13 April 1960: Major Robert M. White, USAF, made the first flight of an X-15 by an Air Force test pilot.
Carried aloft by a Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, serial number 52-003, the first of three X-15 hypersonic research aircraft, 56-6670, was airdropped at 0915 above Rosamond Dry Lake. Major White ignited the two Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engines and with a burn time of 4 minutes, 13.7 seconds, the X-15 accelerated to Mach 1.9 (1,254 miles per hour/2,018 kilometers per hour) and reached 48,000 feet (14,630 meters). Both numbers were slightly short of the planned Mach 2.0 (1,320 miles per hour/2,124 kilometers per hour) and 50,000 feet (15,240 meters).
After 8 minutes, 52.7 seconds, Bob White and the X-15 touched down at Edwards Air Force Base.
Over the next 32 months Bob White made 16 flights in the X-15. He was the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He flew it to Mach 6.04, 4,093 miles per hour (6,587 kilometers per hour) and set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) altitude record of 314,750 feet (95,936 meters), for an altitude gain of 82,190 meters (269,652 feet).¹
White was one of three pilots awarded astronaut wings for his flights in the X-15.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
12 August 1960: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Major Robert M. White flew the North American Aviation X-15 rocketplane to an altitude of 136,500 feet (41,605 meters), exceeding the previous unofficial record of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters) set by the late Captain Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr., with the Bell X-2, 7 September 1956.
Iven Kincheloe had been assigned as the Air Force’s project pilot for the X-15. When he was killed on a routine flight, Bob White was designated to replace him.
This was White’s fourth flight in an X-15, and the 19th flight of the X-15 Program. The Number 1 rocketplane, serial number 56-6670, was carried aloft under the right wing of the “mothership,” Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003. At 08:48:43.0 a.m., PDT, 56-6670 was dropped over Silver Lake, near the Nevada-California border. White fired the two Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-13 rocket engines and they burned for 256.2 seconds.
This flight took place in Phase II of the Program and was intended to gradually increase the envelope of X-15 performance with the XLR11 engines while waiting for the much more powerful XLR99. The purpose of Flight 19 was to reach maximum altitude in order to test the rocketplane’s stability and controllability above the atmosphere.
The X-15 accelerated to Mach 2.52, 1,773 miles per hour (2,853 kilometers per hour) while climbing at nearly a 70° angle and reached a peak altitude of 136,500 feet (41,605 meters). After engine shutdown, White glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake and touched down. The duration of the flight was 11 minutes, 39.1 seconds.
Neither Kincheloe’s or White’s altitudes are recognized as records by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale(FAI). Over the next few years, the X-15 would reach to nearly three times higher.