Tag Archives: North American Aviation X-15A

5 December 1963

RUSHWORTH, Robert H., Major General, USAF5 December 1963: On Flight 97 of the X-15 Program, Major Robert A. Rushworth flew the number one aircraft, Air Force serial number 56-6670, to an altitude of 101,000 feet 30,785 meters) and reached Mach 6.06 (4,018 miles per hour/6,466 kilometers per hour).

The rocketplane was dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress “mother ship” 52-008, Balls 8, flying at 450 knots (833.4 kilometers per hour) at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Rushworth ignited the Reaction Motors XLR-99-RM-1 rocket engine, which burned for 81.2 seconds before shutting down.

The flight plan had called for an altitude of 104,000 feet (31,699 meters), a 78 second burn and a maximum speed of Mach 5.70. With the difficulties of flying such a powerful rocketplane, Rushworth’s flight was actually fairly close to plan. During the flight the right inner windshield cracked.

Bob Rushworth landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight of 9 minutes, 34.0 seconds.

Mach 6.06 was the highest Mach number reached for an unmodified X-15.

56-6670 flew 81 of the 199 flights of the X-15 Program. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

From 1960 and 1966, Bob Rushworth made 34 flights in the three X-15s, more than any other pilot.

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. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
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. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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9 November 1962

McKAY, John B. (Jack) with X-15 56-6672, 13 March 19649 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.

North American Aviation X-15 56-6671 under the right wing of a B-52 Stratofortress at 45,000 feet. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15 56-6671 under the right wing of a B-52 Stratofortress at 45,000 feet. (NASA)

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.

A Piasecki H-21 rescue helicopter lands near the overturned X-15 at Mud Lake, 9 November 1961. (NASA)
A Piasecki H-21 rescue helicopter lands near the overturned X-15 at Mud Lake, 9 November 1961. (NASA)
The X-15 rolled over when the left landing skid collapsed because of the high-speed, overweight emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada. Jack McKay was trapped in the cockpit and suffered serious spinal injuries. (NASA)
The X-15 rolled over when the left landing skid collapsed because of the high-speed, overweight emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada. Jack McKay was trapped in the cockpit and suffered serious spinal injuries. (NASA)
The Number Two X-15, 56-6671, lies upside down and severely damaged at Mud Lake, Nevada, 9 November 1962. (NASA)
The Number Two X-15, 56-6671, lies upside down and severely damaged at Mud Lake, Nevada, 9 November 1962. (NASA)

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.

North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671, after a 19-month repair, redesign and modification program. The fuselage was lengthened, additional propellant and reaction control tanks installed internally, the nose wheel and rear landing skid struts lengthened, and external tanks installed. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671, after a 19-month repair, redesign and modification program. The fuselage was lengthened, additional propellant and reaction control tanks installed internally, the nose wheel and rear landing skid struts lengthened, and external tanks installed. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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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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5 November 1959

The Number 2 X-15, 56-6671, broke in half when it made an emergency landing while still partially loaded with propellants. (NASA)
The Number 2 X-15, 56-6671, broke in half when it made an emergency landing while still partially loaded with propellants. (NASA)

5 November 1959: During his fourth X-15 flight—the third in the Number Two ship, 56-6671—North American Aviation chief test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield made an emergency landing at Rosamond Dry Lake after one of the two Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-13 rocket engines exploded, causing an engine compartment fire.

The X-15 had been launched by the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003, at 0.82 Mach and approximately 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Bouquet Canyon Reservoir, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) southwest of Edwards Air Force Base. Scott Crossfield ignited both XLR11 rocket engines and began to accelerate and climb, but one of four combustion chambers of the lower engine exploded almost immediately. He shut both engines down after 11.7 seconds. Crossfield kept the rocketplane in a level attitude for the 114 seconds it took to jettison the liquid oxygen and water-alcohol propellants to lighten the X-15 for the landing. The tanks could not fully drain and the aircraft remained approximately 1,000 pounds (455 kilograms) overweight.

The X-15 approached the emergency landing site at Rosamond Dry Lake, about ten miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Edwards, while Major Robert M. White, flying a Lockheed F-104 chase plane, called out Crossfield’s distance from the dry lake and his altitude. As he neared the touch down point, Crossfield raised the X-15’s nose to decelerate.

“I lowered the skids and nose wheel, pulled the flaps, and felt for the lake bed.

“The skids dug in gently. The nose wheel slammed down hard and the ship plowed across the desert floor, slowing much faster than usual. Then she came to a complete stop within 1500 feet instead of the usual 5000 feet. Something was wrong; the skids failed, I was sure. . . Quickly I scrambled out of the cockpit. What I saw almost broke my heart. The fuselage had buckled immediately aft of the cockpit, two hundred and thirty inches back from the nose. Her belly had dragged in the sand, causing the abrupt deceleration on the lake. The rocket chambers which had exploded at launch were a shambles.”

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, Chapter 41 at Pages 383–384.

The scene at Rosamond Dry Lake after Scott Crossfield's emergency landing after an engine explosion. (NASA)
The scene at Rosamond Dry Lake after Scott Crossfield’s emergency landing following an engine explosion. (NASA)

It was determined that the engine had exploded due to an ignition failure, a relatively simple problem not connected to the design of the X-15. But there remained the question as to why the rocketplane had broken in half. The investigation found that the rapid extension of the nose wheel strut when lowered caused the oil inside the strut to foam and vaporize, providing almost no shock absorption. This was corrected and the check list changed to lower the gear sooner.

The total duration of this flight was 5 minutes, 28.0 seconds. The peak altitude was 45,462 feet (13,857 meters) and the maximum speed was 660 miles per hour (1,062 kilometers per hour).

56-6671 was taken back to the North American Aviation plant for repair. It returned to flight operations three months later.

Test pilot A. Scott Crossfield with the damaged X-15 (UPI/Harry Ransom Center
Test pilot A. Scott Crossfield with the damaged X-15 on Rosamond Dry Lake. (UPI/Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

© 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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