3 November 1965: Major Robert A. Rushworth made the first flight of the modified X-15A-2 rocketplane, Air Force serial number 56-6671. After a landing accident which caused significant damage to the Number 2 X-15, it was rebuilt by North American Aviation. 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 on 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 first flight with the new configuration was an “envelope expansion” flight, intended to test the handling characteristics of the X-15A-2, and to jettison the tanks (which were empty on this flight) to evaluate the separation and trajectory as they fell away from the rocketplane in supersonic flight.
The X-15A-2 was dropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, over Cuddeback Lake, 37 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert of southern California. This was the only time during the 199-flight X-15 Program that this lake was used as a launch point.
The X-15 was released at 09:09:10.7 a.m., PST. Bob Rushworth ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and it ran for 84.1 seconds before its fuel supply was exhausted. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons).
The X-15 climbed to 70,600 feet (21,519 meters) and reached Mach 2.31 (1,514 miles per hour/2,437 kilometers per hour.)
The test flight went well. The external tanks jettisoned cleanly and fell away. The recovery parachute for the liquid oxygen tank did not deploy, however, and the tank was damaged beyond repair.
Rushworth and the X-15A-2 touched down on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight of 5 minutes, 1.6 seconds.
14 October 1947: At approximately 10:00 a.m., a four-engine Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber, piloted by Major Robert L. Cardenas, took off from Muroc Air Force Base (now know as Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California. The B-29’s bomb bay had been modified to carry the Bell XS-1, a rocket-powered airplane designed to investigate flight at speeds near the Speed of Sound (Mach 1).
Air Force test pilot Captain Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, a World War II fighter ace, was the U.S. Air Force pilot for this project. The X-1 airplane had been previously flown by company test pilots Jack Woolams and Chalmers Goodlin. Two more X-1 aircraft were built by Bell, and the second, 46-063, had already begun its flight testing.
Captain Yeager had made three glide flights and this was to be his ninth powered flight. Like his P-51 Mustang fighters, he had named this airplane after his wife, Glamorous Glennis.
Bob Cardenas climbed to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) and then put the B-29 into a shallow dive to gain speed. In his autobiography, Yeager wrote:
“One minute to drop. [Jack] Ridley flashed the word from the copilot’s seat in the mother ship. . . Major Cardenas, the driver, starts counting backwards from ten. C-r-r-ack. The bomb shackle release jolts you up from your seat, and as you sail out of the dark bomb bay the sun explodes in brightness. You’re looking at the sky. Wrong! You should have dropped level. The dive speed was too slow, and they dropped you in a nose-up stall. . .
“I fought it with the control wheel for about five hundred feet, and finally got her nose down. The moment we picked up speed I fired all four rocket chambers in rapid sequence. We climbed at .88 Mach. . . I turned off two rocket chambers. At 40,000 feet, we were still climbing at .92 Mach. Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel, so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. . . the faster I got, the smoother the ride.
“Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach—then tipped right off the scale. . . .”
—Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired), Yeager, An Autobiography, by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, Pages 120, 129–130.
Chuck Yeager and flown the XS-1 through “the sound barrier,” something many experts had believed might not be possible. His maximum speed during this flight was Mach 1.06 (699.4 miles per hour/1,125.7 kilometers per hour).
The Bell XS-1, later re-designated X-1, was the first of a series of rocket powered research airplanes which included the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, the Bell X-2, and the North American Aviation X-15, which were flown by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, NACA and its successor, NASA, at Edwards Air Force Base to explore supersonic and hypersonic flight and at altitudes to and beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere.
The X-1 is shaped like a bullet and has straight wings and tail surfaces. It is 30 feet, 10.98 inches (9.423 meters) long with a wing span of 28.00 feet (8.534 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 10.20 inches (3.307 meters). Total wing area is 102.5 square feet ( 9.5 square meters). At its widest point, the diameter of the X-1 fuselage is 4 feet, 7 inches (1.397 meters). The empty weight is 6,784.9 pounds (3,077.6 kilograms), but loaded with propellant, oxidizer and its pilot with his equipment, the weight increased to 13,034 pounds (5,912 kilograms). The X-1 was designed to withstand an ultimate structural load of 18g.
The X-1 is powered by a four-chamber Reaction Motors, Inc., XLR11-RM-3 rocket engine which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26,689 Newtons). This engine burns a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water with liquid oxygen. Fuel capacity is 293 gallons (1,109 liters) of water/alcohol and 311 gallons (1,177 liters) of liquid oxygen. The fuel system is pressurized by nitrogen at 1,500 pounds per square inch (10,342 kilopascals).
The X-1 was usually dropped from a B-29 flying at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and 345 miles per hour (555 kilometers per hour). It fell as much as 1,000 feet (305 meters) before beginning to climb under its own power.
The X-1’s performance was limited by its fuel capacity. Flying at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), it could reach 916 miles per hour (1,474 kilometers per hour), but at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters) the maximum speed that could be reached was 898 miles per hour (1,445 kilometers per hour). During a maximum climb, fuel would be exhausted as the X-1 reached 74,800 feet (2,799 meters). The absolute ceiling is 87,750 feet (26,746 meters).
The X-1 had a minimum landing speed of 135 miles per hour (217 kilometers per hour) using 60% flaps.
The three X-1 rocketplanes made a total of 157 flights with the three X-1. The number one ship, Glamorous Glennis, made 78 flights. On 26 March 1948, with Chuck Yeager again in the cockpit, it reached reached Mach 1.45 (957 miles per hour/1,540 kilometers per hour) at 71,900 feet (21,915 meters).
The third X-1, 46-064, made just one glide flight before it was destroyed 9 November 1951 in an accidental explosion.
The second X-1, 46-063, was later modified to the X-1E. It is on display at the NASA Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
Glamorous Glennis is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, next to Charles A. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.
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.
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.
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-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.
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.
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