Tag Archives: Rocketplane

12 August 1960

Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force. (NASA)

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.

An X-15 is dropped from the NB-52A, 52-003, at an altitude of 45,000 feet at 0.8 Mach. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

8 August 1955

8 August 1955: While being carried aloft by a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the Bell X-1A was being readied for it’s next high-altitude supersonic flight by NACA test pilot Joe Walker. During the countdown, an internal explosion occurred. Walker was not injured and was able to get out. The X-1A was jettisoned. It crashed onto the desert floor and was destroyed.

A number of similar explosions had occurred in the X-1D, X-1-3 and the X-2. Several aircraft had been damaged or destroyed, and Bell Aircraft test pilot Skip Ziegler was killed when an X-2 exploded during a captive flight. A flight engineer aboard the B-29 mothership was also killed. The B-29 was able to land but was so heavily damaged that it never flew again.

Debris from the X-1A crash site was brought back to Edwards AFB for examination. It was discovered that a gasket material used in the rocket engine fuel systems was reacting with the fuel, resulting in the explosions. The problem was corrected and the mysterious explosions stopped.

Test pilot Joe Walker “horsing around” with the Bell X-1A, 1955. (NASA)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

7 August 1951

William Barton Bridgeman. (Boris Artzybasheff/TIME Magazine)

7 August 1951: Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot William Barton Bridgeman flew the rocket-powered U.S. Navy/NACA/Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974 (NACA 144), to a record speed of Mach 1.88 (1,245 miles per hour/2,034 kilometers per hour) at Muroc Dry Lake (later Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert of southern California.

The D-558-2 was airdropped at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) from a Navy P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029 (a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21787, transferred to the Navy and heavily modified as a drop ship) flown by another Douglas test pilot, George 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)

In his autobiography, Bridgeman described the flight:

We are at 34,000 feet. My cue. Ten cold minutes preparing the ship for flight. The trap door springs and releases the captive Skyrocket swollen with explosive propellants. She blasts into flight.

Thirty seconds and I am supersonic. Sixty-eight thousand feet and this is it. Over the rim. Easy. The electrically controlled stabilizer flies her now. It takes over for me. At .6 G I push over just enough to get my speed. I am on the ragged edge between .6 G and .8 G. It is working! Everything is going according to my plan. It is so easy this time. Surely I cannot be breaking my last record without having to pay for it. The Machmeter is moving up, fluttering toward the Number 2. . . the rockets sputter and the fuel is gone. That’s all she wrote.

Late that afternoon the official speed attained by the Skyrocket reduced from data and film came out  of the aerodynamicists’ office. Mach 1.88.

The Lonely Sky, William Bridgeman, Castle and Company LTD, London, 1956, Chapter XXII at Page 260.

NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, parked on Muroc Dry Lake. (NACA E-1441)

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 end of the war, then he flew for Trans-Pacific Air Lines in the Hawaiian Islands and Southwest Airlines in San Francisco, before joining the Douglas Aircraft Company as a production test pilot. He flew new AD Skyraiders as they came off the assembly line at El Segundo, California. Bridgeman soon was asked to take over test flying the D-558-2 Skyrocket test program at Muroc Air Force Base.

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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. The Skyrocket flown by Bill Bridgeman to Mach 1.88 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, on display at the National Mall Building, Smithsonian Institution. (NASM)
NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, on display at the National Mall Building, Smithsonian Institution. (NASM)

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

23 July 1956

Bell X-2 46-674 airdropped from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096 near Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Frank Kendall Everest, United States Air Force
Brigadier General Frank Kendall Everest, United States Air Force

23 July 1956: Lieutenant Colonel Frank Kendall “Pete” Everest, United States Air Force, became “The Fastest Man Alive” when he flew the USAF/NACA/Bell X-2 rocket plane, serial number 46-674, to Mach 2.87 (1,957 miles per hour, 3,150 kilometers per hour) at 87,808 feet (26,764 meters). The X-2 was air-dropped from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096, near Edwards Air Force Base, California.

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 likonewtons, 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

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. 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.

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. During the flight test program, the X-2 reached a maximum speed of Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour, 3,370 kilometers per hour) and a maximum altitude of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters).

Frank Kendall Everest was a fighter pilot and flight instructor during World War II. He flew combat missions in both the Mediterranean and China-Burma-India Theaters of Operation. In May 1945 he was shot down. Everest was captured by the Japanese, held as a prisoner and tortured until the end of the war. After the war, Everest flew as a test pilot at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and then at Edwards Air Force Base. On 23 July 1956, he was The Fastest Man Alive. Pete Everest retired as a brigadier general in 1970, and died in 2004.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Kendall Everest, U.S. Air Force, wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit for protection at high altitude, with a Bell X-2 rocketplane at Edwards AFB, circa 1956. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

27 June 1952

Jean L. Ziegler in the cockpit of Bell X-2 46-675 after landing on Rogers Dry Lake, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 27 June 1952. (NASA)

27 June 1952: The Bell X-2 research rocketplane, with company test pilot Jean Leroy (“Skip”) Ziegler at the controls, was airdropped from a “mothership,” a Boeing B-50A-5-BO Superfortress, 46-011, over Edwards Air Force Base, California. This was the first flight of the X-2 Program, and was an unpowered glide flight for pilot familiarization.

On touch down, the nose wheel collapsed and the aircraft slid across the dry lake bed, but was not seriously damaged.

Two X-2 rocketplanes, serial numbers 46-674 and 46-675, were built by the Bell Aircraft Corporation, which has also built the X-1 series. The second X-2 was the first one to fly.

Bell Aircraft Corporation test pilot Jean Leroy (“Skip”) Ziegler standing next to the Bell X-2 rocket plane on Rogers Dry Lake, California, after the first glide flight, 27 June 1952. The nose wheel collapsed on landing. (NASM)

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).

Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, california, 1952. (NASA)
Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust burning alcohol and liquid oxygen. 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. 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.

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. During the flight test program, the X-2 reached a maximum speed of Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour, 3,370 kilometers per hour) and a maximum altitude of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters).

On 12 May 1953, less than one year after the first glide flight, Skip Ziegler was in the cockpit of 46-675 while it was being carried on a captive test flight aboard the B-50A Superfortress. An internal explosion destroyed the X-2 and killed Ziegler and another crewman aboard the mothership. The rocketplane fell into Lake Ontario and neither it nor Ziegler’s body were ever recovered. The Superfortress was able to land, but was so badly damaged that it never flew again.

Jean L. "Skip" Ziegler, with the Bell X-5 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1952. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.
Jean Leroy “Skip” Ziegler, with the Bell X-5 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1952. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes