• U.S.

SPACE: Flight of the X- 1 5

3 minute read

At California’s Edwards Air Force Base, slim, hawk-nosed Test Pilot Scott Crossfield, 37, leisurely finished a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, struggled into a silver-tinted pressure suit that had been tailored to a skintight fit by a girdle manufacturer. Minutes later, Crossfield strapped himself into the cramped cockpit of a needle-nosed, stub-winged plane that was locked into place beneath the right wing of an Air Force B-52 bomber. At 8 o’clock sharp the B-52 roared down the runway and lifted. It carried with it Scott Crossfield in the X-15 rocket-plane — designed to be the first U.S. aircraft to carry man out to the edge of space.

Built by North American Aviation, the 50-ft., 15,000-lb. X-15 is designed to fly at 4,000 m.p.h., reach altitudes of 100 miles or more. But it had never before been tested in free flight. Last week’s test had been postponed six times because of bad weather and failures in the X-15’s telemetry and electrical systems. Even as the mother plane carried it above the Mojave Desert, groundlings were quoting odds that the X-15, with wings little bigger than a Cadillac tail fin, would “drop like a rock” when released.

At 38,000 ft., the tense moment arrived. In the B-52, Pilot Charles C. Bock checked his air speed (450 knots), asked Scott Crossfield on the intercom if he was set. The reply: “I’m ready when you are, buddy.” Bock went through a five-second countdown, then punched a red button on his control panel. With a metallic click a locking device opened, and the X-15 dropped silently on a long, fast, powerless glide toward the desert floor.

As the X-15 hurtled toward the dry bed of Rogers Lake, a natural twelve-mile-long runway. Air Force and North American officials crowded anxiously around loudspeakers relaying Crossfield’s radio messages. At 14,000 ft., Scott Crossfield, a World War II Navy pilot and a test pilot for a decade, remarked laconically: “I wish I could do a roll on my way in.” (Later he explained that he had restrained himself because “if I’d goofed, it would have looked kind of sour.”) Testing his controls with a wide, lazy-S turn, Crossfield, following procedure, jettisoned the X-15’s ventral tailfin, which would have interfered with extending his tail landing skids. He zeroed in on the lake bed, cutting his air speed from 285 m.p.h. to 185 with three nose-up “porpoising” maneuvers. The X-15 touched effortlessly onto the lake bed, slid 4,600 ft. to a dust-raising stop. Said Test Pilot Crossfield, father of five: “I hope all my landings are as nice as that one.”

From the time it had taken off under the wing of the B-52, the X-15 had been in the air 38 minutes. Its first powerless flight had lasted only five minutes and ten seconds. But in that fleeting moment of history, man had moved closer to space.

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