As far back as 1935, German aerodynamicist Dr. Adolf Busemann gave a paper at the fifth Volta Conference in Rome in which he introduced the swept wing as an idea for reducing the drag of supersonic airplanes. The conference topic, “High Velocities in Aviation,” was forward­looking. At that time, the speeds of typical aircraft were in the range of 250 miles per hour, and supersonic aircraft were not yet on the radar. Busemann’s swept-wing idea was virtually ignored by the audience, an “invitation only” crowd that consisted of some of the most important aerodynamicists of the day. Ignored, that is, by everybody except the German Luftwaffe, which classified the concept in 1936—one year after the Volta Conference. During World War II,


X-15 mounted under the wing of the B-52 for its first captive flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center Flistory Office, Edwards Air Force Base

the Germans carried out secret, extensive aerodynamic research on swept wings, producing volumes of wind tunnel data, which was subsequently discovered by the Allied intelligence teams that went into German laboratories at the end of the war. Moreover, in 1944, R. T. Jones, one of the NACA’s best aerodynamicists, had independently proved the viability of the swept wing for reducing wave drag on high-speed wings.

This new information on swept wings, nevertheless, was too late for practical use by the designers of the X-1, who had already gone too far in the straight-wing design for the X-1.

But to compensate, the Air Force and Bell signed a new contract on December 14, 1945, for the design, development, and construction of an entirely new swept-wing X-aircraft, the X-2. This research aircraft was designed for speeds above Mach 3, which put it in the flight regime where aerodynamic heating becomes an important consideration. In fact, the investigation of aerodynamic heating at high Mach numbers was one of the principal drivers for the X-2. The skin temperature varies approximately as the square of the Mach number. Everything else being equal, the skin temperature of the X-2 (Mach 3) is nine times higher than that for the X-1 (Mach 1). This required that the X-2 be fabricated from K-monel and stainless steel alloys, rather than aluminum. Also, supersonic aerodynamics of the day dictated that an optimum supersonic airfoil shape be a thin bi-convex (circular arc) with an extremely sharp leading edge. The 40-degree swept wing of the X-2 had a thin, circular arc airfoil and an aspect ratio of 4.

Like its predecessors, the X-2 was rocket – powered. The X-2 contract included the engine, and Bell had designed for 15,000 pounds of thrust provided by two rockets, one with 5,000 pounds of thrust mounted above the other, which had 10,000 pounds of thrust. Each engine was oriented so that the thrust vector of each went through the center of gravity of the airplane. Each engine was throttleable to half, so there would be continuous thrust levels from 2,500 pounds to 15,000 pounds. The Air Force selected Curtiss-Wright, which— with Bell’s approval—took over the development of the rocket motors.

Bell Aircraft was responsible for the installation and testing of the rocket engine and for its operation during flight. Bill Smith, Bell’s chief of rocket engines, personally led these test efforts at Edwards Air Force Base, and he monitored the live static rocket testing on the ground from about 25 yards away from the airplane. (This was a far cry from modern rocket engine testing, which is conducted from concrete block houses to protect the test operators.)

Подпись: r v - V



X-2 with its B-50 mother ship, support vehicles, support personnel, support helicopter, and chase planes. NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

The Air Force wanted to involve another company in the aircraft rocket engine business in addition to Reaction Motors, and with the agreement of


Bell, they chose Curtiss-Wright. The Curtiss – Wright Corporation was formed in 1929 from the consolidation of the Wright Aeronautical and Glenn Curtiss companies, combining the two most important aeronautical pioneers in the history of early flight in the United States. Curtiss – Wright produced the famous P-40 during World War II, the airplane that was flown by the Flying Tigers in China. After the war, Curtiss-Wright fell behind in the design of jet airplanes and phased out of the aircraft design field, taking up the production of aircraft components and simulators.

Their excursion into aircraft rocket engines, prompted by the X-2, was transitory.

The decision to go with Curtiss-Wright for the engines ultimately resulted in delays. Although Bell produced two airframes by early 1953, only one engine was available, and that not until early 1953. Ironically, one X-2 was lost due to an engine explosion that took place in the bomb bay of the B-50 carrier aircraft. On May 12, 1953, company test pilot Jean Ziegler participated in a captive test flight that was intended to qualify the liquid oxygen top-off and jettisoning system. (A captive test flight is a flight in which the airplane is carried aloft by the mother plane but never released. The X-2 remained attached to the B-50 for the entire
flight—thus the name “captive” test flight.) When the B-50 was at 30,000 feet over the center of Lake Ontario, an explosion took place. The B-50 was tossed 650 feet upward, and the X-2 disintegrated. Both Ziegler and B-50 observer Frank Wolko were lost. The B-50 immediately returned to its home base. The weather was bad, with a heavy overcast ceiling of about 10 feet. It remained bad for a week, and searches to find the two men by Bell and government aircraft found nothing.

Test flying of the X-2 continued with the second aircraft. From August 8, 1954, to September 27, 1956, a total of seventeen flights were made in

the second X-2. On July 23, 1956, with Air Force Capt. Frank Everest at the controls, the X-2 set a new unofficial world speed record of Mach 2.87. Two months later, on September 27, 1956, the X-2 made aviation history, becoming the first airplane to fly faster than Mach 3. With Air Force Capt. Milburn Apt at the controls, the X-2 set an unofficial world speed record of Mach 3.196. This was Apt’s first flight in the X-2; he flew a near-perfect flight plan to a maximum altitude of 72,000 feet and nosed over, attaining the maximum Mach number at 66,000 feet. However, Apt then put the X-2 in a slight roll, not in the flight plan. The X-2, due to inertia coupling, was unstable in roll at that Mach number and went out of control. The airplane and pilot were both lost, underscoring the dangers of test flying in unknown flight regimes.



Bill Dana was the eleventh X-15 test pilot. He flew the X-15 sixteen times and was the pilot for the 199th flight, the last of the X-15 program.

Bill Dana was born in Pasadena, California, on November 3, 1930. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1952. He satisfied his military commitment by serving as a pilot in the U. S. Air Force for four years, after which he attended the University of Southern California. At USC, he graduated with a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1958. He began his distinguished civilian career at the Dryden Flight Research Center on October 1, 1958.

This was the first day that NASA went into operation, and Dana proudly became NASA’s first employee. He was involved with the X-15 from that first day, initially as an engineer, then as a chase pilot, and finally as a project pilot. His first X-15 flight was on November 4, 1965, a checkout flight during which he reached Mach 4.22 and an altitude of 80,200 feet. At this point in the X-15 program, even the pilot checkout flights were relatively high – performance. This flight required two relights of the rocket engine. On October 4, 1967, Dana reached his highest speed, Mach 5.53, and on November 1, 1966, he achieved his highest altitude of 306,900 feet, one of two flights he made above 50 miles.

By the end of the X-15 program, Dana was just at the beginning of his distinguished career as a test pilot and aeronautical engineer. Building on his experience flying the X-15, he became a project pilot for NASA’s manned lifting body program, a precursor to the Space Shuttle. He completed one NASA M2-F1, nine Northrop HL-10, nineteen Northrop M2-F3, and two Martin Marietta X-24B flights, for a total of thirty-one lifting body missions. For this work, he received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.

In 1976, Dana received the Haley Space Flight Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 1986, he became the chief pilot at the Flight Research Center, and he then became the assistant chief of the Flight Operations Directorate. He continued to fly on several important research programs: the F-15 Highly Integrated Digital Electronic Control and the F-18 High Angle of Attack program. In August 1993, Dana became chief engineer of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, and he held that position until his retirement in 1998.

After retirement, Dana began a distinguished second career by working as a contractor with the NASA Dryden History Office. He was honored by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1998 when he was selected to give the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Lecture, the most prestigious lecture at the museum. His lecture title was “A History of the X-15.” He still continues to lecture and write papers based on his experience in high-speed flight.


The X-1, X-1A, and X-2 were precursors to the X-15 and were relevant to the future design of X-15, for the following reasons:

1) They were designed to be strictly research airplanes.

2) They were all powered by liquid-fuel rocket engines.

3) They were all air-launched. They were designed with no intention of ever evolving into viable military combat aircraft.

These research aircraft accomplished the first three steppingstones to high-speed flight: the X-1 to Mach 1, the X-1A to Mach 2.44, and the X-2 to Mach 3.2. The next phase was going to be huge, stepping into the regime of hypersonic flight. This was to be the role of the X-15.


▲ B-52 mother ship taking off with the X-15 mated under its wing. USAF,

Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

▼ X-15 landing with an F-104 chase plane following close by. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base





X-15A-2 under the wing of the B-52 mother ship in flight. USAF,

Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base





Mike Adams was the twelfth (and last) pilot in the program, and he was the only pilot to lose his life flying the X-15.

On November 15, 1967, Michael Adams, veteran pilot with six previous X-15 flights, entered the aircraft for a flight to evaluate a guidance display and to conduct several experiments. He had spent more than 21 hours practicing the specifics of this flight in the simulator. The drop at about 10 a. m. and 45,000 feet was normal, and he climbed to 266,000 feet. While the aircraft climbed to higher altitude after launch, an electrical disturbance caused the MH – 96 dampers to trip out. Adams reset the dampers. He then switched the sideslip indicator to a vernier

Подпись: Mike Adams in the X-15 cockpit before his first flight, October 6, 1966. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base
attitude control mode to more accurately control the experiments. He planned to reset this back to indicate yaw angle when returning to base in order to see his sideslip during approach to landing. But this instrument change prevented him from seeing that the airplane was yawing at a critical time in the flight.

After burnout, as he soared upward, he conducted a wing-rocking experiment, in which the rocking became excessive as he approached his peak altitude, 266,000 feet. His yaw had drifted to 15 degrees, and he was unaware of this because his instrument was inadvertently set to show pitch attitude, not yaw. About 15 seconds later, the airplane was yawing wildly and Adams
communicated to Pete Knight that “the airplane seems squirrelly.” He soon after stated that he was in a spin, subjected to high accelerations. Since little was known about the hypersonic spin characteristics of the airplane, the ground crew was not able to offer advice. According to the ground data that was later correlated with the flight data, when Adams recovered, he was yawed 90 degrees, flying upside down, and descending at supersonic speed.

Adams pulled out of the spin, and he probably would have had a successful landing except that the MH-96, the Minneapolis-Honeywell adaptive flight control system, was on and locked in, causing the airplane to oscillate between its limits,

Подпись: Adams suited up and walking to the X-15 for his first flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base
up and down, preventing Adams from correcting his attitude and flying his way home. The loads on the airplane built up beyond the structural limits, and the X-15-3 aircraft broke up at approximately 62,000 feet and about 3,800 feet-per-second speed. It crashed to the desert floor near Johannesburg, California. There was talk about Adams having slight vertigo, which may have contributed to his not noticing the yaw buildup or resetting the yaw indicator to the yaw setting.

Adams’s death shows the dangers of flight testing a new aircraft in previously untested regions of flight, and of flying experiments in which certain research-data measuring instruments may have caused an electrical

disturbance that affected the MH-96 from operating at its top quality and in conditions it was not designed for. Any and all these things may have influenced the accident.

Because his flight was above 50 miles high, Adams was posthumously awarded an astronaut rating. For the X-15 program, the tragedy was a blight, but it was the only casualty in 199 flights. Since the objectives for the airplane had been accomplished, the accident was a major reason for the termination of the X-15 program. There were only seven subsequent flights.

Michael Adams was born on May 5, 1930, in Sacramento, California. After graduating from Sacramento Junior College, he enlisted in the Air


The rotational motion of an airplane in flight takes place centered around the airplane’s center of gravity. It is a combination of three rotational directions: the nose up or down rotation, called pitch; the wing rotation about the fuselage, called roll; and the nose swinging right or left, called yaw.

Force in November 1950. The Korean War was in full force at that time, and Adams flew forty – nine combat missions as a fighter-bomber pilot in Korea. In 1958, he earned an aeronautical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, and he went on to eighteen months of study at MIT in astronautics. In 1962, he was selected to attend the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base. He excelled at the school, winning the Honts Trophy as the best scholar and pilot in his class. In December 1963, he graduated with honors from the Aerospace Research Pilot School. His first flight in the X-15 was on October 6, 1966. On June 8, 2004, a memorial monument to Adams was erected near the crash site, northwest of Randsburg, California.

Test pilots are a special breed. They face risks above and beyond those faced by conventional pilots. The X-15 pilots, however, are in a special class. They were research test pilots, putting their lives on the line to prove the viability of a pioneering hypersonic airplane and to obtain research data on an unknown regime of flight.

This data was invaluable to the subsequent design of the Space Shuttle.

image148On almost every flight of the X-15, some type of technical problem or failure occurred, sometimes multiple problems on the same flight.

Signed photo of six of the X-15 pilots standing beside the X-15. From left to right: Rushworth, McKay, Peterson, Walker, Armstrong, and White. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base



X-15 mounted under the wing of the B-52 prior to a flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base




image152X-15 on the lakebed of Rogers Dry Lake. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

It is remarkable that only one pilot, Mike Adams lost his life during the whole X-15 program of 199 flights. Ten of the twelve had formal college degrees in aeronautical engineering and took pride in their status as dedicated, professional aeronautical engineers. All served at one time or another in the military, and six (Crossfield, Walker, McKay, Armstrong, Thompson, and Dana) were in civilian status when they flew the X-15. Of the career military officers who flew the X-15, three retired as major generals in the Air Force and one as a vice admiral in the Navy.

B-52 flying over the X-15 on the ground. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center Flistory Office, Edwards Air Force Base





The X-15 was born on October 5, 1954, when the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics finally decided on the need for a manned hypersonic research airplane. No airplane had even come close to flight at Mach 5 or higher. The Bell X-1 had achieved Mach 1, the Bell X-1A Mach 2.44, and the Bell X-2 Mach 3.2. But to greenlight the development of an airplane that could fly at Mach 7 was truly visionary. No such manned airplane had ever been designed, much less built. Normally, engineers study the previous incarnation of the plane they want to build, innovating from these earlier successful design ideas. But the X-15 was revolutionary—no “before” design even existed. The team would have to start from scratch.

image61image62And for good reason.



X-15-3 on the lakebed. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


The X-15 airplane had to be able to accelerate to Mach 7 and climb to over 250,000 feet in order to fill in the unexplored range in speeds above Mach 3.2 and altitudes above 126,200 feet, the maximum achieved by the X-2. (The Bell X-1 had reached 71,902 feet, and the Bell X-1A had reached 90,440 feet.) Like its predecessors, the X-15 would be flown out of Edwards Air Force Base, which was the only installation that had the support equipment and personnel—it was the location of the Air Force Test Pilot School—to
handle the research test flights. Moreover, because of the high landing speed of the X-15, Edwards had the only “runway” long enough for landing the airplane—essentially the whole expanse of the Muroc Dry Lake bed.

