Tag Archives: NASA X-15 Hypersonic Research Program

22 August 1963

Joe Walker and the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at the end of a flight. Walker is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force)

22 August 1963: On his twenty-fifth and last flight with the X-15 program, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker would attempt a flight to Maximum Altitude. Engineers had predicted that the X-15 was capable of reaching 400,000 feet (121,920 meters) but simulations had shown that a safe reentry from that altitude was risky. For this flight, Flight 91, the flight plan called for 360,000 feet (109,728 meters) to give Walker a safety margin. Experience had shown that slight variations in engine thrust and climb angle could cause large overshoots in peak altitude, so this was not considered an excessive safety margin.

For this flight, Joe Walker flew the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672. It was the only one of the three North American Aviation X-15s equipped with the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system, which had been developed to improve control of the rocketplane outside Earth’s atmosphere. This flight was the twenty-second for Number 3.

North American Aviation X-15 56-6672 immediately after being dropped by the Boeing NB-52 Stratofortress. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15A 56-6672 immediately after being dropped by the Boeing NB-52 Stratofortress. (NASA)

Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) above Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada, about half-way between the city of Reno and the NASA High Range Tracking Station at Ely. Launch time was 10:05:57.0 a.m., PDT. Walker ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust. Experience had shown that different engines varied from flight to flight and that atmospheric conditions were a factor. Thrust beyond 60,000 pounds was often seen, but this could not be predicted in advance. The flight plan called for the duration of burn to be 84.5 seconds on this flight. The X-15 climbed at a 45° angle.

As Walker was about to shut down the engine according to plan, it ran out of fuel. The total burn time was 85.8 seconds, just slightly longer than planned.

“At burnout, Joe was passing 176,000 feet [53,645 meters] and traveling at 5,600 feet per second [1,707 meters per second]. He then began the long coast to peak altitude. It would take almost 2 minutes to reach peak altitude after burn out. Two minutes does not seem like a lot of time, but try timing it. Just sit back in your easy chair and count off the seconds. It is almost impossible to believe that you can continue to coast up in altitude for that length of time after the engine burns out. It gives you some feel for how much energy is involved at those speeds. For comparison, when you throw a ball up in the air as hard as you can, it only coasts upward a maximum of 4 or 5 seconds. The X-15 coasted up for 120 seconds.

“The airplane would coast up another 178,000 feet [54,254 meters] during that time to peak out at 354,200 feet. . . .” [107,960 meters]

At The Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, Chapter 5 at Page 125.

Joe Walker and the X-15 reached the peak of their ballistic trajectory at 354,200 feet (67.083 miles, 107,960 meters). Walker pitched the nose down to be in the proper attitude for atmospheric reentry. The X-15 decelerated as it hit the atmosphere and Walker experienced as much as 7 Gs. The rocketplane’s aerodynamic control surfaces again became operational as it descended through 95,000 feet (28,956 meters) and Walker leveled at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). He then glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after 11 minutes, 8.6 seconds of flight.

Flight 91 was the highest flight achieved by any of the X-15s. It was Joe Walker’s second flight into space. His record would stand for the next 41 years.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 August 1960

Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force. (NASA)

12 August 1960: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Major Robert M. White flew the North American Aviation X-15 rocketplane to an altitude of 136,500 feet (41,605 meters), exceeding the previous unofficial record of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters) set by the late Captain Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr., with the Bell X-2, 7 September 1956.

Iven Kincheloe had been assigned as the Air Force’s project pilot for the X-15. When he was killed on a routine flight, Bob White was designated to replace him.

This was White’s fourth flight in an X-15, and the 19th flight of the X-15 Program. The Number 1 rocketplane, serial number 56-6670, was carried aloft under the right wing of the “mothership,” Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003. At 08:48:43.0 a.m., PDT, 56-6670 was dropped over Silver Lake, near the Nevada-California border. White fired the two Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-13 rocket engines and they burned for 256.2 seconds.

This flight took place in Phase II of the Program and was intended to gradually increase the envelope of X-15 performance with the XLR11 engines while waiting for the much more powerful XLR99. The purpose of Flight 19 was to reach maximum altitude in order to test the rocketplane’s stability and controllability above the atmosphere.

The X-15 accelerated to Mach 2.52, 1,773 miles per hour (2,853 kilometers per hour) while climbing at nearly a 70° angle and reached a peak altitude of 136,500 feet (41,605 meters). After engine shutdown, White glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake and touched down. The duration of the flight was 11 minutes, 39.1 seconds.

Neither Kincheloe’s or White’s altitudes are recognized as records by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale(FAI). Over the next few years, the X-15 would reach to nearly three times higher.

An X-15 is dropped from the NB-52A, 52-003, at an altitude of 45,000 feet at 0.8 Mach. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 June 1969

North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 hypersonic research rocketplane on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

10 June 1969: The U.S. Air Force donated the first North American Aviation X-15, serial number 56-6670, to the Smithsonian Institution for display at the National Air and Space Museum.

The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)
The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. The wings and sections of the dorsal and ventral fins have been removed. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)

The first of three X-15A hypersonic research rocketplanes built by North American for the Air Force and the National Advisory Committee (NACA, the predecessor of NASA), 56-6670 made the first glide flight and the first and last powered flights of the X-15 Program. It made a total of 82 of the 199 X-15 flights.

Scott Crossfield, North American’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot, made the first unpowered flight 8 June 1959 and the first powered flight, 17 September 1959. NASA Research Test Pilot William H. “Bill” Dana made the final X-15 flight on 24 October 1968.

North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. (D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)
The first North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A, 56-6670, at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Above and behind the X-15 is the Douglas D558-II Skyrocket that Scott Crossfield flew to Mach 2.005, 20 November 1953. (D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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30 April 1962

Joseph A. Walker, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot

30 April 1962: The Chief Research Test Pilot at NASA’s High Speed Flight Station, Joseph Albert Walker, flew the first North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research aircraft, 56-6670, on its twenty-seventh flight. This was Flight 52 of the NASA X-15 Hypersonic Research Program. The purpose of this test flight was to explore aerodynamic heating and stability at very high altitudes.

At an altitude of approximately 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Mud Lake, Nevada, the X-15 was released from Balls 8, the NB-52B drop ship, at 10:23:20.0 a.m., Pacific Daylight Savings Time.

This NASA image depicts three X-15 flight profiles. Mud Lake, Nevada, is near the right edge of the image. (NASA)

Walker started the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. The planned burn time was 81.0 seconds, but the engine ran slightly longer: 81.6 seconds. Even with the longer burn, the X-15 undershot the planned speed of Mach 5.35 and peak altitude of 255,000 feet (77,724 meters). The actual maximum speed for this flight was Mach 4.94, and maximum altitude, 246,700 feet (75,194 meters). Walker landed on Rogers Dry Lake. The total duration of Flight 52 was 9 minutes, 46.2 seconds.

Even though the peak altitude reached by the X-15 was 8,300 feet (2,530 meters) lower than expected, Joe Walker established a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude Gain, Aeroplane Launched from a Carrier Aircraft, of 61,493 meters (201,749 feet).¹

Joe Walker with the Number 2 North American Aviation X-15, 56-6671, on Rogers Dry Lake. Walker is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit (NASA)

¹ FAI Record File Number 10356

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 April 1962

E-334220 April 1962: “Neil’s Cross-Country.” NASA Research Test Pilot Neil Alden Armstrong conducts a flight to test the Minneapolis-Honeywell MH-96 flight control system installed in the third North American Aviation X-15, serial number 56-6672. The new system combined both aerodynamic and reaction thruster flight controls in one hand controller rather than the two used in X-15s -670 and -671, simplifying the tasks for the pilot.

On its fourth flight, -672 was air-dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress drop ship, Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada. Armstrong fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 engine and let it burn for 82.4 seconds. The X-15 accelerated to Mach 5.31 (3,789 miles per hour/6,098 kilometers per hour). After the engine was shut down, the rocketplane continued to its peak altitude on a ballistic trajectory, reaching 207,500 feet (63,246 meters) before going over the top and beginning its descent back toward the atmosphere. The test of the new flight control system went well.

E63-9834Neil Armstrong began to pull out of the descent at about 100,000 feet (30,480 meters), but the X-15 “ricocheted” off the top of the atmosphere and climbed back to 115,000 feet (35,052 meters) where the aerodynamic control surfaces could not function. He used the reaction thrusters to turn toward the dry lake landing area at Edwards Air Force Base, but although the X-15 rolled into a left bank, it would not change direction and still in ballistic flight, went zooming by Edwards at Mach 3 and 100,000 feet in a 90° left bank.

As the X-15 dropped back into the atmosphere, Armstrong was finally able to get it slowed down, but he was far south of his planned landing site. By the time he got -672 turned around he was 45 miles (72.4 kilometers) to the south, over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and gliding through 45,000 feet (13,716 meters). There was real doubt that he would be able to make the X-15 stretch its glide to reach the dry lake.

E-7469In a masterful display of airmanship, Neil Armstrong was able to get the X-15 to reach the south end of the dry lake, 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) from the planned landing spot to the north. But it was a very close call. In debriefing, the pilots of the four F-104 chase planes were asked how much clearance Armstrong had as he crossed over the Joshua trees at the edge of the lake bed. One of them answered, “Oh, at least 100 feet—on either side.”

At 12 minutes, 28.7 seconds, this was the longest flight of the entire X-15 program. It is called “Neil’s cross-country flight.”

North American Aviation X-15 56-6670 with Neil A. Armstrong, Jr., NASA Research Test Pilot, Edwards AFB, 1960A U.S. Navy fighter pilot who flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War, Neil Armstrong became a civilian test pilot at NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA) in 1955. He made 7 flights in the X-15 before transferring to NASA’s Project Gemini in 1962.

Armstrong was command pilot for Gemini 8 and Gemini 11, commander of the backup flight crew of the Apollo 8 mission, and was commander of Apollo 11.

On 20 July 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong was the First Man To Stand on the Surface of The Moon.


© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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