Tag Archives: Rocketplane

8 October 1954

Captain Arthur W. Murray, U.S. Air Force (1918–2011). Murray is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit with K-1 helmet for high altitude flight. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Arthur W. Murray, U.S. Air Force (1918–2011). Murray is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force)

8 October 1954: After two earlier glide flights flown by test pilot Jack Ridley, Captain Arthur Warren (“Kit”) Murray, U.S. Air Force, made the first powered flight of the Bell Aircraft Corporation X-1B rocket-powered supersonic research aircraft, serial number 48-1385.

Five months earlier, Murray had flown the X-1A to an altitude of 90,440 feet (25,570 meters). He was the first pilot to fly high enough to see the curvature of the Earth and a dark sky at mid day.

The X-1B was the third in a series of experimental X-1 rocketplane variants built by the Bell Aircraft Corporation for the United States Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), for research into supersonic flight. It was fitted with 300 thermocouples to measure aerodynamic heating. It was the first aircraft equipped with a pilot-controlled reaction control system which allowed for maneuvering the aircraft at high altitudes where normal aerodynamic controls were no longer effective.

NACA 800, a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress, 45-21800, with the Bell X-1B, at Edwards Air Force Base, 8 April 1958. (NASA)
NACA 800, a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress, 45-21800, with the Bell X-1B, at Edwards Air Force Base, 9 April 1958. (NASA)

Like the X-1 and X-1A, the X-1B was carried by a modified four-engine B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber (B-29-96-BW 45-21800), before being airdropped at altitudes of 25,000 to 35,000 feet (7,620 to 10,668 meters) near Edwards Air Force Base, California. After its fuel was expended, the pilot would glide for a landing on Rogers Dry Lake.

The X-1B was 35 feet, 7 inches (10.846 meters) long with a wing span of 28 feet (8.53 meters). Its loaded weight was 16,590 pounds (7,520 kilograms). The X-1B was powered by a Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine, fueled with a mixture of water and alcohol with liquid oxygen. It produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.689 kilonewtons. The XLR11 was 5 feet, 0 inches (1.524 meters) long, 1 foot, 7 inches (0.483 meters) in diameter, and weighed 210 pounds (95 kilograms). Each of the four thrust chambers were 1 foot, 9¾ inches (0.552 meters) long and 6 inches (0.152 meters) in diameter.

The rocket plane was designed to reach 1,650 miles per hour (2,655 kilometers per hour) and 90,000 feet (27,432 meters).

Bell X-1B (Bell Aircraft Corporation)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 (U.S. Air Force)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 on Rogers Dry Lake (NASA E-2547)
Bell X-1B on Rogers Dry Lake (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 on Rogers Dry Lake (NASA)

This was Kit Murray’s only flight in the X-1B. After being flown by a number of other Air Force test pilots, including Stuart Childs and Frank Everest, the rocketplane was turned over to NACA for the continued flight test program. NACA research pilots John McKay and Neil Armstrong made those flights.

X-1B 48-1385 made 27 flights. It was retired in January 1958. It is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)
Bell X-1B 46-1385 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 30 July 1958. (NASA)

Arthur Warren Murray was born at Cresson, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, 26 December 1918. He was the first of two children of Charles Chester Murray, a clerk, and Elsie Espy Murray.

Arthur Murray attended Huntingdon High School, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, graduating 4 June 1936, and then studied Juniata College, also in Huntingdon, 1937–1938.

Kit Murray enlisted in the Field Artillery, Pennsylvania National Guard, 17 November 1939. (Some sources state that he served in the U.S. Cavalry.) Murray had brown hair and blue eyes, was 5 feet, 10 inches (1.78 meters) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kilograms). Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Sergeant Murray requested to be trained as a pilot. He was appointed a flight officer (a warrant officer rank), Army of the United States, on 5 December 1942. On 15 October 1943 Flight Officer Murray received a battlefield promotion to the commissioned rank of second lieutenant, A.U.S.

Between 6 January and 22 October 1943, Murray flew over 50 combat missions in the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk across North Africa. After about ten months in the Mediterranean Theater, he returned to the United States, assigned as an instructor flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bomber, stationed at Bradley Field, Hartford, Connecticut.