The new airplane, like the X-1 and X-2 before it, would be rocket-powered with high thrust, and it would be carried aloft in a “mother ship” to save fuel by applying the thrust at an altitude where the air density was low (hence, low drag). The X-15 would also have to carry enough fuel


▲ X-15 under the wing of the B-52 in flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

▼ X-15-1 mounted under the wing of the B-52 before its first flight, June 8, 1959, with Scott Crossfield in the cockpit. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base





Monocoque is a French word meaning “single shell.” Here, the fuselage is a single, hollow shell that carries on its surface the aerodynamic loads exerted on the fuselage. A monocoque fuselage allows maximum space inside the fuselage for internal components, such as fuel and oxidizer tanks, and electronic equipment. A semi – monocoque structure has additional elements inside the shell, such as formers that conform to the cross-sectional shape of the fuselage and stringers that run longitudinally along the fuselage. These provide additional structural strength while still preserving volume inside the fuselage for other components. These structural elements can be seen in the cutaway view of the X-15A-2 shown on the opposite page.

to allow the high thrust to operate long enough to accelerate to the speeds and altitudes needed to perform the mission. So, the airplane had to be big enough for the fuel volume needed and be able to carry a rocket engine with far more thrust than employed previously, as well as structural materials that would maintain strength at the high temperatures to which the airplane would be subjected at its high speeds of flight.

The design also had to consider the requirements of the nonhypersonic flight regimes for the other portions of flight: It would drop from the mother ship at high subsonic speed, accelerate through Mach 1 and the transonic speed region,
then through supersonic and hypersonic flight in getting to and from the targeted data points, and finally it would have to decelerate from hypersonic flight to return to the landing site, followed by descent and landing that had to occur at relatively low subsonic conditions.

Because of these specific design requirements, the engineers started with a blank slate, using all of the latest technologies that might apply to the new airplane and the extreme conditions, known and unknown, that it would endure. They also built upon their previous experience and knowledge of the known flight regimes to design an aircraft that could unveil the mysteries of hypersonic flight.

The X-15’s fuselage, wings, tail, size, and weight generally look conventional. The fuselage structure is monocoque and semimonocoque. The pilot compartment was a little more ample than that of a fighter jet. The wing has a span of 22 feet, uses an NACA 66005 symmetric laminar flow airfoil, has an area of 200 square feet and an aspect ratio of 2.5, and features a sweepback angle at the quarter chord of 25 degrees. The horizontal tail is tilted down from the fuselage, and the upper vertical tail looks like most others except that the airfoil is wedge-shaped with a blunt trailing edge, unlike the usual airfoil shapes.

But there are two major changes that further distinguish the X-15:

First, there are no ailerons on the wing; roll – control is achieved by deflecting differentially the right and left sections of the horizontal tail. Also, the horizontal tail has no elevators; instead, the whole right and left sections deflect in the same direction together to provide pitch control.

Second, the vertical tail has an unusual airfoil section. It is essentially a vertical slab, small and rounded at the leading edge and flat-sided at a 5-degree half-angle out to the trailing edge, which is blunt.

X-15 cutaway schematic. The Hypersonic Revolution, Vol. 1, edited by Richard P. Hallion, p. 141, USAF History Office



X-15 three-side view.

NASA Dryden Flight Research Center


Mach waves (very weak shock waves) on a


Oblique shock waves on a wedge-type body, demonstrating that the stronger shock wave is at a larger angle than the weak Mach wave.


Demonstration of the constant pressure exerted on the face of the wedge, downstream of the shock wave.

The leading edge is rounded in order to reduce the aerodynamic heating in that region. Overall, the vertical tail is a geometrically simple 10-degree total angle wedge with a blunt, flat surface for the trailing edge. The wedge shape has two aerodynamic advantages at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. First, the pressure on the flat sides is a constant downstream on the nose, and this encourages attached flow over the whole surface all the way to the blunt trailing edge. Expansion waves occur at each corner of the trailing edge. These expansion waves are the direct opposite of shock waves. The pressure decreases through an expansion wave, whereas it increases through a shock wave. The flow leaves the trailing edge through an expansion wave, and hence the pressure on the flat base of the vertical tail is lower. This in turn increases the aerodynamic drag on the vertical tail, called base drag, but at hypersonic speeds the base drag is a very small fraction of the overall drag.

The second aerodynamic advantage, and the primary reason for the use of the wedge shape, is increased directional stability. In August 1954, Charles H. McLellan, head of the 11-inch hypersonic wind tunnel at the NACA Langley Aeronautical Research Laboratory, published some stunning and almost counterintuitive results in NACA Research Memorandum LF44F21 entitled “A Method for Increasing the Effectiveness of Stabilizing Surfaces at High Supersonic Mach Numbers.” His work showed that the wedge shape “should prove many times more effective than the conventional thin shapes optimum for lower speed.”

The wedge shape took advantage of the nonlinear physics of shock waves as follows: If a surface in a supersonic flow is already inclined at an angle to the flow, say 5 degrees like the surface of a 5-degree half-angle wedge, and then the wedge itself is further inclined by an additional 2 degrees due to a control input, the pressure and hence the aerodynamic force on that surface (which is now at 7 degrees to the flow) is much higher than what would occur on a thin airfoil shape simply deflected by 2 degrees. Aerodynamicists at North American were aware of McLellan’s work, and they put this NACA

Подпись: X-15 hanging in the National Air and Space Museum. NASM
research to good use in the design of the X-15. The wedge-shaped vertical tail is clearly seen in the three-view of the X-15 (page 51). Of course, the wave drag on the tail was higher for this wedge airfoil; but the necessity for effective control authority was more important than this slight increase in drag due to the vertical tail, especially at high altitudes where the number of pounds of aerodynamic drag was small compared to the rocket engine’s high thrust of 57,000 pounds.

In spite of the wedge shape, wind tunnel tests showed that the vertical tail needed to be enlarged to have the necessary control authority. To accomplish this, a ventral tail was added below the fuselage. It was so large, however, that it would hit the ground in landing, in advance of the landing skids, which the X-15 used instead of wheels. To solve this problem, the ventral tail was split into two parts, and the lower section was made ejectable to solve the landing problem, with


X-15 rear view detail. X-15 nose detail.


Подпись: X-15 ventral tail. NASM
Подпись: X-15 reaction control jets detail. NASM

the drop made during approach to landing. This ejectable section was designed to be recovered and reused. However, later in flight testing, the engineers found that the lower ejectable half was not needed, and it was thus no longer used.

The pilot controls are conventional at low speeds, including launch and landing; power assist is provided on a separate control stick on the right console for use when the dynamic pressure is too great for the pilot force alone to move the control surface. But when the dynamic pressure is very low
and the control surfaces are not effective because the aerodynamic forces are too low, or these forces are nonexistent as when in space, small rocket motors with nozzles at the wing tips for roll, and at the nose and tail, help control pitch and yaw. The fuel for these motors is the monopropellant hydrogen peroxide. These rockets give the pilot control in outer space, where the aerodynamic force is zero, with the pilot using a separate control stick on the left console.

The structure is conventional, but the material affected by the external heating is Inconel X, which maintains its strength to above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The support structure underneath is mostly titanium.

Speed brakes, located on the lower part of the upper vertical tail, were used for energy management to dissipate much of the energy generated by the rocket thrust in accelerating to high speed. It reduced the energy to be dissipated during the return trip to landing by increasing the drag, thus allowing a safe landing approach and touchdown. The landing gear consisted of a normal nose gear and twin metal skids instead of a conventional twin-wheeled gear, to save both weight and volume. During flight, the nose wheel


Method by which the X-15 is mated to the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base





was stored internally, and the skids were external, flush against the fuselage.

