Tag Archives: NASA X-15 Hypersonic Research Program

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.

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© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 March 1959

North American Aviation X-15A 56-6670 carried aloft by Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003. The absence of frost on the fuselage of the X-15 shows that no cryogenic propellants are aboard for this captive flight. The chase plane is a Lockheed F-104A-15-LO Starfighter, 56-0768. This Starfighter suffered an engine failure on take off at Edwards AFB, crashed and was destroyed, 30 June 1959. (NASA)

10 March 1959: With North American Aviation’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield in its cockpit, the X-15 hypersonic research rocket plane was airborne for the first time. X-15A 56-6670 was carried aloft under the wing of the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress drop ship, 52-003, for a series of captive flights. The purpose was to verify that all the systems on both the X-15 and the B-52 were properly functioning up to the point that the drop would occur.

The NB-52A Stratofortress flight crew, left to right: Harry W. ("Bill") Berkowitz, NAA, Launch Panel Operator; Captain John E. ("Jack") Allavie, USAF, Pilot; Captain Charles C. Bock, Jr., USAF, Aircraft Commander, at Edwards AFB, 7 February 1959. (U.S. Air Force)
The NB-52A Stratofortress flight crew, left to right: Harry W. (“Bill”) Berkowitz, NAA, Launch Panel Operator; Captain John E. (“Jack”) Allavie, USAF, Pilot; Captain Charles C. Bock, Jr., USAF, Aircraft Commander, at Edwards AFB, 7 February 1959. (U.S. Air Force via Jet Pilot Overseas)
North American Aviation X-15A 56-6670 carried aloft by Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003. The absence of frost on the fuselage of the X-15 shows that no cryogenic propellants are aboard for this captive flight. (NASA)

Fully settled in my tiny flight office, I could speak by radio to the B-52 pilot, Charlie Bock, who was about thirty feet away in the nose of the mother plane, out of sight. . . .

As we sat, waiting at the end of the long runway while chase planes took off and circled, the clock on the instrument panel of the X-15 showed 0955. . . On signal, B-52 pilot Charlie Bock cobbed the eight engines, standing hard on the brake pedal. As the engines wound up to full military power, the X-15 trembled and the noise was tremendous. Through my radio earphones I heard Bock call a countdown for the benefit of the official movie cameramen who would record  every inch of the takeoff:

“Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one. BRAKE RELEASE.”

One hundred thirty tons of aluminum, fuel, Inconel X, five men and the hope of a nation began rolling down the long runway. . .

As we rolled, the huge runway distance markers flashed by, clocking our path: 14,000 . . . 13,000 . . . 12,000 . . . 8,000. When the X-15 air-speed indicator reached 170 knots, I noted only a minor vibration. We would continue the takeoff. 6,000 . . . 5,000 . . . 4,000, and we broke ground. It was smooth and gentle, like the take-off of an airliner. The air-speed indicator crept up to 260 knots. The parched brown desert fell away. . . .

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, Chapters 34 and 35 at Pages 316–321.

X-15A 56-6670 under the wing of NB-52A 52-003 at high altitude. Scott Crossfield is in the cockpit of the rocketplane. Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, U.S. Air Force)
X-15A 56-6670 under the wing of NB-52A 52-003 at high altitude. Scott Crossfield is in the cockpit of the rocketplane. (Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, U.S. Air Force)

The gross weight of the combined aircraft was 258,000 pounds (117,000 kilograms). After a takeoff roll of 6,200 feet (1,890 meters) the B-52/X-15 lifted of at 168 knots (193 miles per hour/311 kilometers per hour). During the 1 hour, 8 minute flight the the B-52 climbed to 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) and reached a speed of 0.83 Mach (548 miles per hour/881 kilometers per hour).

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.

Test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield with X-15 56-6670 attached to the right wing pylon of NB-52A 52-003 at Edwards Air Force Base. (North American Aviation Inc.)

The first flight took place 8 June 1959, again, with 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 planned 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.

Scott Crossfield prepares for a flight in the North American Aviation X-15A. Crossfield is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit and MA-3 helmet, which he helped to develop. (NASA)

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 dihedral, 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.

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

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.

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).

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

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.

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): was 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.

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

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 XLR11 burned a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water with liquid oxygen. Each of the engines’ four chambers could be ignited individually. Each engine was rated at 11,800 pounds of thrust (58.49 kilonewtons) at Sea Level.

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 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.

North American Aviation Inc./U.S. Air Force/NASA X-15A 56-6670 hypersonic research rocketplane on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 March 1961

Major Robert M. White exits the cockpit of an X-15 at Edwards AFB. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, climbs out of the cockpit of an X-15 after landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)

7 March 1961: Launched over Silver Lake, a dry lake bed near the California/Nevada border, at 10:28:33.0 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, test pilot Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, flew the number two North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6671, to Mach 4.43 (2,905 miles per hour/4,675 kilometers per hour) and 77,450 feet (23,607 meters), becoming the first pilot to exceed Mach 4.

This was the first flight for the number two X-15 with the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 engine, which was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.55 kilonewtons).

