Finally, at 0838 hours on 8 June 1959, Scott Crossfield and X-15-1 dropped from the NB-52A at Mach 0.79 and 37,550 feet. Just prior to launch, the SAS pitch damper failed, but Crossfield elected to proceed with the flight and switched the pitch channel to standby. At launch, the X-15 separated cleanly and Crossfield rolled to the right with a bank angle of about 30 degrees. Usually the obedient test pilot, on this flight Crossfield allowed himself to deviate slightly from the flight plan and perform one unauthorized aileron roll. However, not all was well. On the final approach to landing, the X-15 began a series of increasingly wild pitching motions. Crossfield: "[T]he nose of the X-15 pitched up sharply. It was a maneuver that had not been predicted by the simulator… I was frankly caught off guard. Quickly I applied corrective elevator control. The nose came 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 the bow of a skiff in a heavy sea… I could not subdue the motions." The X-15 was porpoising wildly, sinking toward the desert at 175 knots.*63*
The airplane touched down safely at 150 knots and slid 3,900 feet while turning slightly to the right. After he landed, Crossfield said he believed that the airplane exhibited a classic case of static instability. Harrison Storms, on the other hand, was sure that the cure was a simple adjustment. In the end, Storms was right. As he would on all of his flights, Crossfield had used the side-stick controller during the flare instead of the center stick, and this subsequently proved to be the contributing cause of the oscillations. The side-stick controller used small hydraulic boost actuators to assist the pilot since it would have been impossible (or at least impractical) to move the side stick through the same range of motion required for the center stick. However, the engineers had decided to restrict the authority of these hydraulic cylinders somewhat, based on a best guess of the range of movement required. The guess had been wrong, and because of this a cable in the control system was stretching and retracting unexpectedly. What appeared to be pilot-induced oscillations during landing actually reflected the mechanics of the control system. The fix was to provide more authority to the hydraulic cylinder by changing an orifice—a simple adjustment.*643
Although the impact at landing was not particularly hard, later inspection revealed that bell cranks in both main landing skids had bent. Unfortunately, North American had not instrumented the main skids on this flight, so no specific impact data were gathered. However, the engineers generally believed that the shock struts had bottomed and remained bottomed because of higher – than-predicted landing loads. Excessive rebound loads caused by a foaming of the oil in the nose gear strut compounded the issue, although it took several more landings to realize this. As a precaution against the main skid problem occurring again, the metering characteristics of the shock struts were changed, and engineers conducted additional lakebed drop tests at even higher loads with the landing-gear test trailer used to qualify the landing-gear design. The landing gear would continue to be a concern throughout the flight program. All other airplane systems operated satisfactorily on this flight, clearing the way for the first powered flight using X-15-2. The following day North American moved X-15-1 into the hangar to hook up its XLR11s and propellant system and make other changes in preparation for its first powered flight.*65*
Scott Crossfield climbs out of X-15-1 after the first captive-carry flight. The X-15 landing gear had been deployed during the flight to demonstrate it would work after being cold-soaked at altitude. A member of the ground crew installs protective covers on the nose-mounted air data boom. (AFFTC History Office)
While the NB-52 was carrying X-15-1 as expensive wing cargo, engineers were testing the XLR11s at the Rocket Engine Test Facility using X-15-2. Despite the successful 22 May test, things were not going particularly well. Perhaps the engines had been out of service for too long between programs, or maybe too much knowledge had been lost during the coming and goings of the various engineers and technicians over the years, but the initial runs were hardly trouble-free. Various valves and regulators in the propellant system also proved to be surprisingly troublesome.
Moreover, sometimes things just went to hell. After one engine run, the ground crew began purging the hydrogen-peroxide lines of all residual liquid by connecting a hose from a ground nitrogen supply to a fitting on X-15-2. On this day, it was a new hose. Despite the careful procedures and great caution used, the hose had a slight residue of oil. When the technician applied gas pressure to the hose, the film of oil ran into the hydrogen-peroxide lines. The only thing truly compatible with peroxide is more peroxide, not oil. The result was an immediate explosion and fire that raced through the X-15 engine compartment. As always, the Edwards fire crew was standing by and quickly extinguished the fire, but not before gutting the engine bay.