The nose of the X-15 was round (a ball nose), which reduced the aerodynamic heating to that site. It also indicated to the pilot the angle of attack and the yaw angle at which the plane was flying, because an instrument supplied by Nortronics and installed in the nose faced into the direction of flight, supplying this information to the pilot. The nose had a spherical shape, 12 inches in diameter, and was made of Inconel X, which also helped the airplane survive the extreme heat at its nose.

Because the X-15 was designed to be air – launched, it was mounted under the right wing of a B-52 mother plane, where it was carried aloft from the ground at takeoff until dropped by the B-52 after hitching a free ride to 45,000 feet and a Mach number of 0.85. Unlike the earlier X-airplanes, with which the pilot rode to altitude in the bomber mother ship and then climbed aboard after the X-airplane checkout was complete and the liquid oxygen (LOX) was topped off (replacing what had boiled off during the climb to altitude), the test pilot was in the X-15 cabin right from the start, even before takeoff. If trouble occurred during this climb to altitude, he would have no way out unless the B-52 used its controls to drop the entire X-15 aircraft.

Engineers modified the third airplane, the X-15-A2, to have two external fuel tanks and an extension of 29 inches in the fuselage for equipment and instrumentation. These external fuel tanks are shown in the X-15 cutaway on page 51.

A stability augmentation system, made by Westinghouse, dampened the aerodynamic controls in all three axes. Later, the Minneapolis – Honeywell MH-96 adaptive control system replaced the SAS. These systems were necessary because analyses of the aerodynamic data indicated that the airplane would be dynamically



X-15-3 with ablative coating mounted under the wing of the B-52 in flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


X-15A-2, showing the external fuel tanks on the ramp of the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


Подпись: A detail showing the X-15 being mounted under the wing of the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

unstable without the system. The airplane was designed with reasonable cockpit visibility; the pilot could see all around, but he could not see the wings or the nose of the airplane.

The fuel for the later X-15 flights using the XLR99 engine was anhydrous ammonia, and the oxidizer was liquid oxygen (LOX); the fuel for the earlier flights using the XLR11 engine was water-alcohol. Both fuel and oxidizer were carried in the fuselage and held by the outside structure of the fuselage. The fuselage also contained the hydrogen peroxide (H202), used for the small control rockets that operated at high altitudes. Nitrogen pressurized the cabin, and helium pressurized the fuel and oxidizer.



When we talk about risk, we mostly mean the life of the pilot, the dangers to the man who governs the airplane through its flight path to the new conditions in flight that the new airplane will investigate. This is the life of a person who is talented, productive, and well experienced in test flying—and a human being unique in his flying abilities in high-speed and high-altitude flight.

Подпись: Bob White after a flight in the X-15. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force BaseThese characteristics are in addition to all the other attributes that pertain to each person’s life. We also mean the risk to the airplane, which is important enough to have had many years of development, thousands of man-hours of workmanship, and millions of dollars in cost. If the airplane is lost, the research program for which it was designed is jeopardized.




X-15 at the end of Jack McKay’s flight on May 6, 1966, during which the rocket engine failed after 35.4 seconds. The X-15 landed at Delamar and skidded off the smooth lakebed. McKay was not injured, and the X-15 sustained only slight damage. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


This research aircraft was designed to explore regions for flight at altitudes and speeds not yet then achieved. It incorporated a new, advanced design using new materials that allowed it to operate at higher temperatures than previously experienced. It had new and multiple control systems. It used a new rocket engine with a new fuel-oxidizer combination. It had twin skids rather than wheels for a landing gear.

Wind tunnel data existed for the aerodynamics in this new speed region, but it had not been evaluated and confirmed in flight. Moreover, not all the conditions of hypersonic flight that it experienced in the wind tunnel had been previously analyzed or fully understood. Some problems were not known until they were

discovered in flight. Therefore, they could not have been addressed in advance.

Before this aircraft could achieve hypersonic speeds and high altitudes, it still had to traverse all the flight regions previously explored. The new design had to prove that it could safely fly in those known flight regions. For example, it had to be able to take off on its own or be air-dropped in the subsonic regime. It then need to accelerate to high subsonic speeds, go through transonic flight, experience shock waves beginning at Mach 1, and accelerate to supersonic speeds, experiencing stability changes longitudinally, and thereafter in regions of reduced lateral-directional stability with increasing Mach number. It also had to decelerate and return to the landing site with normal

Подпись: Discussion before a flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center Flistory Office, Edwards Air Force Base approach, descent, and landing, all without using thrusting power. It should be noted that although low-speed subsonic flight and landing had been analyzed for the X-15 for these conditions, they were not the primary focus of the design.

The pilots controlled many aspects of the flight, such as the handling and control actions about the three axes of the airplane and the application of thrust. But the pilots could not control other factors, such as the strength of materials at high temperatures and the effect of temperature gradients on the design and strength caused by high aerodynamic heating on the outside and cool internal temperatures.

The characteristics of the X-15 would not be definitively known and understood until verified or determined in actual flight. The handling characteristics in these regions were unique, controlled by the pilot with three different control systems: a traditional stick on the floor between the legs and a rudder; a small control stick on the right console, with power assist or electronic force amplification when experiencing dynamic pressures too high for normal pilot forces; and a rocket power control on the left console for use in space where the air is too thin and the dynamic pressure too low for aerodynamic control surfaces to be effective. In the X-15, the pilot experienced for the first time these new controls, designed for this airplane, following his drop from the B-52 at altitudes of about 40,000 feet and speeds of about Mach 0.8. There were no ground trials with the controls during taxiing or on short hops prior to a real test flight, as is possible while familiarizing oneself with the controls of a conventional aircraft that has wheels rather than skids and that has a jet or reciprocating engine instead of a rocket.

Pilots had to address new interfaces in each new test aircraft. For example, the X-15 was taken aloft by the B-52 and attached under the

B-52’s right wing, unlike the other rocket research aircraft. These previous X-airplanes were attached under the fuselage, allowing the test pilot to ride in the mother craft’s cabin and enter the test aircraft only after everything had been checked out. In the X-15, located out on the wing, the pilot had to enter his aircraft before B-52 takeoff, and he was at risk as the two airplanes climbed to altitude. He had to also check out the X-15 systems while riding in the X-15 after takeoff and prior to drop. He thus had to deal with the interface with the mother airplane mechanically and electronically, including communications, and also operationally by topping off the liquid oxygen and checking other conditions before separation and drop occurred in midair. In

Подпись: Crossfield in discussion after a flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base image160
both the X-15 and B-52, the interfaces included the mechanical ties between subsystems and components, each of which had their own requirements, as well as continuity of electrical and electronic signals that signaled to and from the pilot’s cabin and the operating systems, as well as the thermal interfaces that controlled the heating and cooling needs of particular subsystems and components. Repairs could have adversely affected these initial design conditions. An example of this occurred when extra cooling was needed for a component after problems in flight and an extra cooling line was installed to fix the problem. This new cooling line ran alongside an APU hydraulic line that caused its hydraulic fluid to freeze, preventing the APU from functioning.

