Tag Archives: Pete Knight

21 August 1967

Major William J. Knight, U.S. Air Force, with the modified X-15A-2, 56-6671, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)
Major William J. Knight, U.S. Air Force, with the modified X-15A-2, 56-6671, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

21 August 1967: On the 186th flight of the X-15 program, the modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, made the first of two flights with a heat-protective ablative coating, designed to protect the steel structure of the rocketplane from the extreme heat of flight at high Mach numbers.

After a landing accident which caused significant damage to the Number 2 X-15, it was rebuilt by North American. A 28-inch (0.71 meter) “plug” was installed in the fuselage forward of the wings to create space for a liquid hydrogen fuel tank which would be used for an experimental “scramjet” engine that would be mounted the the ventral fin. The modified aircraft was also able to carry two external fuel tanks. It was hoped that additional propellant would allow the X-15A-2 to reach much higher speeds. The external tanks were not carried on the 21 August 1967 flight.

With Major William J. (“Pete”) Knight, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit, the X-15A-2 was airdropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, known as Balls 8, over Hidden Hills Dry Lake, just on the California side of the border with Nevada. This was Knight’s 11th X-15 flight, and the 52nd flight for 56-6671. The launch time was 10:59:16.0 a.m., PDT. Knight fired the 57,000-pound-thrust Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and accelerated for 82.2 seconds. The purpose of this flight was to attain a high speed rather than altitude. The X-15A-2 reached Mach 4.94 (3,368 miles per hour, 5,420 kilometers per hour) at 85,000 feet (25,908 meters) and reached a peak altitude of 91,000 feet (27,737 meters). Pete Knight touched down on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, just 7 minutes, 40.0 seconds after launch.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 November 1966

Major William J. Knight, U.S. Air Force, with the modified X-15A-2, 56-6671, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Knight is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit with an MA-3 helmet. (U.S. Air Force)
Major William J. Knight, U.S. Air Force, with the modified X-15A-2, 56-6671, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Knight is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit with an MA-3 helmet. (U.S. Air Force)

18 November 1966: On Flight 175 of the research program, Major William J. (“Pete”) Knight, U.S. Air Force, flew the newly-modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, to Mach 6.33 (4,261 miles per hour/6,857 kilometers per hour) at 98,900 feet (30,245 meters). This is just 11 years, to the day, since Pete Everest made the first powered flight in the Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 rocketplane, with more than 6 times an increase in speed.

On this date, NASA made an attempt to launch two X-15s, -671 and -672, using the NB-52A 52-003 and NB-52B 52-008. However -672, the number three ship, had to abort the mission.

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)

Balls 8, the NB-52B, flown by NASA test pilot Fitz Fulton and Colonel Joe Cotton, USAF, carried 56-6671 to the launch point over Mud Lake, Nevada, approximately 200 miles to the north of Edwards AFB. (This was the lake where -671 was severely damaged in an emergency landing, 9 November 1962. It was returned to North American to be rebuilt to the X-15A-2 configuration and returned to flight operation 19 months later.)

At 1:24:07.2 p.m. local time, Pete Knight and the X-15 were dropped from the pylon under the right wing of the B-52. He ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 and began to accelerate with its 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons).

Since this was to be a high temperature test flight, it was planned to fly no higher than 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). The denser atmosphere would result in greater aerodynamic heating of the rocketplane.

With the two external propellant tanks carrying an additional 1,800 gallons (6,814 liters) of liquid ammonia and liquid oxygen, the engine ran for 2 minutes, 16.4 seconds. The rocketplane had accelerated to Mach 2. The external tanks emptied in about 60 seconds and were jettisoned. The tanks were equipped with parachutes. They were recovered to be reused on later flights.

The X-15, now about 25,000 pounds (11,340 kilograms) lighter and without the aerodynamic drag of the tanks, continued to accelerate. At its highest speed, the rocketplane was travelling approximately 6,500 feet per second (1,981 meters per second), more than twice as fast as a high-powered rifle bullet. Its surface temperatures exceeded 1,200 °F. (649 °C.)

Knight landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. The duration of this flight had been 8 minutes, 26.8 seconds.

The modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, with external propellant tanks mounted. (NASA)
The modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, with external propellant tanks mounted. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 October 1967

Major William J. Knight, United States Air Force, with the North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 is carried to launch altitude under the right wing of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 is carried to launch altitude under the right wing of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008. The scramjet is attached to the ventral fin. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 immediately after being released from the mothership, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008, Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada, 3 October 1967. The steam trail is hydrogen peroxide used to power the rocket engine turbopump. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 immediately after being released from the mothership, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008, Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada, 3 October 1967. The steam trail is hydrogen peroxide used to power the rocket engine turbopump. (U.S. Air Force) 
The North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 ignites the XLR99 engine after being released from the mothership, Balls 8, 3 October 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
The X-15A-2’s XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine ignites after release from the mothership, Balls 8, 3 October 1967. (U.S. Air Force) 

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.

Firefighters cool down the ventral fin of the North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 after its last landing on Rogers Dry Lake, 3 October 1967.(U.S. Air Force)
Firefighters cool down the ventral fin of the North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 after its final landing on Rogers Dry Lake, 3 October 1967.(U.S. Air Force)

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.

The Harmon International Trophy at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The Harmon International Trophy at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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