November 5, 1959: Test Pilot Scott Crossfield

  • Published
  • National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

Following launch from its B-52 carrier on its fourth powered flight, an X‑15 (serial number 6671) suffered an in-flight explosion and fire during engine ignition. Its pilot, Scott Crossfield, made a successful emergency landing on the bed of Rosamond Dry Lake, but the fuselage of the fuel-heavy aircraft buckled just aft of the cockpit following touchdown.

n 1950, Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station (later called the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, and now named the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as an aeronautical research pilot.  Crossfield demonstrated his flight test skills on his very first student solo. His instructor was not available on the designated early morning, so Crossfield, on his own, took off and went through maneuvers he had practiced with his instructor, including spin entry and spin recovery. During the first spin, Crossfield experienced vibrations, banging, and noise in the aircraft that he had never encountered with his instructor. He recovered, climbed to a higher altitude, and repeated his spin entry and spin recovery, getting the same vibration, banging and noise. On his third spin entry, at yet an even higher altitude, he looked over his shoulder as he was spinning and observed the instructor's door disengaged and flapping in the spin. He reached back, pulled the door closed, and discovered all the vibrations, banging and noise stopped. Satisfied, he recovered from the spin, landed (actually, did several landings), and fueled the airplane. He also realized his instructor had been holding the door during their practice spin entries and recoveries, and never mentioned this door quirk. In later years, Crossfield often cited his curiosity about this solo spin anomaly and his desire to analyze what was going on and why it happened, as the start of his test pilot career.

Over the next five years, he flew nearly all of the experimental aircraft under test at Edwards, including the X-1, XF-92, X-4, X-5, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. During one of his X-1 flights, the cockpit windows completely frosted and Crossfield was literally flying blind. Ever resourceful, he removed a loafer, took off his sock, and created a peep hole to reference his chase plane wingman all the way to landing.[2] On November 20, 1953, he became the first person to fly at twice the speed of sound as he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of 1,291 mph (2,078 km/h, Mach 2.005).[3] The Skyrocket D-558-II surpassed its intended design speed by 25 percent on that day. With 99 flights in the rocket-powered X-1 and D-558-II, Crossfield had—by a wide margin—more experience with rocketplanes than any other pilot in the world by the time he left Edwards to join North American Aviation in 1955.

In September 1954, Crossfield was forced to make a deadstick landing in the North American F-100 Super Sabre he was evaluating at the High-Speed Flight Station (now the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center), a feat which North American's own test pilots doubted could be done, as the F-100 had a high landing speed. Crossfield made a perfect approach and touchdown, but was unable to bring the unpowered aircraft to a halt in a safe distance, and was forced to use the wall of the NACA hangar as a makeshift brake after narrowly missing several parked experimental aircraft ("with great precision," as he later wryly joked). Crossfield was uninjured, and the F-100 was later repaired and returned to service. Crossfield left NACA in 1955.

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