A conventional aircraft has a shakedown period in which the newly installed subsystems first operate together as a complete aircraft system. Then interfaces with other elements of the airplane are tested mechanically, electrically, and thermally in actual flight conditions when they can be fine- tuned. Experience has shown that many changes

Подпись: DAVID CLARK PRESSURE SUITor improvements are necessary in a new airplane. Routinely, there are bugs to work out, safety issues to resolve, and procedures to establish. For the flight-test program, there is a new support team from management through inspection. For an airliner, it may take two years of testing before it is put into use. There is no such luxury for these high-performance research aircraft. They start out in their very first flight at 40,000 feet in the air. Experience also has shown that unexpected difficulties are uncovered in air-launched research aircraft such as the X-1, X-1A, and X-2, in the increasing velocity regions of transonic and supersonic flight.

Such a flight program is necessarily risky.

This was a new airplane. The old flight regimes in which this plane had to traverse were not the prime focus in design. New equipment, previously untested in flight, was necessary, and the exploration was conducted in a new flight regime to ascertain the validity and shortcomings of the applicable theories, which were approximated with many simplifying assumptions and the use of wind tunnel test data.

Since the X-15 followed the course of the previous X-aircraft, it also had numerous difficulties with equipment—such as the auxiliary power units, landing gear, windshield and cockpit seals, stability in landing, and so forth—that required pilot experience, fortitude, and ingenuity to overcome. In the 199 flights, the problems were frequent, unanticipated, and in many instances life-threatening. It was the piloting excellence, the prior experience of the pilots and engineers, and the extensive preparation for each flight—including hours of simulation—that permitted these many flights to be completed with only one fatality.

Another difference from conventional aircraft testing relates to the lack of any power when the rocket fuel is expended. The fuel is used up in just about 90 seconds of flight. Conventionally

The David Clark full-pressure suit was developed by Dr. David Clark and produced in his small factory in Worcester, Massachusetts. Unlike previous partial-pressure suits that pressurized only parts of the human body, Clark’s full – pressure suit provided pressurization for the whole body. It was made from his patented Link-Net nylon fabric, which consisted of two layers of nylon arranged with opposite bias that provided maximum strength in high-stress areas while also allowing the suit to deform easily to the pilot’s movement. It was lightweight, but it held its shape under pressure. The suits were custom-made for each pilot, who had to make several trips to Worchester for fitting. Clark made improvements to the suit throughout the X-15 program. It became the standard full-pressure suit for the Air Force and NASA, being used by pilots of the U-2 and SR-71 high-altitude spy planes as well as the Space Shuttle astronauts. Several photographs in Chapter 5 show some X-15 pilots in their David Clark full-pressure suits.

powered aircraft can reposition themselves if in trouble or when in descent, approach to landing, and during the landing itself. All X-15 flight positions and corrections have to be done with aerodynamic controls alone, not with power. If the landing approach is too high or too low, the pilot must bring it down safely without power. He cannot go around the field a second time to try again. His first attempt must be successful.


Rocket engines carry their own fuel and oxidizer and have large thrust, and by launching at high altitude the airplane will encounter small drag. This will enable the aircraft to quickly reach hypersonic speeds and altitudes where it can obtain the desired data.

The design called for the XLR 99 engine, similar to the XLR11 engines that powered the X-1 airplane past Mach 1. The XLR99 had a thrust at sea level of 57,000 pounds, while the XLR11 had a thrust of 6,000 pounds in 1,500-pound increments. The scaling upward of
the engine was significant. This new engine was throttleable to about 30 percent of maximum thrust. Unfortunately, the engine shut down prematurely at partial thrust, so almost all flights were conducted at full thrust. It was later restricted to operate at a minimum of 43 percent max because of unwanted shutdown occurring followed by an inability to restart. The dry weight of the engine is 915 pounds.

The fuel for the XLR99 is anhydrous ammonia, with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. The specific impulse of this fuel is 230 seconds at sea level and 276 seconds at 100,000 feet altitude. Specific impulse is defined as the thrust of the engine per


Front view of the X-15A-2 with external fuel tanks. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base






image86Rear view of the loading process for mounting the X-15 under the wing of the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

weight of propellant used per second, and it is a measure of the efficiency of the fuel.

The engines were developed and supplied by Reaction Motors, Inc. (RMI), through NACA and the USAF as government-furnished equipment (GFE). The XLR99 was not ready in time for the X-15’s first flight, and a drop flight without an engine was performed to learn about the airplane’s flying and handling qualities. Since the XLR99 still wasn’t ready, the next series of flights were performed using two XLR11 engines. The XLR11 had been used singly at 6,000 pounds thrust in the X-1 and X-1A series of flights. The two XLR11s that were used in the early X-15 flights had only 12,000 pounds of thrust, much less than the 57,000 that would be available later in the XLR99. Even with the reduced acceleration, the two XLR11s enabled flights through the transonic speeds and to a supersonic speed of about a Mach number of 3. The two smaller engines were mounted in a cradle that was then mounted in the same attachments used for the XLR99. Both configurations used the same fuel tanks, even though the fuel used for the XLR11 was water alcohol instead of anhydrous ammonia. After the twenty-fifth flight, all X-15 flights used the XLR99 engine.


X-15 rocket nozzle exit. NASM



Rear view of the X-15 mounted under the wing of the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


The advantage of flying first with a proven engine was to ensure that both the airplane and the engine were not new and untested. It also prevented a delay in the program, which allowed continuity in flight testing.

RMI, which won a competition that included Bell Aircraft, and Aerojet encountered several problems in developing the new engine: leaks, pumps, fuel lines, vibration, liner failures, etc.

Costs increased, which delayed schedules. Scott Crossfield, the first X-15 test pilot, did not want to proceed with a temporary engine, preferring to wait for the XLR99. Fearing that the new engine would not be completed, both NAA Vice President Harrison Storms and Program Manager Charlie Feltz supported using the XLR11. Said Feltz, “I’ve been a little concerned about busting into space all at once with both a brand new

airplane and a brand new untried engine. . . . We’re trying to crack space, with a new pressure suit, reentry, landing, new metal, everything at once. I’ve got a real good buddy who’s going to be flying that airplane for the first time, and I’d just as soon have him around for a while.” [citation: Dennis Jenkins, X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight, NASA SP-2007-562, 1967, p. 203]

The engine was reliable, in part because it had thirty-seven dedicated people in the engine – maintenance shop at Edwards Air Force Base who obtained good results with the engine; 165 out of 169 successful engine operations indicated a
reliability of 97.6 percent. The total engine costs were initially estimated to be about $12.2 million, as originally bid. Because of many increases in scope during the design, the final costs were about $300 million.

Author Dennis Jenkins noted, “In retrospect the engine still casts a favorable impression.

The XLR99 pushed the state of the art further than any engine of its era, yet there were no catastrophic failures in flight or on the ground. There were, however, many minor design and manufacturing deficiencies. . . .”

X-15 Flight Summary

X-15 Pilots

Number of

Maximum Mach

Maximum Altitude


Number Achieved

Achieved (feet)

Scott Crossfield




Joseph A. Walker




Robert M. White




Forest S. Peterson




John B. McKay




Robert A. Rushworth




Neil A. Armstrong




Joe H. Engle




Milton O. Thompson




William J. Knight




William H. Dana




Michael J. Adams




Total Flights


Total Flight Time: 30 hours, 13 minutes, 49.4 seconds Total Distance Flown: 41, 763.8 statute miles

Times above Mach:
















image91Front view of the X-15. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


X-15 in flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base






For the X-15 program to be a success,

the airplane and the pilots had to have a home—a physical facility for servicing the aircraft and a takeoff and landing area. Each flight required teams of support people on the ground as well as other pilots and airplanes in the air. All of these constituted the test arena.


