Scott Crossfield was more than just the first man to fly the X-15; he was the only one of the twelve test pilots who contributed directly to the
airplane’s design and to the design of its flight-test program. Crossfield successfully combined his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering with his exceptional piloting ability and experience to enhance the design and operation of an experimental vehicle that would go far beyond the known atmospheric flight spectrum, to speeds of almost Mach 7 and to altitudes higher than 350,000 feet.
Scott Crossfield was born on October 2, 1921, in Berkeley, California, and attended college at the University of Washington in Seattle, beginning in 1940. The outbreak of World War II interrupted
his studies in 1942, when he joined the Navy. After he received his pilot’s wings and ensign’s commission in 1943, the Navy assigned him to be a flight instructor and maintenance officer.
He served in the South Pacific for six months but did not see combat duty. His piloting skills put him at the helm of a Navy aerobatic team, and he flew Corsair fighters for a short period following the war. Crossfield was, however, an aeronautical engineer at heart, and he returned to the University of Washington in 1946 to finish his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, as well as his M. S., in 1949. During that time, he obtained valuable experience working in the Kirsten Wind Tunnel at Washington.
It was not a good time to graduate with an aeronautical engineering degree; the industry
was suffering from large government cutbacks in defense after World War II. However, the advent of the Korean War in 1950 reversed this situation, and suddenly the aircraft industry was back on its feet. Crossfield found a position as an aeronautical research pilot with the NACA High Speed Flight Station (now the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base in June 1950. The time and opportunity were ripe for Crossfield; over the next five years, he was to fly virtually all the experimental airplanes at Edwards, including the Bell X-1, the delta-wing XF-92, the X-4, the X-5, and the Douglas D-558- 1 Skystreak. On November 20, 1953, he became the first person to fly at Mach 2 while piloting the rocket-powered Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket to a speed of 1,291 miles per hour in a shallow dive.
Powered by a rocket engine, and developed by Douglas for the U. S. Navy, the Douglas D-558-2 explored transonic and supersonic flight and the flight characteristics of swept-wing supersonic aircraft. Flight tested at the Muroc Flight Test Facility alongside other research aircraft such as the X-1, X-1A, and X-2, the D-558-2 was the Navy’s venture into the mysteries of supersonic flight. Controversy persists as to who deserves credit for the first Mach 2 flight. Crossfield reached Mach 2 in the D-558-2, but in a shallow dive. Just twenty-two days later, Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1A to Mach 2.44 in level flight.
This beautiful, swept-wing airplane now hangs in the Milestones of Flight Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum.
On June 24, 1952, the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics called for an airplane that could probe the unknown problems of flight at Mach numbers between 4 and 10 and at altitudes between 12 and 50 miles. On October 5, 1954, this same committee, in executive session, made the final decision to proceed with this manned hypersonic research airplane, which would eventually become the X-15; Crossfield was a
member of the committee. On May 9, 1955, four aircraft companies submitted proposals to the Air Force (which was paying for the airplane):
Bell, Douglas, North American, and Republic. After North American won the contract, Scott Crossfield left the NACA and joined North American as chief engineering test pilot and design consultant on the X-15.
After piloting the first test flight of the X-15 on June 8, 1959, Crossfield flew the airplane thirteen more times, his last X-15 flight taking place on December 6, 1960—the thirtieth test flight of the X-15 program. At this point, North American finished its contractor check flights and turned the aircraft over to the Air Force. Although Crossfield had expected to fly the X-15 during its entire program, because he was a NAA employee, not a NACA employee, his flight participation in the X-15 came to an end.
Crossfield continued with North American, first as the director responsible for systems tests, reliability engineering, and quality assurance for several aircraft and space vehicles, and then as its technical director, Research Engineering and Test. In 1967, he left the company to serve as a division vice president for Research and Development for Eastern Airlines until 1973, and he then served as senior vice president for Hawker Siddeley Aviation in 1974 and 1975. In 1977, nine years after the X-15 program ended, he became a technical consultant to the House Committee on Science and Technology. He served in this capacity for sixteen years, during which he was a steadfast proponent of manned hypersonic flight. He especially supported the massive U. S. X-30 supersonic combustion ramjet engine-(scramjet) powered single-stage to orbit aerospace plane project during the 1980s and early ’90s. He retired in 1993.
Scott Crossfield earned a number of prestigious awards during his life, including being a joint recipient of the 1961 Collier Trophy, the
International Clifford B. Harmon Trophy for 1960, the Lawrence Sperry Award for 1954, the Octave Chanute Award for 1954, and the Iven C. Kincheloe Award for 1960. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983 and the International Space Hall of Fame in 1988. As a reflection on his aeronautical engineering accomplishments, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics elected him to the rank of Honorary Fellow in 1999, the highest recognition in that society.
In 2000, the National Air and Space Museum awarded him its most prestigious award, the Lifetime Achievement Award. An elementary school in Herndon, Virginia, and the terminal of the Chehalis-Centralia Airport in Washington State both bear his name.
On April 19, 2006, Crossfield got into his Cessna 210A to return home from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, where he had just finished giving a speech to a class of young Air Force officers. Amid severe thunderstorms, his airplane broke up in midair; recovery teams found wreckage in three different locations within a quarter-mile region. Later, the National Transportation Board ruled the probable cause of his crash to be a combination of two failures: Crossfield had not obtained updated weather information en route, and the air traffic controller failed to provide adverse-weather avoidance assistance. Crossfield was survived by his wife of sixty-three years, Alice Crossfield, as well as six children and nine grandchildren. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Crossfield was unique among the X-15 pilots. He always considered himself an aeronautical engineer, although he was also an exceptional test pilot. Being an honorary fellow of the AIAA is indicative of his status within the aeronautical engineering profession. Although he flew the X-15 only fourteen times, never exceeded Mach 2.97 (Flight 26, November 15, 1960), and never flew any higher than 88,116 feet (Flight 6, February 11, 1960), he was arguably the most influential of all the pilots in the X-15 program.