, Major White flew 70 combat missions in the Republic F-105D Thunderchief fighter bomber during the Vietnam War. He lead the attack against the heavily-defended Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, 11 August 1967, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Major General White retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981. He died 10 March 2010.
56-6671 is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The mothership, 52-003, is on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona.
9 November 1962: Flight 74 of the X-15 Program was the Number Two aircraft’s 31st flight. X-15 56-6671 was carried aloft by Balls 8, the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 53-008, for launch over Mud Lake, Nevada. NASA test pilot John Barron (“Jack”) McKay was to take the rocketplane to 125,000 feet at Mach 5.5 to investigate the stability and handling of the X-15 with the lower half of the ventral fin removed, and to investigate aerodynamic boundary layer phenomena.
The B-52 mothership dropped Jack McKay and the X-15 right on schedule at 10:23:07.0 a.m., local time, from an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) and speed of approximately 450 knots (833 kilometers per hour). McKay advanced the throttle to ignite the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. It fired immediately but when McKay advanced the throttle for the full 57,000 pounds of thrust, the engine remained at just 30%.
The X-15 could have flown back to Edwards Air Force Base, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the south, but with the engine not responding to the throttle, it was uncertain that it would continue running. The decision was made to make an emergency landing at Mud Lake.
Having reached a peak altitude of 53,950 feet (16,444 meters) and Mach 1.49 (1,109 miles per hour/1,785 kilometers per hour), Jack McKay continued to circle the lake burning off propellants as he lost altitude. The engine was shut down at 70.5 seconds. McKay positioned the aircraft for landing as he continued to dump unused propellant and liquid oxygen, but a considerable amount remained on board.
As he neared touchdown, he tried to lower the flaps but they did not deploy. The X-15 touched down on the dry lake bed at 296 miles per hour (476.4 kilometers per hour), 66 miles per hour (106 kilometers per hour) faster than normal.
Duration of the flight from air launch to touchdown was 6 minutes, 31.1 seconds.
The high speed and extra weight caused the X-15’s rear skids to hit harder than normal. When the nose wheels hit, a rebound effect placed even higher loads on the rear struts. At the same time, with the elevators in an extreme nose-up position, the higher aerodynamic loads pushed the skids deeper into the lake bed. This higher loading caused the left rear strut to collapse. The X-15 rolled to the left and the left elevator dug into the lake bed. This caused the aircraft to start sliding to the left. Jack McKay jettisoned the canopy and as the right wing tip dug into the surface, the X-15 flipped over and came to rest upside down.
McKay was seriously injured. He was trapped in the upside down X-15 and was in danger from the vapors of the ammonia propellants and liquid oxygen. An H-21 rescue helicopter hovered overhead to blow the vapor away.
Prior to the flight, an Air Force C-130 had brought a fire engine and crew to standby at Mud Lake, returned to Edwards and picked up a second fire engine and its crew, then remained airborne should an emergency landing be made at another intermediate dry lake.
These propositioned emergency assets were able to rescue McKay and to transport him to the hospital back at Edwards.
McKay eventually recovered sufficiently to return to flight status, but ultimately his injuries forced him to retire.
The Number Two X-15 was severely damaged. It was taken back to North American and was rebuilt into the X-15A-2, intended to reach speeds up to Mach 8. It would be more than a year and a half before it flew again.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
3 October 1967: The 188th flight of the X-15 Program was the 53rd for the Number 2 aircraft, 56-6671. It had been extensively modified by North American Aviation to an X-15A-2 configuration following a landing accident which had occurred 9 November 1962. The fuselage was lengthened 28 inches (0.711 meters) to accommodate a liquid hydrogen fuel tank for a scramjet engine that would be added to the ventral fin, a new tank for additional hydrogen peroxide to generate steam for the rocket engine turbo pump, and external propellant tanks to allow the rocketplane to reach higher speeds and altitudes. The entire surface of the X-15 was covered with an ablative coating to protect the metal structure from the extreme heat it would encounter on this flight.
Minor issues delayed the takeoff but finally, after they were corrected, and with Pete Knight in the X-15’s cockpit, it was carried aloft under the right wing of Balls 8, a Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008.
At 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Mud Lake, Nevada, the X-15 was droppeded at 14:31:50.9 local time. Knight fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and began to climb and accelerate. After 60 seconds, the ammonia and liquid oxygen propellants in the external tanks was exhausted, so the the tanks were jettisoned to eliminate their weight and aerodynamic drag.
The X-15A-2 climbed to 102,100 feet (31,120 meters) and Pete Knight leveled off, still accelerating. After 140.7 seconds of engine burn, Knight shut the XLR99 down. He noticed that thrust seemed to decrease gradually and the X-15 continued to accelerate to 6,630 feet per second (2,021 meters per second), or Mach 6.72.
Shock waves from the dummy scramjet mounted on the ventral fin impinged on the fin’s leading edge and the lower fuselage, raising surface temperatures to 2,700 °F. (1,482 °C.) The Inconel X structure started to melt and burn through.
Pete Knight entered the high key over Rogers Dry Lake at 55,000 feet (16,764 meters) and Mach 2.2, higher and faster than normal. As he circled to line up for Runway One Eight, drag from the scramjet caused the X-15 to descend faster and this set him up for a perfect approach and landing. Because of heat damage, the scramjet broke loose and fell away from the X-15.
Knight touched down after an 8 minute, 17.0 second flight. His 4,520 mile per hour (7,274 kilometers per hour) maximum speed is a record that still stands.
The X-15A-2 suffered considerable damage from this hypersonic flight. It was returned to North American for repairs, but before they were completed, the X-15 Program came to an end. This was 56-6671’s last flight. It was sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force where it is part of the permanent collection.
In a ceremony at the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Harmon International Trophy to Major William J. Knight.