19 July 1963: Between 1960 and 1963, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker made 25 flights in the North American Aviation X-15A hypersonic research rocketplanes. His 24th flight was the 21st for the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672, and the 90th of the X-15 program.
At 10:20:05.0 a.m., Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 53-008, Balls 8, over Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada. Walker fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and over the next 84.6 seconds the engine’s 60,000 pounds of thrust drove the X-15 upward. The engine’s thrust on this flight was higher than expected, shutdown was 1.6 seconds late, and Walker’s climb angle was 1½° too high, so the X-15 overshot the predicted maximum altitude and its ballistic arc peaked at 347,800 feet (106,010 meters, 65.8 miles). The maximum speed was Mach 5.50 (3,714 miles per hour, 5,977 kilometers per hour).
Walker glided to a touch down at Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base California, after flying 311 miles in 11 minutes, 24.1 seconds of flight. On this flight, Joe Walker became the first American civilian to fly into Space.
17 July 1962: At 9:31:10.0 a.m., the Number 3 North American Aviation X-15, 56-6672, was airdropped from a Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003, over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Air Force project test pilot Major Robert M. (“Bob”) White was in the cockpit. This was the 62nd flight of the X-15 Program, and Bob White was making his 15th flight in an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane. The purpose of this flight was to verify the performance of the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system which had been installed in the Number 3 ship. Just one minute before drop, the MH-96 failed, but White reset his circuit breakers and it came back on line.
After dropping from the B-52’s wing, White fired the X-15’s Reaction Motors XLR-99 rocket engine and began to accelerate and climb. The planned burn time for the 57,000-pound-thrust engine was 80.0 seconds. It shut down 2 seconds late, driving the X-15 well beyond the planned peak altitude for this flight. Instead of reaching 280,000 feet (85,344 meters), Robert White reached 314,750 feet (95,936 meters). This was an altitude gain of 82,190 meters (269,652 feet), which was a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record.¹ The rocketplane reached Mach 5.45, 3,832 miles per hour (6,167 kilometers per hour).
Because of the increased speed and altitude, White was in danger of overshooting his landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He crossed the north end of Rogers Dry Lake and crossed the “high key”—the point where the X-15 landing maneuver begins—too high and too fast at Mach 3.5 at 80,000 feet (24,384 meters). Without power, White made a wide 360° turn over Rosamond Dry Lake then came back over the high key at a more normal 28,000 feet (8,534.4 meters) and subsonic speed. He glided to a perfect touch down, 10 minutes, 20.7 seconds after being dropped from the B-52.
This was the first time that a manned aircraft had gone higher than 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). It was also the first flight above 50 miles. For that achievement, Bob White became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded U.S. Air Force astronaut wings. His 314,750-foot altitude (95,936 meters) also established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world altitude record, which will probably never be broken. To qualify, a new record would have to exceed White’s altitude by at least 3%, or more than 324,419 feet (98,882.9 meters). As the FAI-recognized boundary of Space is 328,083.99 feet (100,000 meters), any prospective challenger would have to hit a very narrow band of the atmosphere.
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 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. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.
A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot with the 355th Fighter Group in World War II, he was shot down by ground fire on his fifty-third combat mission, 23 February 1945, and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war until the war in Europe came to an end in April 1945.
After the war, White accepted a reserve commission while he attended college to earn a degree in engineering. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, and assigned to a P-51 fighter squadron in South Korea. Later, he commanded the 22nd Tactical Fighter Squadron (flying the Republic F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter bomber) based in Germany, and later, the 53rd TFS. During the Vietnam War, Lieutenant Colonel White, as the deputy commander for operations of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, flew seventy combat missions over North Vietnam in the F-105D, 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 fighter program. In 1970 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.
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.
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.
22 August 1963: On his twenty-fifth and last flight with the X-15 program, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker would attempt a flight to Maximum Altitude. Engineers had predicted that the X-15 was capable of reaching 400,000 feet (121,920 meters) but simulations had shown that a safe reentry from that altitude was risky. For this flight, Flight 91, the flight plan called for 360,000 feet (109,728 meters) to give Walker a safety margin. Experience had shown that slight variations in engine thrust and climb angle could cause large overshoots in peak altitude, so this was not considered an excessive safety margin.
For this flight, Joe Walker flew the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672. It was the only one of the three North American Aviation X-15s equipped with the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system, which had been developed to improve control of the rocketplane outside Earth’s atmosphere. This flight was the twenty-second for Number 3.
Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) above Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada, about half-way between the city of Reno and the NASA High Range Tracking Station at Ely. Launch time was 10:05:57.0 a.m., PDT. Walker ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust. Experience had shown that different engines varied from flight to flight and that atmospheric conditions were a factor. Thrust beyond 60,000 pounds was often seen, but this could not be predicted in advance. The flight plan called for the duration of burn to be 84.5 seconds on this flight. The X-15 climbed at a 45° angle.
As Walker was about to shut down the engine according to plan, it ran out of fuel. The total burn time was 85.8 seconds, just slightly longer than planned.
“At burnout, Joe was passing 176,000 feet [53,645 meters] and traveling at 5,600 feet per second [1,707 meters per second]. He then began the long coast to peak altitude. It would take almost 2 minutes to reach peak altitude after burn out. Two minutes does not seem like a lot of time, but try timing it. Just sit back in your easy chair and count off the seconds. It is almost impossible to believe that you can continue to coast up in altitude for that length of time after the engine burns out. It gives you some feel for how much energy is involved at those speeds. For comparison, when you throw a ball up in the air as hard as you can, it only coasts upward a maximum of 4 or 5 seconds. The X-15 coasted up for 120 seconds.
“The airplane would coast up another 178,000 feet during that time to peak out at 354,200feet. . . .”
—At The Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, Chapter 5 at Page 125.
Joe Walker and the X-15 reached the peak of their ballistic trajectory at 354,200 feet (67.083 miles, 107,960 meters). Walker pitched the nose down to be in the proper attitude for atmospheric reentry. The X-15 decelerated as it hit the atmosphere and Walker experienced as much as 7 Gs. The rocketplane’s aerodynamic control surfaces again became operational as it descended through 95,000 feet (28,956 meters) and Walker leveled at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). He then glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after 11 minutes, 8.6 seconds of flight.
Flight 91 was the highest flight achieved by any of the X-15s. It was Joe Walker’s second flight into space. His record would stand for the next 41 years.
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.