The flight plan called for a burn time of 116 seconds, an altitude of 84,000 feet (25,603 meters) and a predicted maximum speed of Mach 4.00. The actual duration of the engine burn was 127.0 seconds. Peak altitude was lower than planned, at 77,450 feet (23,607 meters). The longer burn and lower altitude translated into the higher speed.

The total duration of the flight, from the air drop from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress carrier, 52-008, to touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, was 8 minutes, 34.1 seconds.

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 a North American Aviation, Inc., X-15 rocketplane on Rogers Dry Lake, 1961. White is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit with an MA-3 helmet. (NASA)

© 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.

Scott Crossfield prepares for a flight in the North American Aviation X-15A.

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. Another, 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-13 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 XLR11 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-13 four-chamber rocket engines installed on an X-15. The speed brakes of the ventral fin are shown in the open position. (NASA)

The Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine was throttleable by the pilot from 28,500 to 60,000 pounds of thrust (126.77–266.89 kilonewtons). 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/7,264 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)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 December 1962

Milton O. Thompson with a Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, 20 December 1962. (NASA)

20 December 1962: Milton Orville Thompson, a NASA test pilot assigned to the X-15 hypersonic research program, was conducting a weather check along the X-15’s planned flight path from Mud Lake, Nevada, to Edwards Air Force Base in California, scheduled for later in the day. Thompson was flying a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, Air Force serial number 56-749, call sign NASA 749.

NASA 749, a Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter, 56-749, with an ALSOR sounding rocket on a centerline mount, at Edwards Air Force Base. Right front quarter view. (NASA)
NASA 749, a Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter, 56-749, with an ALSOR sounding rocket on a centerline mount, at Edwards Air Force Base. (NASA)

In his autobiography, At the Edge of Space, Thompson described the day:

“The morning of my weather flight was a classic desert winter morning. It was cold, freezing in fact, but  the sky was crystal clear and there was not a hint of a breeze—a beautiful morning for a flight.”

Completing the weather reconnaissance mission, and with fuel remaining in the Starfighter’s tanks, Milt Thompson began practicing simulated X-15 approaches to the dry lake bed.

X-15 pilots used the F-104 to practice landing approaches. The two aircraft were almost the same size, and with speed brakes extended and the flaps lowered, an F-104 had almost the same lift-over-drag ratio as the X-15 in subsonic flight. Thompson’s first approach went fine and he climbed back to altitude for another practice landing.

Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-749 (NASA 749) carrying a sounding rocket on a centerline mount. (NASA)
Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-749 (NASA 749) carrying an ALSOR sounding rocket on a centerline mount. (NASA)

When Milt Thompson extended the F-104’s flaps for the second simulated X-15 approach, he was at the “high key”— over Rogers Dry Lake at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) — and supersonic. As he extended the speed brakes and lowered the flaps, NASA 749 began to roll to the left. With full aileron and rudder input, he was unable to stop the roll. Adding throttle to increase the airplane’s airspeed, he was just able to stop the roll with full opposite aileron.

Thompson found that he could maintain control as long as he stayed above 350 knots (402 miles per hour/648 kilometers per hour) but that was far too high a speed to land the airplane. He experimented with different control positions and throttle settings. He recycled the brake and flaps switches to see if he could get a response, but there was no change. He could see that the leading edge flaps were up and locked, but was unable to determine the position of the trailing edge flaps. He came to the conclusion that the trailing edge flaps were lowered to different angles.

Thompson called Joe Walker, NASA’s chief test pilot, on the radio and explained the situation:

     I told him the symptoms of my problem and he decided that I had a split trailing edge flap situation with one down and one up.

     He suggested I recycle the flap lever to the up position to attempt to get both flaps up and locked. I had already tried that, but I gave it another try. Joe asked if I had cycled the flap lever from the up to the takeoff position and then back again. I said no. I had only cycled the flap lever from the up position to a position just below it and then back to the up position. Joe suggested we try it his way. I moved the flap lever from the up position all the way to the takeoff position and then back to the up position. As soon as I moved the lever to the takeoff position, I knew I had done the wrong thing.

     The airplane started rolling again, but this time I could not stop it. The roll rate quickly built up to the point that I was almost doing snap rolls. Simultaneously, the nose of the airplane started down. I was soon doing vertical rolls as the airspeed began rapidly increasing. I knew I had to get out quick because I did not want to eject supersonic and I was already passing through 0.9 Mach. I let go of the stick and reached for the ejection handle. I bent my head forward to see the handle and then I pulled it. Things were a blur from that point on.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1992. Chapter 5 at Pages 119–120.

Impact crater caused by crash of Milt Thompson's Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, 20 Decemver 1962. NASA)
Impact crater caused by the crash and explosion of Milt Thompson’s Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter, 20 December 1962. (NASA)

As Thompson descended by parachute he watched the F-104 hit the ground and explode in the bombing range on the east side of Rogers Dry Lake. He wrote, “It was only 7:30 a.m. and still a beautiful morning.”

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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