Gramps was delighted to have Michelle Evans, the author of the book, “The X-15 Rocket Plane, Flying the First Wings into Space”, as our speaker for June. Her father was an aerospace worker and she has had a lifelong fascination with the science. When she was 5 years old, her father offered to take her from school along on one of his work visits to Edwards AFB. This was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with aviation and space flight. On one occasion at Edwards, she got to see the X-15 simulator as it was being used. When the pilot was through, he came over to her, shook her hand and introduced himself: Neil Armstrong.
She interviewed nine of the twelve pilots and many others including family, friends and other workers at the base. The interviews were in depth and included many of the thoughts, attitudes and feelings of the pilots and their families. It reads very much like a novel as well as a detailed technical history of a great era and great aircraft.
Some of the things brought out were the rollover of Jack McKay on landing during which he ejected the canopy so that he could get out of the upside down aircraft. He received serious injuries but was able to continue. There was also the death of Mike Adams who was the victim of a major system failure and was the only pilot to die in the X-15 program. Scott Crossfield left his previous job to join the program and flew his Beech Bonanza from Long Beach to Edwards AFB. Amazingly, some of the program members worried more about his Bonanza flights than his flight in the X-15.
The X-15 aircraft were built at the North American factory near LAX. Its existence was acknowledged when NASA was formed. President Nixon announced its mission. The pilots wore pressure suits that were made by the David Clark factory that usually created women’s underwear. The aircraft was built as a vanguard of a far reaching research program, not as pretty object to please an audience. The idea was to create an aircraft that could be flown into space by a pilot and yet return to earth from space and be entirely reusable for future flights. As one would expect, there were numerous things that caused delays in the first flight as well as many others. The first flight took place in June of 1959. There were ultimately three X-15 aircraft. There were some differences as the program proceeded but they were similar. Changes such as an oxygen sensitive rubber-like ablative heat absorber coating were used for high speed flights. One of the most important was the introduction of the LR-99 engine that replaced the XLR-11 and had 57,000 lbs. of thrust as opposed to the 4 XLR-11 engines that produced only 24,000 lbs. of thrust total.
Many records were set: speed, altitude and flight above the atmosphere (Space). In 1961 Joe Walker set an altitude record of 169,600 feet. Later, in 1963, he again set a record of 354,200 feet. Tragically, Joe was killed during a photo shoot during a flight in which he was flying an F-104 alongside the new B-70 bomber due to being caught up in the massive wing tip vortex of the B-70. Both aircraft crashed. The speed record remains to this day: 4520 mph. The final flight took place on October 24, 1968. The two remaining aircraft now reside in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington and at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson Airbase in Ohio. The only remaining X-15 pilot today is Joe Engle who wrote the Forward to Michelle’s book.
We are grateful to Michelle for her presentation and the incredible detail that is in her book, giving true insight into all the aspects, human as well as scientific, in the development of the X-15 and all the derivations that resulted from its research.