Author photo

By Cathy Hansen
contributing writer 

Thankful for great memories

Short Flights


July 22, 2023

Cathy Hansen.

This photo was taken of my husband, Al Hansen, talking with former NASA test pilot Bill Dana under the wing of White Knight (Scaled Composites Model 318) carrier aircraft, in April 2003 when SpaceShipOne and White Knight were first presented to the media.

I am easily diverted when I start looking at some of the old photos on my computer and realize that my husband Al and I shared a wonderful life together.

Al and I enjoyed the community of aerospace pilots and engineers who seem to gravitate to Mojave Air and Space Port. We met so many famous people in the aerospace community.

One such person was William "Bill" Dana, a native of California. He graduated the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served four years in the U. S. Air Force. Bill joined NASA on Oct. 1, 1958, the day it was founded, which made him NASA's first official employee.

"I knew I was in the company of giants when I got here," Dana said of working at NASA in the early days. Dana worked with other NASA test pilots Joe Walker, Neil Armstrong, William J. "Pete" Knight and Bruce Peterson, the "real" six-million dollar man!

His first assignments included development of a rudimentary performance simulator for the X-15 rocket plane and stability and control research involving the F-107A fighter prototype. In September 1959, he transferred to the Flight Operations Branch as a research pilot. Over the next three decades he flew a variety of aircraft, including the rocket powered X-15 and wingless lifting bodies.

He flew the X-15 16 times, reaching a top speed of 3,897 mph and a peak altitude of 310,000 feet, almost 59 miles high. He flew the X-15's last flight of the program and achieved an altitude above 300,000 feet.

When asked what it is like to fly over 300,000 feet, Dana replied, "It's a beautiful view. You're in dark sky. The atmosphere appears as a bright blue ring, just like you see in the movies. It's peaceful. It's quiet. There's no gravity so your heart isn't working as hard to move the blood, so it's kind of relaxing."

He was then assigned to fly the HL-10, M2-F3 and X-24B lifting bodies to validate engineers' assertions that such vehicles could be precisely controlled during approach and landing, and providing NASA with the confidence needed to proceed with designs for the Space Shuttle orbiter.

Later he was a project pilot on the F-15 HiDEC (Highly Integrated Digital Electronic Control) research program, the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration/F-16 aircraft and the F-18 High Angle of Attack program.


Bill Dana with X-15.

Officially, Dana retired from NASA's Dryden Research Flight Test Center at Edwards in 1998 as Chief Engineer, but he was often there after retirement as a consultant and expert specialist.

Dana was born in Pasadena, California, on Nov. 3, 1930, but was raised in Bakersfield, California. Ever supportive of young people, Dana said, "An aeronautical career affects the world in which we live by making our country safer and making our world smaller. I would recommend an aeronautical career to a young person because they can make a difference."

Dana passed away in 2014 after a lengthy illness. I am ever thankful for the opportunities of meeting and knowing so many wonderful aviation greats like Bill Dana.

Heaven welcomed Bill Dana!


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