One X-15 crewman was badly burned; if he had been standing two feet closer, he likely would have been killed. It took weeks to repair the airplane.
Forty-six days after the first glide flight, and after the damage from the explosion was repaired, the Nb-52A took X-15-2 for a captive-carry flight with full propellant tanks on 24 July 1959.
One of the purposes of this flight was to evaluate the liquid-oxygen top-off system between the NB-52 and X-15. It proved to be erratic. Another test was to measure the time it took to jettison the propellants at altitude. While still safely attached to the wing of the NB-52, Crossfield jettisoned the hydrogen peroxide, which took 140 seconds. He then jettisoned the liquid oxygen and alcohol simultaneously, which took 110 seconds. The times matched predictions. The APUs and pressure suit performed flawlessly. Despite the failure of the top-off system, researchers considered the flight a success. The original contract had specified that North American would turn the first airplane over to the government in August 1959. For a while it looked like the company might deliver the first X-15 on schedule, but it was not to be.
During August and early September, engineers canceled several attempts to make the first powered flight before the aircraft left the ground, due to leaks in the APU propellant system and hydraulic problems. There were also several failures of propellant tank pressure regulators, and on at least one occasion, liquid oxygen streamed out of the safety vent while the NB-52 carried the X-15. No flight occurred on that day. Charlie Feltz, Bud Benner, and John Gibb, along with a variety of other North American engineers and technicians, worked to eliminate these problems, all of which were irritating but not critical-other than to the morale.
At the 30th anniversary celebration, Storms described the mood at the time:*69
A typical launch attempt would start the night before, and the crews would work all night preparing the X-15 and fueling it. About 8 a. m., Scott Crossfield would be in his flight gear and, after walking around the operation, get into the cockpit and start his checkout. Scott would stay in the ready condition as the countdown continued. This, unfortunately, might be as late as 3 or 4 in the afternoon before the B-52 would be allowed to take off. By the time it had reached launch altitude and attempted to hold for the required length of time with all systems in operation, sometime during this period a regulator would fail, a valve would fail, or the bearings on one or both APUs would go out. Then back to Edwards. When Scott returned, we would be scheduled to go to a press conference and meet many tired, and by that time somewhat edgy, reporters that always wanted answers that were just not available. These were not happy meetings for any of the participants.
Shortly after about the fourth such encounter, I was gathered up by General John McCoy of Wright Field and taken over to Mr. [James Howard ‘Dutch’] Kindelberger’s office, the then chairman of the board. The general explained that the country was in a bad spot with the Sputnik success and that our false starts were not very much of a positive boost to the national position. In short, "when were we going to launch that X-15?" This one time in my life all eyes were on me. Not the most desirable position. The answer I gave was to go over the conditions that we and the NASA had set up for a launch. Also, I gave my support to this approach and pointed out that we were attempting to put a new type of flying machine in the air without the loss of either millions of dollars worth of equipment or the pilot. However, if they wanted to, I would take them to the task force that set up the launch ground rules and they could either convince them of a different approach or overrule them, if possible. The whole meeting ended up with the Air Force’s plea for increased effort on out part and hope for early success. Fortunately for all concerned, the next attempt turned out to be a winner.
At last, Scott Crossfield made the first powered flight using X-15-2 on 17 September 1959. The NB-52A released the research airplane at 0808 in the morning while flying at Mach 0.80 and 37,600 feet. X-15-2 reached Mach 2.11 and 52,341 feet during 224.3 seconds of powered flight using the two XLR11 engines. Crossfield surprised everybody, including most probably himself, by performing another aileron roll, this time all the way around. As Crossfield remembers, "Storms was tickled." On a more serious note, he observed, "With the rolling tail one would expect very clean ‘aileron’ rolls without the classical adverse yaw from ailerons, and that is the way it rolled.
