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By Susan Wiggins
Mayor Pro Tempore 

X-15 record still stands

A Page of History


Column time – what to write, what subject? My bi-weekly dilemma as I dig through my mother Marion Deaver's files to find a gem.

I had found a couple of possible subjects and was ready to compose when I got a call from my brother Bill Deaver, who sent me an article he received from Mojave aircraft enthusiast Cathy Hansen.

The X-15 – a test plane/spacecraft that flew 199 times and led the way for future space flights with research for the SR-71 Blackbird, the space shuttle, and the reusable spacecraft in Richard Branson's future Virgin Galactic passenger space program.

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the X-15A-2 historic flight in which the aircraft flew at nearly Mach 7, seven times the speed of sound and twice the speed of a rifle bullet. That speed record still stands today.

The X-15 test program also killed test pilots before redundant flight control systems and modern safety protocols for hypersonic flight were added.

X-15 pilots who flew successfully earned astronaut wings, flying 280,000 feet, or 53.1miles above the earth.

Some historians refer to the X-15 program the "most ambitious and successful flight test program in aviation history."

It challenged the paradigms of aerospace design well beyond the limits of any prior program, including the Bell X-1, flown by Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier and created the first sonic boom over East Kern skies.

"So much progress was made so quickly in the face of such risk, with such rudimentary technology that no other development program, with the exception of the Apollo missions, have ever come close," according to Tom Demerly, writing about the X-15 program.

At 10:30 a.m., Oct. 3, 1967, William J. "Pete" Knight, climbed into the cramped cockpit of the X-15A-2, which had been painted with a white heat resistive ablative coating for the record flight to protect it on its re-entry.

The craft was also fitted with giant anhydrous ammonia tanks under its fuselage. That flight, which followed many other flights, had only one mission – speed. It successfully set a maximum manned flight speed record.

The craft was a "piloted projectile" which blasted through a violent acceleration from 500 mph to nearly 5,000 mph in only 75 seconds. As it decelerated a rearward facing crash pad was placed in front of the pilot so Knight's helmet could slam into something soft as the friction of the atmosphere slowed the plane after its fuel ran out.

The X-15 was carried up strapped to the bottom of a B-52 to an altitude of 45,000 feet. Knight was released and accelerated in 75 seconds to his record flight.

Chase planes followed him as he landed the now charred X-15. Heat had burned holes in the ventral tail, but the landing gear worked and Knight was safe. The flight lasted eight minutes and 16 seconds.

The record still stands for a non-orbital aircraft to fly inside the atmosphere. The space shuttle Columbia broke the speed record for re-entry April 14, 1981.

All this brings back the memories of my mother trudging out to Edwards AFB before dawn five or six times before the X-15 actually flew on its own power. Sometimes the flights were aborted due to safety concerns.

It became a joke at our house as to whether my mom would get to see it fly. I liked it because I got to walk to one of my mom's friend's house after school until she got home. I was in elementary school, so that was a big deal to me in the 1950s.

My mother had to hold her own against all the "big time" news reporters from the major TV stations and the AP Wire Service. She did fine, but hated one reporter, Clete Roberts, who raced around sitting in the back of a convertible with a typewriter, while being driven by someone else.

Didn't do him much good, my mom noted – he never made it to the big stations.

The X-15A-2, which was re-painted the familiar black, now hangs in the Air Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.

William J. "Pete" Knight died in 2004, at the age of 74, with his speed record still intact.


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