Lieutenant Murray married Miss Elizabeth Anne Strelic, who had immigrated from Czechoslovakia with her family as an infant, at Atlantic City, New Jersey, 29 December 1943. They would have six children, and foster a seventh. They later divorced. (Mrs. Murray died in 1980.)

Murray was promoted to 1st lieutenant, A.U.S., 8 August 1944. His next assignment was as a maintenance officer. He was sent to Maintenance Engineering School at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois, and from there to the Flight Test School at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio.

Murray was the first test pilot to be permanently assigned to Muroc Army Air Field (later, Edwards Air Force Base). Other test pilots, such as Captain Chuck Yeager, were assigned to Wright Field and traveled to Muroc as necessary.

Murray’s A.U.S. commission was converted to first lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, on 19 June 1947, with date of rank retroactive to 15 October 1946. The U.S. Air Force became a separate military service in 1947, and Lieutenant Murray became an officer in the new service.

Colonel Arthur Warren (“Kit”) Murray, U.S. Air Force.

Later, 1958–1960, Major Murray was the U.S. Air Force project officer for the North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane at Wright Field.

Colonel Murray retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1961. He next worked for Boeing in Seattle, Washington, from 1961 to 1969, and then Bell Helicopter in Texas.

On 4 April 1975, Kit Murray married his second wife, Ms. Ann Tackitt Humphreys, an interior decorator, in Tarrant County, Texas.

Colonel Arthur Warren Murray, United States Air Force (Retired), died at West, Texas, 25 July 2011, at the age of 92 years.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr. (2 October 1921–19 April 2006)

Albert Scott Crossfield, aeronautical engineer and test pilot, 1921–2006. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., Aeronautical Engineer and Test Pilot, 1921–2006. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., was born at Berkeley, California, 2 October 1921, the second of three children of Albert Scott Crossfield and Lucia Dwyer Scott Crossfield. (“Scott Crossfield” is the family name, going back for many generations.) His father was a chemist who was the superintendent of the Union Oil Refinery in Wilmington, California. At the age of 5 years, the younger Scott Crossfield contracted pneumonia. He was comatose for a time and not expected to survive. When he finally began to recover, he was confined to bed for many months. The effects of this illness lasted throughout his childhood.

It was during this time that he developed his interest in aviation. He learned to draw, studied airplanes, and built scale models. Charles F. (“Carl”) Lienesch, who was a pilot for the Union Oil Company, gave Scotty his first ride aboard an airplane at age 6. As a teenager, he took flight lessons in an Inland Sportster at the Wilmington Airport.

Inland R400 Sportster NC267N, circa 1939. (William T. Larkins)

After his family bought a farm in Oregon, Scott Crossfield continued flight lessons and soloed a Curtis Robin at the age of 15. He earned his private pilot certificate at 18. After graduating from high school, he helped his father with the family farm before attending the University of Washington as a student of aeronautical engineering. He took a job at Boeing to pay his tuition and support.

Ensign A. S. Crossfield, Jr.

After America’s entry into World War II, Scott Crossfield enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet, but because of expected delays in training, he quickly transferred to the U.S. Navy. He enlisted as a Seaman 2/c in the Navy’s V-5 Program at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Seattle, Washington, on 21 February 1942. He began Primary Flight Training there, 7 May 1942. Scotty completed military flight training and was commissioned an Ensign, United States Navy, in December 1942.

On 21 April 1943, Ensign Albert Scott Crossfield, U.S. Navy, married Miss Alice Virginia Knoph at Corpus Christi, Texas.

Promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) with date of precedence 21 March 1944.

During World War II, Scott Crossfield served as a fighter pilot, flight and gunnery instructor, flying the Chance Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat. Though he was assigned to Fighting Squadron FIFTY-ONE (VF-51) aboard the Independence-class light aircraft carrier USS Langley (CVL-27), he did not serve in combat. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant 1 August 1945. Scotty was released from active duty 31 December 1945. After the war he joined a Naval Reserve squadron and flew the Goodyear Aircraft Co. FG-1D Corsair at NAS Sand Point, Washington.

A Goodyear FG-1D Corsair, Bu. No. 92150, unfolding its wings at NAS Sand Point, circa late 1940s. The orange band around the fuselage shows that this airplane is assigned to a Naval Reserve squadron. (U.S. Navy)

During this time he resumed his education at the University of Washington and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1949, and a master’s degree in 1950. As a graduate student he was the operator of the university’s Kirsten Aeronautical Laboratory.

The NACA High Speed Flight Station, 24 August 1954. The Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress is parked at the northeast corner of the ramp. (NASA)

In 1950 Scott Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of NASA) as an Aeronautical Research Pilot at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California. He flew many high-performance jet aircraft like the North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre, and experimental airplanes such as the Convair XF-92, Douglas X-3, Bell X-4 and X-5. He also flew the research rocket planes, making 10 rocket flights in the Bell X-1 and 77 in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

Douglas D-558-2 Bu. No. 37974 dropped from Boeing P2B-S1 Superfortress 84029, 1 January 1956. (NASA)
Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, is dropped from Boeing P2B-S1 Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, 1 January 1956. (NASA)

On 20 November 1953, Scott Crossfield became the first pilot to fly faster than twice the speed of sound (Mach 2). The D-558-II was carried aloft by a Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress drop ship (a four-engine B-29 long range heavy bomber which had been transferred from the U.S. Air Force to the Navy, then heavily modified by Douglas) to 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) and then released. Scotty fired the LR8 rocket engine and climbed to 72,000 feet (21,945 meters). He put the Skyrocket into a shallow dive and, still accelerating, passed Mach 2 at 62,000 feet (18,898 meters). After the rocket engine’s fuel was expended, he flew the rocketplane to a glide landing on Rogers Dry Lake.

In 1955 Crossfield left NACA and joined North American Aviation, Inc., as Chief Engineering Test Pilot. He planned and participated in the design and operation of the X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane for the Air Force and NASA. He also worked closely with the David Clark Co., in the development of the project’s full-pressure suits.

Milton O. Thompson, another X-15 test pilot, wrote in At the Edge of Space,

“. . . he was intimately involved in the design of the aircraft and contributed immensely to the success of the design, as a result of his extensive rocket airplane experience. . . Scott was responsible for a number of other excellent operational and safety features built into the aircraft. Thus, one might give Scott credit for much of the success of the flight program. . . .”

At the Edge of Space, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and New York, 1992, at Page 3

Scott Crossfield, NAA Chief Engineering Test Pilot; Edmond Ross Cokeley, NAA Director of Flight Test;  and Charles H. Feltz, NAA Chief Engineer, with an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane. (North American Aviation via Jet Pilot Overseas)

In 1959–1960, Scott Crossfield flew all of the contractor’s demonstration phase flights for the X-15, including 16 captive carry flights under the wing of the NB-52A Stratofortress while systems were tested and evaluated, one glide flight, and thirteen powered flights. He reached a a maximum altitude of 88,116 feet (26,858 meters) on Flight 6, and a maximum speed of Mach 2.97 (1,960 miles per hour/3,154 kilometers per hour) on Flight 26. The X-15 was then turned over to NASA and the Air Force. The X-15 Program involved a total of 199 flights from 1959 until 1968.

A. Scott Crossfield, wearing a David Clark Co. XMC-2 full-pressure suit, which he helped to design and test, with the first of three North American X-15s, 56-6670. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

After leaving the X-15 Program, Scott Crossfield continued as a Systems Director with North American Aviation, Inc., working on the Apollo Command and Service Module and the S-IVB second stage of the Saturn V rocket. He left North American in the late ’60s and served as an executive with Eastern Air Lines and Hawker Siddeley. He also continued as a aeronautical engineering consultant to private industry and government.

Among many other awards, Scott Crossfield was received the Harmon Trophy, the Collier Trophy, and the Iven C. Kincheloe Award of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots..