The X-15 flight tests occurred at Edwards Air Force Base, located about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It is located on Rogers Dry Lake, a 44-mile-long pluvial lake in the Mojave Desert, which is the world’s largest pluvial lake (sometimes called paleolakes because they are caused by heavy rain during periods of glaciation). This dry lake maintains a smooth surface because winds consistently sweep the winter rains back and forth across the lakebed. Most of the year, the lakebed is dry and flat with a variation of height of only about 18 inches from one end to the other.



▲ X-15 in flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Basea


► X-15 run-up area at Edwards Air Force Base, 1958. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

There are a number of dry lakes in this high desert region, some of which made suitable alternate sites for the emergency landings that might occur, and occasionally did occur, during the flight-testing program. The lakebed had to be smooth enough and hard enough to support an airplane that landed on skids, without digging in and causing an accident, but also long enough for a normal landing. The maximum travel distance from launch to landing was set by the high – altitude flight, where the glide from altitude to landing required a 300-mile distance from launch to Edwards Air Force Base. The alternate fields selected were located within glide range at launch

along the path from the launch site to Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards.

The U. S. Army Air Force had used Rogers Dry Lake, then known as Muroc, since the 1930s. During World War II, the Army used the site for flight testing. The advantages of the site include the long, effective runway offered by the lakebed and the 15,000-foot concrete runway that had been built during the war. Other advantages that Rogers afforded were the good weather that enabled many flying days and the security of being essentially in the middle of nowhere, both of which ensured control over the flights. It also provided security for classified aircraft.

While Air Force personnel maintained tight security during the X-1 and X-2 flights, they were more relaxed with the X-15, primarily because it was a research airplane, not intended for combat. Edwards Air Force Base was where all the new military airplanes were tested, including airplanes of super-secret nature, earmarked for eventual combat. Thus, security was at a maximum. By the time of the X-15, however, research airplanes were viewed as just that, research tools. They were thus lower in the hierarchy of security. Most details of the X-15 airplane, the flight tests, and the data were not kept secret. Security for the X-15 was more in the nature of “watchman” and “housekeeping.” Those responsible made certain that no unauthorized people had access to the airplane, that tools were not left in the cockpit by accident, etc.

The first U. S. jet airplane, the Bell P-59, was tested on October 2, 1942, at Muroc by Bell’s chief
test pilot, Bob Stanley. When the X-1 outgrew the initial test site at Pinecastle, Florida, the Air Force selected Rogers Dry Lake for its subsequent flights. There, on October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager flew the X-1 to the first supersonic flight, reaching a Mach number of 1.06 at 43,000 feet altitude. The NACA High Speed Flight Section under Walter Williams, who was responsible for the X-1 testing, continued in the testing of the Douglas D-558-2 and the Bell X-2 rocket-propelled aircraft, as well as other aircraft flown for test purposes before the creation of the X-15. The site also boasted the presence of the USAF Test Pilot School, whose pilots and aircraft supported the X-15 test flights in many ways, including flying chase aircraft deployed along the X-15 flight path.

The area was known as the high desert because Edwards Air Force Base was at 2,500 feet altitude and the alternate fields ranged up to 5,700 feet. Landing at an altitude higher than sea level requires





DC-3 and C-130 support aircraft at Mud Lake. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


Flyover by the B-52. On the ground are the X-15, Piasecki X-21 helicopter, and ground support personnel and equipment. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


B-52 with the X-15 attached, taxiing before takeoff for its flight on November 3, 1965, with pilot Bob Rushworth in the X-15. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


a longer ground distance, since the air is less dense; thus, speed at landing has to be higher. Decelerating to stopping from a higher speed at landing by necessity requires a longer landing distance.

On November 9, 1962, X-15 pilot John McKay embarked on a routine flight to reach a Mach number of 5.5 and an altitude of 125,000 feet. Though McKay’s flight plan called for full power, the engine was putting out only 35 percent power, and ground control directed McKay to shut off the engine and land at Mud Lake, one of the emergency landing sites. McKay jettisoned some of the remaining fuel as required by protocol, but the routine emergency landing was complicated when the flaps didn’t deflect downward to increase lift, resulting in a dangerously high-speed landing at 257 knots. This caused a failure to the main landing skid, which in turn caused the left wing and stabilizer to dig into the lakebed, flipping the X-15 upside down.

McKay jettisoned his canopy during this flip – over, but his helmet was the first thing to hit the ground. The rescue crew and the fire truck sped to

the airplane. Fumes from the crash prevented them from approaching, but the H-21 helicopter pilot used his rotor blades to blow the fumes coming from the anhydrous ammonia fuel that leaked from the aircraft, so that rescue could proceed. The rescue crew was able to dig the ground out from under McKay and extract him.

A C-130 arrived with paramedics and more rescue personnel, and they flew McKay to Edwards Air Force Base before tending to the damaged X-15. The emergency preparation and actions saved McKay’s life and showed the crucial importance of alternate fields and the support teams who staffed them.

The X-15 pilots did not want to land at these alternate fields. They were for emergencies only. Landings there were the same as those as at Edwards—dead-stick landings with no power to make adjustments for height or location during landing, nor to abort the landing approach and go around to try again. In his book At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, Milt Thompson summed up the pilots’ preferences:

Подпись: X-15 after engine failure forced pilot Jack McKay to crash-land upside down at Mud Lake, November 9, 1962. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base
Rogers (dry lake) was where God intended man to land rocket airplanes. It was big. It had many different runways. It was hard.

It had no obstructions in any of the many approach paths. It had all of the essential emergency equipment. It was territory that we were intimately familiar with, and it had a lot of friendly people waiting there. In other words, it was home.


What is it like for a research test pilot to fly an X-15 airplane into unknown areas of speed and altitude? He arrives early in the morning, a good time for flight since the winds and temperature are lower at that time in this desert area. He goes to the physiological van at Edwards Air Force Base and there puts on his David Clark full-pressure

suit. He walks across the ramp to the airplanes, the B-52 and X-15. He climbs a large ladder to a platform next to the X-15, and then he enters the small X-15 cockpit. He prepares the airplane and himself for takeoff while the X-15 is attached to the B-52 mother plane.

The B-52 crew goes through a preflight list that includes the location, altitude, and velocity at which the X-15 was to be launched. They then start the engines and check that everything is okay with the pilot, who is captive in the X-15 under the wing. (All this was a much less severe routine than that required by the X-15 pilot in preparation for the flight, but their job to make sure the X-15 was safely launched was just as important.)

The B-52 takes off and climbs to altitude, about 45,000 feet. There the flight crew inside the B-52 prepares for the drop launch of the X-15, going through their checklist and topping off the liquid oxygen in the X-15, some of which has boiled off during the climb to launch altitude.

When all is ready, the B-52 drops the X-15, located underneath its right wing. The X-15 smoothly separates from the mother ship, usually with a roll to the right to compensate for the local airflow located under the right wing of the B-52. The X-15 pilot levels his airplane and lights up his engine. He accelerates away from the B-52 and, once clear, the pilot rotates his airplane to increase the angle of attack for climb to altitude.

Although the primary purpose of the X-15 was the acquisition of research data on the aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and flight dynamics of hypersonic flight, the quest for speed and altitude has been the driving force in the historical advancement of the airplane over the past 120 years. Therefore, obtaining maximum speed and maximum altitude was also important. However, the flight conditions required to obtain maximum speed are different than those to obtain maximum altitude.

image162 image163


Here, the pilot continues his climb to altitude, then pushes over at zero lift until the airplane is in level flight at the desired altitude. He continues to fly at that altitude at full thrust until the maximum speed is obtained, which occurs when the fuel is used up. Zero lift means that the pilot adjusts the orientation of the airplane relative to the airflow ahead of the airplane (the angle of attack) so that the aerodynamic lift becomes zero, and he holds this until the X-15 is now moving in horizontal flight (level flight).

