Tag Archives: Rocketplane

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

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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

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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

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10 June 1969

North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 hypersonic research rocketplane on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

10 June 1969: The U.S. Air Force donated the first North American Aviation X-15, serial number 56-6670, to the Smithsonian Institution for display at the National Air and Space Museum.

The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)
The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. The wings and sections of the dorsal and ventral fins have been removed. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)

The first of three X-15A hypersonic research rocketplanes built by North American for the Air Force and the National Advisory Committee (NACA, the predecessor of NASA), 56-6670 made the first glide flight and the first and last powered flights of the X-15 Program. It made a total of 82 of the 199 X-15 flights.

Scott Crossfield, North American’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot, made the first unpowered flight 8 June 1959 and the first powered flight, 17 September 1959. NASA Research Test Pilot William H. “Bill” Dana made the final X-15 flight on 24 October 1968.

North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1 56-6670 at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. (D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)
The first North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A, 56-6670, at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Above and behind the X-15 is the Douglas D558-II Skyrocket that Scott Crossfield flew to Mach 2.005, 20 November 1953. (D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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8 June 1959, 16:38:40 GMT

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

8 June 1959: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, North American Aviation’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot, A. Scott Crossfield, made the first flight of the X-15A hypersonic research rocketplane.

56-6670 was the first of three X-15s built for the U.S. Air Force and NASA. It was airdropped from a Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, 52-003, at 37,550 feet (11,445 meters) over Rosamond Dry Lake at 08:38:40 a.m, Pacific Daylight Time.

This was an unpowered glide flight to check the flying characteristics and aircraft systems, so there were no propellants or oxidizers aboard, other than hydrogen peroxide which powered the pumps and generators.

The aircraft reached 0.79 Mach (522 miles per hour, 840 kilometers per hour) during the 4 minute, 56.6 second flight.

North American Aviation Chief Engineering Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield in the cockpit of X-15A 56-670 before a flight. (NASA)
North American Aviation Chief Engineering Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield in the cockpit of an X-15 before a flight. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

In his autobiography, Scott Crossfield described the first flight:

“Three” . . . “Two” . . . “One” . . .

“DROP”

Inside the streamlined pylon, a hydraulic ram disengaged the three heavy shackles from the upper fuselage of the X-15. They were so arranged that all released simultaneously, and if one failed they all failed. The impact of the release was clearly audible in the X-15 cockpit. I heard a loud “kerchunk.”

X-15A 56-6670 under the wing of NB-52A 52-003 at high altitude. Scott Crossfield is in the cockpit of the rocketplane. Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, U.S. Air Force)
X-15A 56-6670 under the wing of NB-52A 52-003 at high altitude. Scott Crossfield is in the cockpit of the rocketplane. (Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, U.S. Air Force)

The X-15 hung in its familiar place beneath the pylon for a split second. Then the nose dipped sharply down and to the right more rapidly than I had anticipated. The B-52, so long my constant companion, was gone. The X-15 and I were alone in the air and flying 500 miles an hour. In less than five minutes I would be on the ground. . . .

There was much to do in the first hundred seconds of flight. First I had to get the “feel” of the airplane, to make certain it was trimmed out for landing just as any pilot trims an airplane after take-off or . . . when dwindling fuel shifts the center of gravity. Then I had to pull the nose up, with and without flaps, to feel out the stall characteristics, so that I would know how she might behave at touchdown speeds . . . My altimeter unwound dizzily: from 24,000 to 13,000 feet in less than forty seconds. . . .

X-15A 56-6670 drops from the wing of the B-52 mothership. This is a glide flight as there is no frost from cryogenic propellants showing of the fuselage. The vapor trail is from hydrogen peroxide that powers the aircraft power systems. Note the roll to the right as the X-15 drops from the pylon. (NASA)
X-15A 56-6670 drops from the wing of the B-52 mothership, 8 June 1959. The vapor trail is from venting hydrogen peroxide used to power the aircraft pumps and generators. Note the roll to the right as the X-15 drops away from the Stratofortress. (NASA)

The desert was coming up fast. At 600 feet altitude I flared out. . . .

In the next second without warning the nose of the X-15 pitched up sharply. It was a maneuver that had not been predicted by the computers, an uncharted area which the X-15 was designed to explore. I was frankly caught off guard. Quickly I applied corrective elevator control.

The nose went down sharply. But instead of leveling out, it tucked down. I applied reverse control. The nose came up but much too far. Now the nose was rising and falling like a skiff in a heavy sea. Although I was putting in maximum control I could not subdue the motions. The X-15 was porpoising wildly, sinking toward the desert at 200 miles an hour. I would have to land at the bottom of an oscillation, timed perfectly; otherwise, I knew, I would break the bird. I lowered the flaps and the gear. . . .

. . . With the next dip I had one last chance and flared again to ease the descent. At that moment the rear skids caught on the desert floor and the nose slammed over, cushioned by the nose wheel. The X-15 skidded 5,000 feet across the lake, throwing up an enormous rooster tail of dust. . . .

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 37 at Pages 338–342.

This photograph shows the second North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6671, flaring to land on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California The rear skids are just touching down. The white patches on the aircraft's belly is frost from residual cryogenic propellants remaining in its tanks. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph shows the second North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6671, flaring to land on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. The rear skids are just touching down. The white patches on the aircraft’s belly are frost from residual cryogenic propellants remaining in its tanks after a powered flight. (U.S. Air Force)

Before the drop, it was discovered that the aircraft’s Stability Augmentation System was inoperative in pitch mode. During the flight it was found that the hydraulic-assisted flight control system was responding too slowly to Crossfield’s inputs. Engineers analyzed the problem and increased the hydraulic system pressure. The problem never recurred.

Scott Crossfield was the world’s most experienced rocketplane pilot with 82 rocketplane flights before the X-15 program. “. . . he was intimately involved in the design of the aircraft and contributed immensely to the success of the design.”

At The Edge Of Space, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, Introduction, at Page 3.

North American Aviation X-15A 56-6670 made the first glide flight and the first and last powered flights of the X-15 Program. It made a total of 82 of the 199 X-15 flights. 56-6670 is in the collection of National Air and Space Museum at Washington, D.C.

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.)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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