Scott Crossfield's 1962 Cessna 210A Centurion, photographed at Santa Monica Airport, California, 26 September 1999. (AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona via airliners.net)
Scott Crossfield’s Cessna 210A Centurion, N6579X, photographed at Santa Monica Airport, California, 26 September 1999. (AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona via airliners.net, used with permission)

In 1980 Crossfield resumed flying when he purchased a 1960 Cessna 210A Centurion, N6579X, serial number 21057579. This was a single-engine, four-place light airplane, powered by an air-cooled Continental six-cylinder engine. He had flown more than 2,000 hours in this airplane when it crashed during a severe thunderstorm, 19 April 2006, while on a flight from Prattville, Alabama, to Manassas, Virginia.

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., was killed. His remains are interred at the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., Test Pilot. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

Highly recommended: Always Another Dawn: The Story Of A Rocket Test Pilot, by Albert Scott Crossfield and Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1960.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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27 September 1956

Captain Milburn G. Apt, U.S. Air Force, with a Bell X-2. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Bell X-2. (U. S. Air Force)

27 September 1956: Captain Milburn G. (“Mel”) Apt, United States Air Force, was an experimental test pilot assigned to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. After Frank Everest and Iven Kincheloe had made twelve powered flights in the Bell X-2 supersonic research aircraft, Mel Apt was the next test pilot to fly it.

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from stainless steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)
The second of two Bell X-2 supersonic research rocketplanes, 46-675, on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. On 12 May 1953 this X-2 exploded during a captive test flight, killing Bell’s test pilot Jean L. “Skip” Ziegler. (NASA)

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable two-chamber Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons)

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50D-95-BO Superfortress bomber, serial number 48-096, was modified as the drop ship and redesignated EB-50D.

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

Bell X-2 46-674 after drop from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell X-2 46-674 after drop from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)

With Mel Apt in the cockpit on his first rocketplane flight, the B-50 carried the X-2 to 31,800 feet (9,693 meters). After it was dropped from the bomber, Apt ignited the rocket engine and began to accelerate. He passed Mach 1 at 44,000 feet (13,411 meters) and continued to climb. Apt flew an “extraordinarily precise profile” to reach 72,200 feet (22,007 meters) where he put the X-2 into a dive. The rocket engine burned 12.5 seconds longer than planned, and at 65,589 feet (19,992 meters) the X-2 reached Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour, 3,377 kilometers per hour).

Milburn Apt was the first pilot to exceed Mach 3. He was The Fastest Man Alive.

Bell X-2 46-674 in flight over Southern California, 1955–56. Note the supersonic diamond-shaped shock waves in the rocket engine's exhaust. (Bell aircraft Corporation)
Bell X-2 46-674 in flight over Southern California, 1955–56. Note the supersonic diamond-shaped shock waves in the rocket engine’s exhaust. (Bell Aircraft Corporation)

It was known that the X-2 could be unstable in high speed maneuvers. The flight plan called for Apt to slow to Mach 2.4 before beginning a gradual turn back toward Rogers Dry Lake where he was to land, but he began the turn while still at Mach 3. Twenty seconds after engine burn out, the X-2 began to oscillate in all axes and departed controlled flight. His last radio transmission was, “There she goes.” ¹

Mel Apt was subjected to acceleration forces of ± 6 Gs. It is believed that he was momentarily unconscious. Out of control, the X-2 fell through 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in an inverted spin. Apt initiated the escape capsule separation, in which the entire nose of the X-2 was released from the airframe. It pitched down violently and Mel Apt was knocked unconscious again. He regained consciousness a second time and tried to parachute from the escape capsule, but was still inside when it hit the desert floor at several hundred miles per hour. Mel Apt was killed instantly.

Since 1950, Milburn G. Apt was the thirteenth test pilot killed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674, in the Kramer Hills, east of Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674. (NASM 9A08208)

Milburn Grant Apt was born at Buffalo, Kansas, 8 April 1924. He was the third child of Oley Glen Apt, a farmer, and Ada Willoughby Apt.

“Mel” Apt enlisted as a private in the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve, United States Army, 9 November 1942. On 23 June 1943, Private Apt was appointed an Aviation Cadet. After completing flight training, Cadet Apt was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.). He was promoted to First Lieutenant, A.U.S., 4 September 1945. Apt was released from active duty on 11 August 1946. On 10 October 1947, he was reclassified as a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, with date of rank 8 April 1945.

In February 1950, Lieutenant Apt, then stationed at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, married Miss Faye Lorrie Baker of Phoenix. They would have two children.

Mel Apt earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, in 1951, and a second bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He then attended the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, graduating in September 1954. Apt was assigned to the Fighter Operations Branch, Air Force Flight Test Center, as a test pilot.

On 22 December 1954, Captain Apt was flying a chase plane during a test at Edwards. The test aircraft crash-landed on the dry lake and caught fire with its pilot trapped inside. Mel Apt, with his bare hands, rescued the other test pilot, saving his life. For this courageous act, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal.

Captain Apt was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his flight in the X-2. The medal was presented to his widow in a ceremony at Edwards in March 1957.

Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, was 32 years old at the time of his death. His remains were buried at the Buffalo Cemetery, Buffalo, Kansas.

Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe and Captain Milburn Grant Apt (seated in cockpit) with the Bell X-2 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1956. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

¹ Recommended: Coupling Dynamics in Aircraft: A Historical Perspective, by Richard E. Day, Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, California NASA Special Publications 532, 1997.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 September 1956

Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr., United States Air Force
Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr., United States Air Force

7 September 1956: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, test pilot Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr., U.S. Air Force, flew the Bell X-2 rocketplane, serial number 46-674, to a speed of Mach 1.7 and an altitude of 126,200 feet (38,465 meters). He was the first pilot to fly above 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) and was called “The First of the Spacemen.”

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket. In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from Stainless Steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons) burning alcohol and liquid oxygen. The engine used two rocket chambers and had pneumatic, electrical and mechanical controls. The smaller chamber could produce a maximum 5,000 pounds of thrust, and the larger, 10,000 pounds (22.24 and 44.48 kilonewtons, respectively).

Professor Robert H. Goddard, “The Father of Modern Rocketry,” authorized Curtiss-Wright to use his patents, and his rocketry team went to work for the Curtiss-Wright Rocket Department. Royalties for use of the patents were paid to the Guggenheim Foundation and Clark University. Professor Goddard died before he could also make the move to Curtiss-Wright.

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50A Superfortress bomber, serial number 46-011, was modified as the ”mothership.” A second Superfortress, B-50D-95-BO 48-096, was also modified to carry the X-2, and was redesignated EB-50D

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Bell X-2 carried by Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)
A Bell X-2 carried by Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)

Iven Kincheloe was awarded the Mackay Trophy for this flight. His altitude record remained unbeaten until the X-15 Project.

Iven Kincheloe stands in front of the Bell X-2 and the entire support team at Edwards Air Force Base. The "mothership" is a highly-modified Boeing EB-50D Superfortress. Chase aircraft are a North American F-86 Sabre, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, North American F-100 Super Sabre. The rescue helicopter is a Sikorsky H-19.
Iven Kincheloe stands in front of the Bell X-2 and the entire support team at Edwards Air Force Base. The “mothership” is a highly-modified Boeing EB-50D Superfortress. Chase aircraft are a North American F-86 Sabre, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, North American F-100 Super Sabre. The rescue helicopter is a Sikorsky H-19. (NASA)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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15 August 1951

William Barton Bridgeman (TIME Magazine)
William Barton Bridgeman (Boris Artzybasheff/TIME Magazine)

15 August 1951: Just 8 days after he set an unofficial world speed record of  Mach 1.88 (1,245 miles per hour; 2,033.63 kilometers per hour) Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot William Barton (“Bill”) Bridgeman flew the rocket-powered United States Navy/National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, to a world record altitude at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California.

The Skyrocket was airdropped at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) from a highly-modified U.S. Navy P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029. The mother ship was a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21787, transferred to the Navy and flown by another Douglas test pilot, George R. Jansen.

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)
Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)

The flight plan was for Bridgeman to fire the rocket engine and allow the Skyrocket to accelerate to 0.85 Mach while climbing. The Skyrocket was powered by a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. As the rocketplane continued to accelerate to Mach 1.12, the test pilot was to pull up, increasing the angle of climb while holding an acceleration rate of 1.2 Gs. This would result in a constantly increasing angle of climb. When it reached 50°, Bridgeman was to maintain that, climbing and accelerating, until the rocket engine ran out of fuel.