The airplane then starts to fall back to earth under the force of gravity, and it decelerates as the aerodynamic drag builds up at lower altitudes. During this return to earth, the airplane is in a steep glide, with a plan to reach an altitude of about 35,000 feet with a velocity of 290 to 350 miles per hour (called high key, which was the highest approach to the runway at Edwards Air Force Base). From there, he descends to an altitude of 18,000 feet, flying in the opposite direction of the landing runway (called low key on the flight trajectory). At this point, the airplane is about 4 miles from touchdown. The pilot continues in a 180-degree turn and then lands, probably at a speed of 200 miles per hour.


After launch from the B-52, the X-15 continues to climb until the fuel is used up and then continues in an upward ballistic trajectory, reaching a maximum altitude determined by its kinetic energy at the point of engine burnout and the force of gravity. The airplane then begins to descend. The pilot then heads for home, reaches high key above Edward, descends, and lands as above. Because of the high altitude, the glide return is over a larger distance than the lower-altitude flights. For these flights, the airplane would be dropped at a greater distance from Edwards Air Force Base, sometimes as far as away as 300 miles, so that his glide ends at Edwards.

For most of the X-15 flights, the data gathering was done in the regions bounded by the maximum speed and the maximum altitude flights. The variation of Mach number and altitude during these flights is shown in the two Mach number/ altitude versus time-of-flight figures shown, one for a maximum speed flight and one for a maximum altitude flight.

The data obtained in the hypersonic region of these flights provided vital flight data points that were calibrated against analytical predictions and against wind tunnel data. The designing of aircraft


Arrival of the first X-15 to Edwards Air Force Base. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


Unloading the X-15 upon arrival at Edwards Air Force Base. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

The welcoming crowd upon arrival of the X-15 to Edwards Air Force Base. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base



X-15 being mated to the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base




Detail of the mating of the X-15 with the B-52 for its first flight with external fuel tanks (empty), November 3, 1965. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

Takeoff of the B-52 with the X-15 with external tanks, November 3, 1965. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base





X-15 mated with the B-52 for one of its early contractor flights. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

Takeoff of the B-52 with the X-15 mounted under the wing. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

image171 image172


X-15 mounted under the wing of the B-52 mother ship at altitude. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base



X-15 in flight after launch. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base


X-15 in flight. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base




X-15 landing with the F-104 chase plane alongside. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

X-15 after landing. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

Подпись: X-15A-2 with external fuel tanks on the ramp of the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

to fly in these regions, as well as vehicles to return from space, could proceed with confidence by knowing what corrections to make to the analyses and wind tunnel data. This data gathering and its correlation to analysis and wind tunnel results was the purpose of the X-15 research airplane program.

On October 3, 1967, Pete Knight achieved the maximum Mach number for the X-15, and he did it flying the modified version of the X-15, the X-15-A2, with additional fuel in the extended fuel tanks and with extra external fuel tanks. The extra fuel allowed more full thrust time, totaling 141 seconds—50 seconds more than the basic X-15 Nos. 1 and 2. After being in the X-15 for more than an hour under the wing of the B-52 while on the ground, Knight performed the preflight checklist and was lifted when the B-52 took off at 1:20 p. m. They headed for Mud Lake, over which the B-52 dropped him an hour later.

It took two launch attempts before the drop actually worked. Knight stated later that he “reached up and hit the launch switch and immediately took my hand off to [go] back to the throttle and found that I had not gone anywhere. It did not launch.” [citation: Jenkins, X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight, NASA SP-2007-562, 1967, p. 459] A second attempt 2 minutes later resulted in a smooth release. Pete then accelerated and climbed at an angle of attack of 12 degrees (angle between the wing chord and the free-stream airflow direction) at high lift until he reached a climb angle (angle between the horizontal and the flight path) of 32 degrees. He leveled off at 102,100 feet and reached a speed of 6,600 feet per second (Mach 6.7). This speed remains the fastest for a manned-powered airplane forty-seven years later, with no competitor airplane in sight.

Then, some unpleasant excitement occurred after burnout. Pete performed some rudder pulses to get data with the yaw damper off. As he decelerated through M=5.5, the “Hot Peroxide” warning light came on. On this particular flight, the X-15 was carrying a dummy supersonic combustion ramjet engine (scramjet) below its fuselage as part of a NASA hypersonic propulsion project. This was not an operating engine; it was a dummy engine being carried under the X-15 to examine the aerodynamic characteristics of the engine shape in full-scale hypersonic flight. The warning was caused by the aerodynamic heating generated by the shock wave from the dummy scramjet impinging on the bottom surface of the X-15. It severely damaged the airplane. Pete jettisoned the remaining peroxide to prevent it from exploding. The dummy scramjet was externally mounted in anticipation of future experiments. Shock waves also impinged on the vertical tail, with some melting and skin rollback.

The hot-peroxide event distracted Knight from energy management of the X-15, and he arrived at high key at supersonic speed rather than the desired, slower, subsonic speed. With this airspeed, the X-15 had too much kinetic energy. Pete then tried to jettison the ramjet, but nothing seemed to happen. He dissipated the excess kinetic energy by flying past the landing site, allowing aerodynamic drag to slow the airplane, and then landed at the proper speed. The dummy ramjet didn’t release at once when jettisoned, and it was later located on the lakebed after some clever reasoning and analysis by Johnny Armstrong of the Flight Planning Group.

Joe Walker flew the maximum altitude flight on August 22, 1963. In his prior flight on July 19, 1963, the maximum altitude planned by NASA for that flight had been 315,000 feet, but he unintentionally overshot that mark and achieved an altitude of 347,800 feet, close to the maximum altitude of 360,000 feet that NASA was ultimately seeking for the X-15. The airplane could go over

400.0 feet, but there was concern about the reentry from that altitude. It was deemed difficult but possible for the pilot to make a successful reentry from there, but NASA set a limit at

400.0 feet. Because of the risks of reentry from higher altitudes, they set the flight at 360,000 feet to allow for the inaccuracies of the engine and the ability of the pilot to hold to the tight limits of controlling the angle of attack.

The flight path was selected, with climb angles and fuel cut-off that were calculated to achieve their goal. The engine thrust could vary from 57,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds, and a difference of 1,500 pounds would result in a 7,500-feet altitude change. One second in fuel cut-off time would result in a 4,000-foot altitude change, and if the climb angle were off by one degree, a 7,500-foot change in altitude would result. The planned maximum altitude of the flight was set at 360,000 feet because it allowed a factor of safety. If some of the slight variations in engine thrust, fuel cut-off time, and climb angle took place, the inadvertent increase in altitude would not take the X-15 to over 400,000, where reentry was more dangerous.

This flight was delayed for about two weeks because of weather and airplane APU problems. The actual launch went well, and Walker stayed close to the flight plan. The propellants were depleted at 176,000 feet at a speed of 5,600 feet per second. The airplane continued to soar upward on a ballistic trajectory to 354,200 feet—two minutes after fuel burnout. At that point, Walker and the X-15 were 67 miles high.

