JOSEPH A. WALKER
Joe Walker flew the X-15 for his first time on March 25, 1960, during which he achieved Mach
2.0 and an altitude of 48,630 feet. He was the first NASA pilot in the test program.
Joe Walker was born on February 20, 1921, in Washington, Pennsylvania. He graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in physics from Washington & Jefferson College in 1942. He was caught up in the storm of World War II, joined the Army Air Force, and flew P-38 fighters in North Africa, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf clusters. In March 1945, he joined the NACA and became involved in the icing research program at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory
(now the NASA Glenn Research Laboratory) in Cleveland, Ohio. There, in the words of Milton Thompson, himself an X-15 pilot, Joe Walker “spent many hours droning around in the crappiest winter weather that they could find in the Great Lakes region.” [citation: Milton O. Thompson,
At the Edge of Space: The X-15 flight Program (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, p. 4)]
Walker transferred to the NACA High Speed Flight Station (later the Dryden Flight Research Center) in 1951, and his flying skills earned him the position of chief pilot in 1955. He flew as project pilot on some of the early, important
high-speed experimental airplanes, including the Douglas D-558-1 and 2 and the Bell X-1A and X-1E, X-3, X-4, and X-5. During his first year at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Walker received an NACA medal for heroism. He was in the cockpit of the X-1A mounted in the bomb bay of a B-29 in flight. In preparation for his research flight, he pressurized the X-1A’s propellant tank. An explosion immediately occurred, and Walker passed out. Regaining consciousness as the B-29 crew opened the X-1A canopy and pulled him out, Walker realized that the X-1A had to be deactivated before a bigger explosion occurred. Risking his life, Walker crawled back into the cockpit and depressurized the remaining tanks. The smell of hot peroxide started to fill the B-29. The X-1A now resembled a bomb about ready to go off. Scrambling back into the B-29, Walker decided to jettison the X-1A. The experimental airplane spun down to the desert floor and was destroyed, but the B-29 and its crew returned safely.
In 1959, the NACA became part of the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Hence, on March 25, 1960, Walker became the first NASA pilot to fly the X-15. Remarkably, on his first flight, Walker took the X-15 to Mach 2 and an altitude of 48,630 feet. During the course of his remaining twenty – four flights in the X-15, Walker achieved the highest altitude of all the X-15 flights, 354,200 feet on Flight 91, August 22, 1963. This is still the unofficial world record for winged vehicles.
During his twenty-five flights in the X-15, Walker collected data on stability and control, aerodynamic heating, flight performance, aerodynamics, thermostructural response, maximum speed, and maximum altitude characteristics. On Flight 91, in addition to setting the unofficial world altitude record, he obtained data on reentry flight with the ventral fin off, checked out an altitude predictor, and took physical atmospheric measurements with a Barnes spectrometer and a photometer. Collecting this scientific and engineering data was the core of the X-15’s research mission.
After his last X-15 flight on August 22, 1963, Walker continued in his position as chief pilot at the NASA High Speed Flight Station. Prior to his involvement with the X-15, he had logged a number of flights in the Lockheed F-104, the first airplane designed for sustained supersonic flight at Mach 2. It was in this airplane that he first carried out pioneering tests using reaction controls, taking the F-104 to altitudes of 90,000 feet. So it was natural that on June 8, 1966, he chose to pilot an F-104 on a routine photo shoot with the North American XB-70. General Electric had requested some promotional photographs of a family of airplanes powered by GE engines. Flying too close to the XB-70, his F-104 was caught in the trailing vortex of the large airplane and flipped onto the top of the bomber. Walker perished in the ensuing fireball. The XB-70 pilot, Al White, ejected, sustaining serious injury but surviving. Carl Cross, the copilot, was killed.