24 March 1960: After North American Aviation’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot, Albert Scott Crossfield, had made the first flights in the new X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane (one gliding, eight powered), NASA Chief Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker made his first familiarization flight.
The X-15, 56-6670, the first of three built by North American Aviation, Inc., was carried aloft under the right wing of a Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003, flown by John E. Allavie and Fitzhugh L. Fulton.
The rocketplane was dropped from the mothership over Rosamond Dry Lake at 15:43:23.0 local time, and Joe Walker ignited the Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engine. The engine burned for 272.0 seconds, accelerating Walker and the X-15 to Mach 2.0 (1,320 miles per hour/2,124.3 kilometers per hour) and a peak altitude of 48,630 feet (14,822.4 meters). Walker landed on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base after a flight of 9 minutes, 8.0 seconds.
Joe Walker made 25 flights in the three X-15 rocket planes from 24 March 1960 to 22 August 1963. He achieved a maximum Mach number of 5.92, maximum speed of 4,104 miles per hour (6,605 kilometers per hour) and maximum altitude of 354,200 feet (107,960 meters).
Joe Walker was killed in a mid-air collision between his Lockheed F-104N Starfighter and a North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie near Barstow, California, 1 June 1966.
The number one ship, 56-6670, made 81 of the 199 flights of the X-15 Program. It was the first to fly, and also the last, 24 October 1968. Today, it is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
17 March 1947: The prototype of the United States’ first jet-powered bomber, the North American Aviation XB-45 Tornado, 45-59479, made a one-hour first flight at Muroc Army Airfield (later, Edwards Air Force Base) with company test pilot George William Krebs at the controls.
The photograph above shows the XB-45 parked on Muroc Dry Lake. Notice that the windows over the bombardier’s compartment in the nose are painted on.
The North American Aviation was a four-engine prototype medium bomber. It had a high-mounted straight wing and tricycle landing gear.
The XB-45 was 74 feet (22.555 meters) long with a wingspan of 89 feet, 6 inches (27.279 meters) and overall height of 25 feet, 2 inches (7.671 meters). It had an empty weight of 41,876 pounds (18,994.6 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 82,600 pounds (37,467 kilograms).
The three prototypes were powered by four Allison-built General Electric J35-A-4 turbojet engines, installed in nacelles which were flush with the bottom of the wings. The J35 was a single-shaft engine with an 11-stage axial-flow compressor section and a single-stage turbine. The J35-A-4 was rated at 4,000 pounds of thrust (14.79 kilonewtons). The engine’s maximum speed was 8,000 r.p.m. The J35 was 14 feet, 0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).
The maximum speed of the XB-45 was 494 miles per hour (795 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 516 miles per hour (830 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). The service ceiling was 37,600 feet (11,461 meters).
The production B-45A Tornado was heavier and had better performance. It was operated by two pilots and carried a bombardier/navigator and a tail gunner. It was 75 feet, 4 inches (22.962 meters) long with a wingspan of 89 feet (27.127 meters) and overall height of 25 feet, 2 inches (7.671 meters). The bomber’s empty weight was 45,694 pounds (20,727 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 110,000 pounds (49,895 kilograms).
The B-45A was powered by four General Electric J47-GE-13 turbojet engines, rated at 5,200 pounds of thrust (23.13 kilonewtons) at Sea Level. The J47 was an axial-flow turbojet with a 12-stage compressor and single stage turbine. The engine was 12 feet, 0.0 inches (3.658 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.0 inches (0.991 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,525 pounds (1,145 kilograms).
The B-45A Tornado had a maximum speed of 571 miles per hour (917 kilometers per hour) at 3,500 feet ( meters). Its service ceiling was 46,400 feet (14,142.7 meters) and it had a range of 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers).
The bomb load was 22,000 pounds (9,979 kilograms). Two Browning .50-caliber AN-M3 machine guns were mounted in the tail for defense.
The B-45 served with both the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force. 143 were built, including the three XB-45 prototypes.
On 20 September 1948, the first production B-45A-1-NA Tornado, 47-001, was put into a dive to test the airplane’s design load factor. During the dive, an engine exploded, which tore off several cowling panels. These hit the horizontal stabilizer, damaging it. The B-45 pitched up, and both wings failed due to the g load. The prototype had no ejection seats and test pilots George Krebs and Nicholas Gibbs Pickard were both killed.
George William Krebs was born in Missouri, 5 March 1918. He was the first of three children of William J. Krebs, an advertising executive, and Betty Schmitz Krebs. He married Miss Alice Bodman Neal at Kansas City, Missouri, 26 December 1942. They had one son, William John Krebs II, born 1944.
Nicholas Gibbs Pickard was born in New York, 5 November 1916. He was the first of three children of Ward Wilson Pickard, a lawyer, and Alice Rossington Pickard. His remains were buried at the Pacific Crest Cemetery, Redondo Beach, California.
10 March 1959: With North American Aviation’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield in its cockpit, the X-15 high speed 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 mother 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 mothership were properly functioning up to the point that the drop would occur.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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-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 XLR-11 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.
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.
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.
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.
26 February 1955: Although it was his day off, North American Aviation production test pilot George F. Smith stopped by the office at Los Angeles Airport (today, known as Los Angeles International airport, or simply “LAX”, its international airport identifier). The company’s flight dispatcher told him that a brand-new F-100A-20-NA Super Sabre, serial number 53-1659, was sitting on the flight line and needed to be test flown before being turned over to the Air Force.
Smith was happy to take the flight. He departed LAX in full afterburner and headed off shore, climbing to 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) over the Pacific Ocean to start the test sequence.
But it was quickly apparent that something was wrong: The flight controls were heavy, and then there was a hydraulic system failure that caused the Super Sabre pitch down into a dive. Smith couldn’t pull it out of the dive and the airplane’s speed rapidly increased, eventually passing Mach 1.
Smith was unable to regain control of the F-100. He had no choice but to bail out. As he ejected, Smith read the instruments: the Mach meter indicated Mach 1.05—785 miles per hour (1,263 kilometers per hour)—and the altitude was only 6,500 feet (1,981 meters).
The force of the wind blast hitting him as he came out of the cockpit knocked him unconscious. Estimates are that he was subjected to a 40 G deceleration. His parachute opened automatically and he came down approximately one-half mile off Laguna Beach. Fortunately he hit the water very close to a fishing boat crewed by a former U.S. Navy rescue expert.
George Smith was unconscious for six days, and when he awoke he was blind in both eyes. After four surgeries and seven months in the hospital, he recovered from his supersonic ejection and returned to flight status.
George F. Smith appears in this brief U.S. Air Force informational film: