Tag Archives: Rocket Engine

North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A Hypersonic Research Rocketplane

Rollout AFFTC History Office
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, at Los Angeles Division, October 1958. (Air Force Flight Test Center History Office)

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.

Scott Crossfield prepares for a flight in the North American Aviation X-15A.

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.

North American Aviation, Inc. X-15A 56-6670 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (NASA)
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (NASA Image E-5251)

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.

 North American Aviation X-15A 56-6672 touches down on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-3 56-6672 just before touch down on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA Image E-7469)

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.

X-15A cockpit with original Lear Siegler instrument panel. (NASA)
X-15 cockpit with original Lear Siegler instrument panel. (NASA image E63-9834)

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.

Neil Armstrong with the first North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6670, on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight, 1960. His hand is resting on the rocketplane's ball nose sensor. (NASA)
NASA Research Test Pilot Neil A. Armstrong with the first North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6670, on Rogers Dry Lake after a flight, 1960. His right hand is resting on the rocketplane’s ball nose sensor. (NASA Image E60-6286)

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.

Two Reaction Motors Division XLR11-RM-5 four-chamber rocket engines installed on an X-15. (NASA)
Two Reaction Motors Division XLR11-RM-13 four-chamber rocket engines installed on an X-15. The speed brakes of the ventral fin are shown in the open position. (NASA)

The Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine was throttleable by the pilot from 28,500 to 60,000 pounds of thrust (126.77–266.89 kilonewtons). 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.

Thiokol Reaction Motors Division XLR-RM-1 rocket engine. (U.S. Air Force)
Thiokol Corporation Reaction Motors Division XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. (U.S. Air Force)

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/7,264 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.

A North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre chase plane follows NB-52A 52-003 prior to launch of an X-15. (NASA)
A North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre chase plane follows NB-52A 52-003 prior to launch of an X-15. (NASA)

Recommended reading:

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

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 21.18.14
North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-2 56-6671 accelerates after igniting its Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine (NASA)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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8 August 1957

Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-50/3 (Mikoyan Design Bureau via The Corner of the Sky)
Nikolay Arkadevich Korovin

8 August 1957: At Ramenskoye Airfield, Moscow, Russia, senior test pilot Lieutenant Colonel Nikolay Arkadevich Korovin (Коровин Николай Аркадьевич) was scheduled to take an experimental prototype interceptor to an altitude of 20,000 meters (65,617 feet).

The airplane was the Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-50/3 (also known as the E-50/3). It was powered by an afterburning turbojet engine and a liquid-fueled rocket engine. This was the third prototype of the series.

The three Ye-50 prototypes were variants of the MiG 21. They were developed from the earlier MiG Ye-2, with a rocket engine installed. This was not merely a booster engine, but the aircraft carried sufficient fuel for as much as 20 minutes of rocket-assisted flight. A planned production interceptor, the Ye-50A, was designated MiG 23U. Only one of these was built.

Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-50/3 (Mikoyan Design Bureau via The Corner of the Sky)

The Ye-50/3 differed from Ye-50/2 with an increased fuel capacity and extended air intake with sharp leading edge. The Ye-50/3 was 4.85 meters (48.72 feet) long with a wingspan of 8.11 meters (21.61 feet). The aircraft had an empty weight of 5,920 kilograms (13,051 pounds), and maximum takeoff weight of 8,500 kilograms (18,739 pounds).

The Ye-50/3 was powered by an A.A. Mikulin AM-9E afterburning turbojet engine rated at 3,800 kilograms force ( pounds thrust) and a liquid-fueled Dushkin S-155 rocket engine. The S-155 used a hypergolic mixture of nitric acid and kerosene as fuel. It produced 1,300 kgf (2,866 pounds of thrust).

Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-50/3 (Mikoyan Design Bureau via The Corner of the Sky)

The Ye-50/3 had been completed in April 1957. Prior to 8 August, Ye-50/3 had made 10 test flights, 6 of which successfully used the rocket engine. It had a maximum speed of 2,460 kilometers per hour (1,529 miles per hour), or Mach 2.33. The service ceiling was 23,000 meters (75,460 feet. Its range was 475 kilometers (295 miles).

The Ye-50/3 was the only one of the three prototypes to be armed. It carried two Nudelman-Rikhter NR-30 30 mm autocannon.

Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-50/3 (Mikoyan Design Bureau via The Corner of the Sky)

Ramenskoye Airfield was very busy that day. Colonel Korovin’s launch was delayed by traffic on the runway. Finally, he took of at 12:50 p.m. and accelerated into a climb.

At 1:01 p.m., Colonel Korovin radioed that the aircraft was in a spin. 30 seconds later, he called that he was ejecting.

The Ye-50/3 crashed near the village of Radovitsy, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Ramenskoye. The body of Colonel Korovin was located about 150 meters (164 yards) from the crash site, still in his ejection seat. The parachute had not opened, and the test pilot had been killed on impact.

The accident investigation found that during the delay to takeoff, the liquid oxidizer accumulated in the combustion chamber. This caught fire as the prototype took off. The rocket engine’s turbopump exploded. The explosion damaged the flight control system and the prototype caught fire. The fire burned away a portion of the airplane’s vertical fin. When it entered a spin, Colonel Korovin was unable to recover. It was found that he had removed his gloves and tried to manually pull the ejection seat parachute release cable, but to no avail.

On 9 September 1957, Lieutenant Colonel Korovin was posthumously named a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Cockpit of Mikoyan-Gurevich Ye-50/3. (Mikoyan Design Bureau via The Corner of the Sky)
Коровин Николай Аркадьевич

Nikolay Arkadevich Korovin was born 7 May 1920 at the village of Galanovo in the Votsk Autonomous Oblast (now, the Udmurt Republic). His family were peasants who worked on a collective farm. Korovin completed six grades of formal education.

In 1938 Korovin joined the Red Army. He received further education at a military school in Perm, a city in Russia near the Ural Mountains, graduating in 1939. The following year, he completed pilot training at the Stalingrad Military Aviation School.

From 1941 through 1944, Korovin served as a pilot instructor at Chkalovskaya (now Orenburg, Kazakhstan). In March 1944, he was assigned to combat operations, first with the 91st Guards Aviation Regiment (Ground Attack), and then the 92nd Guards. He fought on the second Ukrainian Front, and in Hungary, Checkoslavakia and Austria. He flew 66 combat missions in the Ilyushin Il-2 Штурмовик (Šturmovík) during the Great Patriotic War.

The Ilyushin Il-2 Šturmovík was the most-produced aircraft of the Second World War. (NASM)

Korovin remained in the Soviet Air Force following the War. He graduated from a senior officers tactical school at Taganrog, Rostov Oblast, in 1950, and then, in 1951, became a senior test pilot for the State Red Banner Scientific-Testing Institute for the Air Force (GK NII VVS). In 1955, Korovin flew government tests of the MiG 19.

During his military career, Lieutenant Colonel Nikolay Arkadevich Korovin was awarded the Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner, Order of the Patriotic War 1st Degree, and Order of the Red Star (two awards). His remains were buried at the military cemetery at Chkalovskaya.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

 

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