The High Range
Previous rocket aircraft, such as the X-l and X-2, had been able to conduct the majority of their flight research in the skies directly over the Edwards test areas. The capabilities of the X-l5, however, would use vastly more airspace. The proposed trajectories required an essentially straight flight corridor equipped with multiple tracking, telemetry, and communications sites, as well as the need for suitable emergency landing areas. This led to construction of the X-l5 High Range extending from Wendover, Utah, to Edwards AFB. Radar and telemetry stations were installed at Ely and Beatty, Nevada, as well as Edwards. Telemetry from the X-l 5, as well as voice communications, were received, recorded, and forwarded to Edwards by the stations at Ely and Beatty. Each of these stations was also manned by a person to back up the prime “communicator” (NASA 1) at Edwards in
case the communication links went down. Each ground station overlapped the next, and they were interconnected via microwave and land-line so that timing signals, voice communication, and radar data would be available to all. Provisions were made for recording the acquired data on tape and film, although some of the data was directly displayed on strip and plotting charts. The design and construction of the range was accomplished by Electronic Engineering Company of Los Angeles under contract with the Air Force.74 North American and the NACA also conducted numerous evaluations of various dry lakes to determine which were suitable for emergency landings along the route (see the summary included as an appendix to this monograph).
The group at Langley had sized their X-l5 proposal around the potential of using a
The use of a B-36 carrier aircraft would have allowed the pilot to exit the aircraft while in transit to the drop area, or in case of emergency. However, personnel at the FRC worried that the B-36 would not be supportable since it was being phased out of active service. In the end, the B-52 provided much better performance and was ultimately selected.
(AFFTC History Office)
Convair B-36 as the carrier aircraft. This was a natural extension of previous X-planes that had used a Boeing B-29 or B-50 as a carrier. The B-36 would be modified to carry the X-15 partially enclosed in its bomb bays, much like the X-l and X-2 had been in earlier projects. This arrangement had some advantages; the pilot could freely move between the X-15 and B-36 during climb-out and the cruise to the launch location. This was extremely advantageous if problems developed that required jettisoning the X-15 prior to launch. At the time of the first industry conference in 1956, it was expected that a B-36 would be modified beginning in the middle of 1957 and be ready for flight tests in October 1958.75
As the weight of the X-15 and its subsystems grew, however, the Air Force and NASA began to look for ways to recover some of the lost performance. One way was to launch the X-15 at a higher altitude and greater speed. In addition, the personnel at Edwards believed that the ten-engine B-36 would be difficult to maintain7" since it was being phased out of the Air Force inventory. Investigations showed that the X-15, as designed, would fit under the wing of one of the new Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses; the configuration of the B-52 . precluded carrying the X-15 in the bomb bay. This was not the ideal solution—the X-15 pilot would have to be locked in the research airplane prior to takeoff, and the large weight transition when the X-15 was released would provide some interesting control problems for the B-52. Further analysis concluded that the potential problems were solvable, and that the increase in speed and altitude capabilities were desirable. Fortunately, two early B-52s were completing their test duties, and the Air Force made them available to the program.
On 29 November 1957, the B-52A (52-003) arrived at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, after a flight from the Boeing plant in Seattle. The aircraft was placed in storage pending modifications. On 4 February 1958, the B-52A was moved into the North American hanger at Plant 42 and modified with a large pylon under the wing, the capa
bility to monitor to the X-15, and a system to replenish the X-15 LOX supply. The aircraft, now designated77 NB-52A, was flown to Edwards AFB on 14 November 1958; it was later named “The High and the Mighty One.” The Air Force also supplied a B-52B (52-008) that arrived in Palmdale for similar modifications on 5 January 1959, and was flown, as an NB-52B, to Edwards on 8 June 1959.
As the first X-15 was being completed, the NACA held the second X-15 industry conference in Los Angeles on 28-29 July 1958. North American began the conference with a paper detailing the developmental status of the aircraft. Twenty-seven other papers covered subjects such as stability and control, simulator testing, pilot considerations, mission instrumentation, thermodynamics, structures, materials and fabrication. There were approximately 550 attendees,78
On 1 October 1958, High-Speed Flight Station employees Doll Matay and John Hedgepeth put up a ladder in front of the station building at the foot of Lilly Avenue and took down the winged-shield NACA emblem from over the entrance door. NASA had arrived in the desert, bringing with it a new era of space-consciousness, soaring budgets, and publicity. The old NACA days of concentration on aeronautics, and especially aerodynamics, were gone forever, as was the agency itself. On this day, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created.79
The X-15 construction process eventually consumed just over two years, and on 15 October 1958, the first aircraft (56-6670) was rolled out. Following conclusion of the official ceremonies, it was moved back inside and prepared for shipment to Edwards. On the night of 16 October, covered completely in protective heavy-duty wrapping paper, it was shipped by truck to Edwards for initial ground test work.