5 December 1963: On Flight 97 of the X-15 Program, Major Robert A. Rushworth flew the number one aircraft, Air Force serial number 56-6670, to an altitude of 101,000 feet 30,785 meters) and reached Mach 6.06 (4,018 miles per hour/6,466 kilometers per hour).
The rocketplane was dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress “mother ship” 52-008, Balls 8, flying at 450 knots (833.4 kilometers per hour) at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Rushworth ignited the Reaction Motors XLR-99-RM-1 rocket engine, which burned for 81.2 seconds before shutting down.
The flight plan had called for an altitude of 104,000 feet (31,699 meters), a 78 second burn and a maximum speed of Mach 5.70. With the difficulties of flying such a powerful rocketplane, Rushworth’s flight was actually fairly close to plan. During the flight the right inner windshield cracked.
Bob Rushworth landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight of 9 minutes, 34.0 seconds.
Mach 6.06 was the highest Mach number reached for an unmodified X-15.
56-6670 flew 81 of the 199 flights of the X-15 Program. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
From 1960 to 1966, Bob Rushworth made 34 flights in the three X-15s, more than any other pilot.
18 November 1966: On Flight 175 of the research program, Major William J. (“Pete”) Knight, U.S. Air Force, flew the newly-modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, to Mach 6.33 (4,261 miles per hour/6,857 kilometers per hour) at 98,900 feet (30,245 meters). This is just 11 years, to the day, since Pete Everest made the first powered flight in the Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 rocketplane, with more than 6 times an increase in speed.
On this date, NASA made an attempt to launch two X-15s, -671 and -672, using the NB-52A 52-003 and NB-52B 52-008. However -672, the number three ship, had to abort the mission.
Balls 8, the NB-52B, flown by NASA test pilot Fitz Fulton and Colonel Joe Cotton, USAF, carried 56-6671 to the launch point over Mud Lake, Nevada, approximately 200 miles to the north of Edwards AFB. (This was the lake where -671 was severely damaged in an emergency landing, 9 November 1962. It was returned to North American to be rebuilt to the X-15A-2 configuration and returned to flight operation 19 months later.)
At 1:24:07.2 p.m. local time, Pete Knight and the X-15 were dropped from the pylon under the right wing of the B-52. He ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 and began to accelerate with its 57,000 pounds of thrust (253.549 kilonewtons).
Since this was to be a high temperature test flight, it was planned to fly no higher than 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). The denser atmosphere would result in greater aerodynamic heating of the rocketplane.
With the two external propellant tanks carrying an additional 1,800 gallons (6,814 liters) of liquid ammonia and liquid oxygen, the engine ran for 2 minutes, 16.4 seconds. The rocketplane had accelerated to Mach 2. The external tanks emptied in about 60 seconds and were jettisoned. The tanks were equipped with parachutes. They were recovered to be reused on later flights.
The X-15, now about 25,000 pounds (11,340 kilograms) lighter and without the aerodynamic drag of the tanks, continued to accelerate. At its highest speed, the rocketplane was travelling approximately 6,500 feet per second (1,981 meters per second), more than twice as fast as a high-powered rifle bullet. Its surface temperatures exceeded 1,200 °F. (649 °C.)
Knight landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. The duration of this flight had been 8 minutes, 26.8 seconds.
22 August 1963: On his twenty-fifth and last flight with the X-15 program, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker would attempt a flight to Maximum Altitude. Engineers had predicted that the X-15 was capable of reaching 400,000 feet (121,920 meters) but simulations had shown that a safe reentry from that altitude was risky. For this flight, Flight 91, the flight plan called for 360,000 feet (109,728 meters) to give Walker a safety margin. Experience had shown that slight variations in engine thrust and climb angle could cause large overshoots in peak altitude, so this was not considered an excessive safety margin.
For this flight, Joe Walker flew the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672. It was the only one of the three North American Aviation X-15s equipped with the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system, which had been developed to improve control of the rocketplane outside Earth’s atmosphere. This flight was the twenty-second for Number 3.
Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) above Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada, about half-way between the city of Reno and the NASA High Range Tracking Station at Ely. Launch time was 10:05:57.0 a.m., PDT. Walker ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust. Experience had shown that different engines varied from flight to flight and that atmospheric conditions were a factor. Thrust beyond 60,000 pounds was often seen, but this could not be predicted in advance. The flight plan called for the duration of burn to be 84.5 seconds on this flight. The X-15 climbed at a 45° angle.
As Walker was about to shut down the engine according to plan, it ran out of fuel. The total burn time was 85.8 seconds, just slightly longer than planned.
“At burnout, Joe was passing 176,000 feet [53,645 meters] and traveling at 5,600 feet per second [1,707 meters per second]. He then began the long coast to peak altitude. It would take almost 2 minutes to reach peak altitude after burn out. Two minutes does not seem like a lot of time, but try timing it. Just sit back in your easy chair and count off the seconds. It is almost impossible to believe that you can continue to coast up in altitude for that length of time after the engine burns out. It gives you some feel for how much energy is involved at those speeds. For comparison, when you throw a ball up in the air as hard as you can, it only coasts upward a maximum of 4 or 5 seconds. The X-15 coasted up for 120 seconds.
“The airplane would coast up another 178,000 feet [54,254 meters] during that time to peak out at 354,200 feet. . . .” [107,960 meters]
—At The Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, Chapter 5 at Page 125.
Joe Walker and the X-15 reached the peak of their ballistic trajectory at 354,200 feet (67.083 miles, 107,960 meters). Walker pitched the nose down to be in the proper attitude for atmospheric reentry. The X-15 decelerated as it hit the atmosphere and Walker experienced as much as 7 Gs. The rocketplane’s aerodynamic control surfaces again became operational as it descended through 95,000 feet (28,956 meters) and Walker leveled at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). He then glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after 11 minutes, 8.6 seconds of flight.
Flight 91 was the highest flight achieved by any of the X-15s. It was Joe Walker’s second flight into space. His record would stand for the next 41 years.
21 August 1967: On the 186th flight of the X-15 program, the modified North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671, made the first of two flights with a heat-protective ablative coating, designed to protect the steel structure of the rocketplane from the extreme heat of flight at high Mach numbers.
After a landing accident which caused significant damage to the Number 2 X-15, it was rebuilt by North American. A 28-inch (0.71 meter) “plug” was installed in the fuselage forward of the wings to create space for a liquid hydrogen fuel tank which would be used for an experimental “scramjet” engine that would be mounted the the ventral fin. The modified aircraft was also able to carry two external fuel tanks. It was hoped that additional propellant would allow the X-15A-2 to reach much higher speeds. The external tanks were not carried on the 21 August 1967 flight.
With Major William J. (“Pete”) Knight, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit, the X-15A-2 was airdropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008, known as Balls 8, over Hidden Hills Dry Lake, just on the California side of the border with Nevada. This was Knight’s 11th X-15 flight, and the 52nd flight for 56-6671. The launch time was 10:59:16.0 a.m., PDT. Knight fired the 57,000-pound-thrust Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and accelerated for 82.2 seconds. The purpose of this flight was to attain a high speed rather than altitude. The X-15A-2 reached Mach 4.94 (3,368 miles per hour, 5,420 kilometers per hour) at 85,000 feet (25,908 meters) and reached a peak altitude of 91,000 feet (27,737 meters). Pete Knight touched down on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, just 7 minutes, 40.0 seconds after launch.
4 August 1960: NASA research test pilot Joseph Albert Walker set an unofficial world speed record when he flew the number one North American Aviation X-15, 56-6670, to 2,195 miles per hour (3,532.5 kilometers per hour). This was the 18th flight of the X-15 Program. It was 56-6670’s eighth flight and Walker’s fourth X-15 flight. The purpose of this test was to gradually increase the rocket plane’s speed toward its design limit.
Airdropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress mothership, 52-003, over Silver Lake, near the California-Nevada border, at 08:59:13.0 a.m., PDT, Walker fired the X-15’s two Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-13 rocket engines for 264.2 seconds. The X-15 accelerated to Mach 3.31 and climbed to a peak altitude of 78,112 feet (23,810 meters). [The two XLR11s were used as an interim powerplant until the Reaction Motors XLR99 was ready. The combined thrust of both LR11s was only slightly more than the idle thrust of the XLR99.]
Walker touched down on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight of 10 minutes, 22.6 seconds.