Initially, the plan was to continue climbing after engine shutdown until the D-558-II was approaching stall at the highest altitude it could reach while on a ballistic trajectory. There were differing expert opinions as to how it would behave in the ever thinner atmosphere. On the morning of the flight, Douglas’ Chief Engineer, Ed Heinemann, ordered that Bridgeman push over immediately when the engine stopped.

Bill Bridgeman stuck to the engineers’ flight plan. As the Skyrocket accelerated through 63,000 feet (19,200 meters), it started to roll to the left. He countered with aileron input, but control was diminishing in the thin air. The next time it began there was no response to the ailerons. Bridgeman found that he had to lower the Skyrocket’s nose until it responded, then he was able to increase the pitch angle again. At 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), travelling Mach 1.4, he decided he had to decrease the pitch angle or lose control. Finally at 76,000 feet (23,165 meters), the engine stopped. Following Heinemann’s order, Bridgeman pushed the nose down and the D-558-II went over the top of its arc at just 0.5 G.

Bill Bridgeman. (Unattributed)
Bill Bridgeman. (Unattributed)

“In the arc she picks up a couple of thousand feet. The altimeter stops its steady reeling and swings sickly around 80,000 feet. The altitude is too extreme for the instrument to function.

“Eighty thousand feet. It is intensely bright outside; the contrast of the dark shadows in the cockpit is extreme and strange. It is so dark lower in the cockpit that I cannot read the instruments sunk low on the panel. The dials on top, in the light, are vividly apparent. There seems to be no reflection. It is all black or white, apparent or non-apparent. No half-tones. It is a pure, immaculate world here.

“She levels off silently. I roll right and there it is. Out of the tiny windows slits there is the earth, wiped clean of civilization, a vast relief map with papier-mâché mountains and mirrored lakes and seas. . . .

“It is as if I am the only living thing connected to this totally strange, uninhabited planet 15 miles below me. The plane that carries me and I are one and alone.”

The Lonely Sky, William Bridgeman with Jacqueline Hazard, Castle and Company LTD, London, 1956, Chapter XXII at Page 268.

After the data was analyzed, it was determined that William Bridgeman and the Douglas Skyrocket had climbed to 79,494 feet (24,230 meters), higher than any man had gone before. This was the last flight that would be made with a Douglas test pilot. The rocketplane was turned over to NACA, which would assign it the number NACA 144.

A Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974. glides back toward Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air force Base. A North American Aviation F-86E-1-NA Sabre, 50-606, flies chase. Major Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager frequently flew as a chase pilot for both Bill Bridgeman and Scott Crossfield. (NASA)
A Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, glides back toward Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. A North American Aviation F-86E-1-NA Sabre, 50-606, flies chase. Lieutenant Colonel Frank K. “Pete” Everest and Major Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager frequently flew as chase pilots for both Bill Bridgeman and Scott Crossfield. (NASA)

Bill Bridgeman had been a Naval Aviator during World War II, flying the Consolidated PBY Catalina and PB4Y (B-24) Liberator long range bombers with Bombing Squadron 109 (VB-109), “The Reluctant Raiders.” Bridgeman stayed in the Navy for two years after the war, then he flew for Trans-Pacific Air Lines in the Hawaiian Islands and Southwest Airlines in San Francisco, before joining Douglas Aircraft Co. as a production test pilot, testing new AD Skyraiders as they came off the assembly line at El Segundo, California. He soon was asked to take over test flying the D-558-2 Skyrocket test program at Muroc Air Force Base.

The D-558-II Skyrocket was Phase II of a planned three phase experimental flight program. It was designed to investigate flight in the transonic and supersonic range. It was 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters) long with a 25 foot (7.62 meter) wing span. The wings were swept back to a 35° angle. The Skyrocket was powered by a Westinghouse J34-WE-40 11-stage axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 3,000 pounds of thrust, and a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. The rocket engine burned alcohol and liquid oxygen.

There were three D-558-2 Skyrockets. Between 4 February 1948 and 28 August 1956, they made a total of 313 flights. Bill Bridgeman’s speed and altitude record-setting Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, NACA 144, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, NACA 144. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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