After reaching peak altitude, the airplane headed home, some 306 miles away, and was moving at 5,500 feet per second when it passed through 176,000 feet. This was a mirror image of



its ballistic climb after fuel burnout. The pullout force at 5 g occurred at 95,000 feet, and the pilot maintained the high g pullout in order to level flight at 70,000 feet. The rest of the flight back to landing at Edwards Air Force Base was uneventful. The total time of flight was 11 minutes and 8 seconds. While 67 miles is well above the 50 miles required for the pilot to achieve official astronaut rating, it was not awarded to Joe Walker until forty-two years later, after he had died.

There was only one fatal accident during the whole X-15 flight-test program. On November 15, 1967, Michael Adams lost his life when a possible electrical disturbance affected his flight control

The Air Force pilots who flew the X-15 to altitudes above 50 miles all received Astronaut Wings, but NASA had decided not to give the same award to the civilian pilots who had made the same achievement. This caused controversy within the aerospace community. Finally, NASA reversed this policy, and in a ceremony on August 23,

2005, the three NASA pilots who flew the X-15 above 50 miles—William Dana, Jack McKay, and Joe Walker—were awarded Astronaut Wings.

image180Only Bill Dana was alive at that time to receive the certificate. However, the families of McKay and Walker were present to receive the honor.


Подпись: Mike Adams in the cockpit of the X-15 (mated to the B-52), in preparation for his first X-15 flight, October 6, 1966. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base Подпись: The X-15A-2 with its ablation coating. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

system. This, combined with his possible vertigo, caused his X-15 to go out of control and break up at an altitude of approximately 62,000 feet during descent and crash to the desert floor. This flight underscored the risk involved in such flight testing. The details of this flight are given in Chapter 5.


The X-15 flights would not have been possible without the B-52A, which carried the airplane under its right wing. Edwards Air Force Base is huge, and it includes the whole of Muroc Dry Lake. Not only did the flights originate at Edwards, both the X-15 and its mother ship, the B-52, landed
there also, although on different plots of ground at the site. The B-52 started on the runway at zero velocity, accelerated to takeoff, and carried the X-15 to its launch position with a speed of approximately M=0.85 and an altitude of about 45,000 feet.

While the X-15 achieved a record speed of M=6.7, the first 0.85 was accomplished by the B-52 in the first phase of the flight. The B-52 also sometimes positioned the drop location as far away from Edwards as 300 miles, whereas the flight profile dictated for the X-15 to land at Edwards. The X-15 expended no fuel for such a running start, which was required to obtain the data sought by the test.

It took about an hour and a half from takeoff to get to the launch position; the rest of the X-15’s flight to its landing was an additional 10 minutes.

Both the X-1 and the X – 2 rocket-powered research aircraft were also carried aloft from

Подпись:Подпись: X-15 landing with an F-104 chase plane alongside. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base
Listed below are the number of landings that took place at alternate fields, to be compared with the 188 normal landings at Rogers Dry Lake.

2 Cuddeback

1 Delamar

4 Mud

1 Rosamond

1 Silver

1 Smith Ranch

Since these were emergency fields, they had to have equipment there and personnel on site to act in case they were needed. Prior to the flights, equipment such as a fire truck with 500 gallons of water, a helicopter, firemen, an Air Force pilot to act as the lake controller, an AF crew chief, an AF doctor, an AF pressure-suit technician, and a NASA X-15 specialist were deployed. A test flight was a big operation, and a cancelation was a waste of time for many.

Edwards Air Force Base by carrier or “mother” aircraft, the B-29 for the X-1 and the B-50 for the X-2. The mechanical alterations required to the carrier aircraft were principally in the bomb bay area in order to securely hold the research aircraft and to provide a reliable launch mechanism.

The research aircraft pilots rode to the launch altitude and speed in the carrier aircraft, did the checkout before launch within the carrier aircraft, and replaced the liquid oxygen that had boiled off during the climb, all before entering the research airplane. For the X-15, the mother ship was supposed to have been the B-36, and the X-15 would have been carried to its launch position in the bomb bay opening. Some of the reasons the B-52 made the cut instead were related to differences in the availability and cost of each aircraft and the parts required for its maintenance during the flight-test program.

The B-36, then in the process of being phased out as an active bomber in the Air Force inventory, was a maintenance nightmare, whereas the then – modern B-52 was (and still is today) the main bomber for the Strategic Air Command. Moreover, the weight of the X-15 increased during the design phase, and the extra capability of the B-52 could


Подпись: Top: X-15 mating area. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

more easily achieve the speeds and altitudes required by the data regions. Changing from the B-36 to the B-52 meant that the X-15 pilot could not ride inside the carrier aircraft. Using the B-52 meant that the X-15 had to be mounted on a pylon under the B-52’s right wing.

There was no way for the pilot to transfer from the B-52 to the X-15 after takeoff, which meant that he had to remain inside the X-15 during takeoff and for the roughly hour-and-a-half climb to position. This increased the pilot’s risk significantly. In an emergency during the launch-to – climb phase, the B-52 would have to drop the X-15 and its pilot rather than risk the lives of the entire operation’s crew. If the X-15 could be dropped, its pilot could possibly glide to a dry lakebed, or eject if the altitude was high enough. There were a number of captive flights—i. e., while the X-15 was still attached to its mother ship—where problems arose of such a nature that the launch was aborted, such as the auxiliary power unit (APU) not functioning in checkout or electrical signals not transmitting properly. In these circumstances, the B-52 landed safely with the X-15 still tucked under its wing. On such occasions, it must have seemed like a long, fruitless mission for the captive X-15 pilot. Luckily, neither the B-52 nor the X-15 pilots ever had to face such an unplanned drop.

The B-52 required numerous modifications to allow both airplanes to replenish the liquid oxygen, to accommodate the mating of the two aircraft, to assure that the B-52 had adequate control for the mission, and to assure that structural sufficiency was proper for both aircraft. (The X-15’s fuel was anhydrous ammonia, which does not boil off and does not require topping off, meaning that only the liquid oxygen required replenishment.) Twenty-seven B-52 pilots supported the X-15 flights. Two of the first were Capt. Charles Bock and Capt. John Allavie.

Above: X-15 in the process of being mated to the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

X-15 being dropped from the B-52. USAF, Air Force Flight 75

Test Center History Office, Edwards Air Force Base

The activities of the B-52 airplanes and their USAF pilots over nine years were integral to the success of the X-15 program. It was not a minor expense.


In all, 199 flights were conducted over a nine-year period from June 1959 to October 1968. Three airplanes were built, repaired, and rebuilt during that period. The third airplane was a significant modification. This longer version included external fuel tanks to extend the flight time, the range of altitude, and the Mach number to be investigated. Most of the initial objectives for the airplane were reached in the early years. But because the X-15 could fly in the hypersonic regime, NASA wanted to conduct many experiments, some examining various materials using the airplane as a test bed.

One of the thermal protection techniques used to protect hypersonic vehicles from the intense aerodynamic heating environment is the covering of the vehicle surface with an ablative material. This material would directly absorb the heat and burn away (ablate), thus protecting the surface underneath. Some of the later X-15 test flights tested a specific ablative material, namely MA-25S developed by Martin Marietta. This silicon-based material was sprayed on the surface of the X-15. After several hours of curing, it was sprayed with a coating of Dow Corning DC90-090, a silicon – based sealer, which gave the X-15 a white color.

Подпись:Some of these caused problems in flight. For example, for some flights an ablative material was put on the airplane for testing purposes and for additional heat protection. As the material vaporized, it coalesced on the windshield, making it opaque, seriously affecting the visibility of the pilot. For further tests of the ablating material, the engineers had to install an external shield on half the windshield that could be moved away after ablation had obscured the other side in order to allow the pilot to have clear vision for the remainder of the flight.