No big deal at all." The government’s concerns about the rolling tail were for naught.-701
Crossfield landed on Rogers Dry Lake 9 minutes and 11 seconds after launch, despite some concerns about a crosswind on the lake. Following the landing, ground crews noticed a fire in the area around the ventral stabilizer, but quickly extinguished it. A subsequent investigation revealed that the upper XLR11 fuel pump diffuser case had cracked after engine shutdown and sprayed fuel throughout the engine compartment. Alcohol collected in the ventral stabilizer and some unknown cause ignited it during landing. Crossfield noted that "the fire had burned through a large area, melting aluminum tubing, fuel lines, valves, and other machinery." For the second time in less than six months, X-15-2 went back to Inglewood. It took about three weeks to repair the damage.-1711
Edwards was not the only place where the X-15 created interest, although it was certainly the most visible. Back at Langley Research Center, just a month after the first powered flight, approximately 20,000 visitors attended the first anniversary inspection, held on Saturday, 24 October 1959. The crowds had come at NASA’s invitation, and local newspapers had spread the word that for the first time in its 42-year history Langley would be open to the public. NASA scientists, engineers, and technicians showed the public just what the new agency was doing to launch their country into space. The attractions included full-scale mockups of the X-15, XLR99, and a dummy in an MC-2 full-pressure suit. A small group of Langley secretaries acted as the hostesses for the exhibit, while both John Becker and Paul Bikle were nearby to answer questions. The event was a success with both the public and the media.-721
Back in the high desert, the third flight (2-3-9) of X-15-2 took place on 5 November 1959 when the NB-52A dropped the X-15 at Mach 0.82 and 44,000 feet. The flight got off to a bad start; during the engine start sequence, one chamber in the lower engine exploded. Chase planes reported external damage around the engine and base plate, and the resulting fire convinced Crossfield to land on Rosamond Dry Lake. Crossfield shut down both engines, but the 13.9 seconds of powered flight had been sufficient to accelerate the X-15 to Mach 1. Unfortunately, the flight attitude necessary to descend to the lakebed made it impossible to dump most of the remaining propellants. Crossfield initiated the landing flare at about 950 feet altitude and 253 knots. The aircraft touched down near the center of the lake at approximately 161 knots and a 10.8-degree angle of attack with a descent rate of 9.5 feet per second. Crossfield noted: "The skids dug in gently. The nose slammed down hard and the airplane plowed across the desert floor, slowing much faster than usual. Then she came to a complete stop within 1,500 feet instead of the usual 5,000 feet." When the nose gear had bottomed out, the fuselage literally broke in half at station 226.8, shearing out about 70% of the bolts at the manufacturing splice. The broken fuselage dug into the lakebed, creating a very effective brake.-173
A minor explosion during Flight 2-3-9 on 5 November 1959 resulted in an emergency landing on Rosamond Dry Lake that broke the back of X-15-2. As built, the X-15 was heavier than originally intended, and it did not help that Scott Cross field was unable to jettison all of the unused propellants before the emergency landing. The airplane was repaired in time for its fourth flight on 11 February 1960. (AFFTC History Office)
A contributing factor to the hard landing was the 15,138-pound touchdown weight. During development, engineers had established a limiting rate of sink of 9 fps based on design weight of 11,500 pounds. However, the as-built airplane had increased to 13,230 pounds. In addition, Crossfield had been unable to jettison some of the propellants because of the steep descending attitude necessary to reach the landing site, which further increased the landing weight. Crossfield later stated that the damage was the result of a structural defect that probably should have broken on the first flight.-74
Yet again, X-15-2 went to the Inglewood plant for repairs, and returned to Edwards in time for its fourth flight on 11 February 1960. North American repaired the damaged fuselage and strengthened the manufacturing splice by doubling the number of fasteners and adding a doubler plate, top and bottom, at the fuselage joint. The company also modified the other two airplanes to prevent similar problems.75