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Scott Crossfield – One Amazing X-15 Pilot

Scott Crossfield as a young pilot.
Scott Crossfield as a young pilot.
Scott Crossfield as a young pilot.

From his first solo flight, it was clear that Scott Crossfield had the makings of a true test pilot. According to his bibliographic material, Crossfield demonstrated his analytical flight test skills on his very first solo flight. His instructor was not available on the designated 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 maneuver, with the same results. 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 flapping in the spin. He reached back, pulled the door closed. The banging and noise stopped. Satisfied, he recovered from the spin, returned to the airport and did several landings. 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.

Crossfield was born in California October 2, 1921. He served as a U.S. Navy as a flight instructor and fighter pilot during World War II.
After earning his Masters of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1950, Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as an aeronautical research pilot.dryden

Crossfield had been assigned to flight test the North American F-100 Super Sabre, a supersonic jet fighter that was first flown in 1953. During a test flight in October 1954 the engine failed. The recommended procedure for an engine failure was to eject from the aircraft. North American’s own test pilots doubted a dead-stick landing could be done due its high landing speed. Crossfield elected to make a dead-stick landing at Edwards AFB. He made a perfect approach and touchdown, but was unable to bring the unpowered aircraft to a halt in a safe distance. Crossfield was forced to use the wall of the NACA hangar as a makeshift brake after narrowly missing several parked experimental aircraft. Crossfield was uninjured, and the F-100 was later repaired and returned to service.

Crossfield in the cockpit a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket during November 1953
Over the next five years, he flew nearly all of the experimental aircraft being tested at Edwards, including the X-1 (the plane that Chuck Yeager flew to first break the sound barrier), and the Douglas D-558-II Skystreak and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

crossfieldrocket
Crossfield in the cockpit a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

On November 20, 1953, He became the first person to fly at twice the speed of sound when he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of 1,291 mph (Mach 2.005) After 99 flights in the rocket-powered X-1 and D-558-II, Crossfield had more experience with rocket planes than any other pilot in the world by 1955.
In 1955, Crossfield left the NACA and became the chief engineering test pilot for North American, where he played a major role in the design and development of X-15. The X-15 was an entirely new and unproven design, and flight operations were considered extremely hazardous. It was Crossfield’s job to demonstrate its airworthiness at speeds up to Mach 3 (2290 mph).

The X-15 was a small rocket-powered aircraft, 50 feet long with a wingspan of 22 feet. It had a conventional fuselage, but an unusual wedge-shaped vertical tail, thin stubby wings and unique side fairings that extended along the fuselage. The X-15 weighed about 14,000 pounds empty and approximately 34,000 pounds at launch. The rocket engine, which was controlled by the pilot, was capable of developing 60,000 pounds of thrust.
On June 8, 1959, he completed the airplane’s first flight, an unpowered glide from 37,550 feet. The very first flight was troubled because the flight controls had not been set up properly. As Crossfield attempted to land the X-15, it went into what Crossfield described “pilot induced oscillation.” He managed to set the X-15 down on the desert runway at the bottom of one of the oscillations saving himself and the airframe.
Crossfield introduced many X-15 design innovations, including putting engine controls for the rocket engines in the cockpit. Previously, all engine adjustments were made by technicians making ground adjustments based on flight test data.

X-15 with external tanks.
X-15 with external tanks.

The X-15 was supposed to be powered by a single XLR-99 rocket motor, but that engine was not ready for the early days of the flight test program. Early in the program, the X-15 was powered by two XLR-11 alcohol and liquid oxygen rockets. Shortly after launch on his third flight, one of these engines exploded. Unable to jettison his propellants, Crossfield was forced to make an emergency landing during which the excessive load on the aircraft broke its back just behind the cockpit. He was uninjured and the airplane was repaired.

NorthAmericanX-15600 touchdownCrossfield had another close call during ground testing of the XLR-99 engine. He was seated in the cockpit of the No. 3 X-15 when a malfunctioning valve caused a catastrophic explosion. Although uninjured in the event, it was later calculated that he had been subjected an instantaneous force of nearly 50 Gs. Crossfield revealed years later that he began to have difficulty with night vision after the accident.

During the flight test program, other pilots would fly X-15s into space, earning several pilots their astronaut wings. Although it had been his hope to be one of those pilots, the Air Force gave him strict orders which basically said “stay in the sky, stay out of space.”
Crossfield flew 16 captive flights attached to the modified B-52 Stratofortress (see The Mother of Mother ships) and 14 of the 199 total X-15 flight tests. He flew the first successful glide flight, the first powered flight, the first flight with the XLR99 engine and he experienced the first emergency landing. In 1962 he and two other X-15 pilots were awarded the Collier Trophy, presented by President John F. Kennedy.
When asked to name his favorite airplane, Crossfield replied, “the one I was flying at the time,” because he thoroughly enjoyed them all and their unique personalities.

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Written by Jeff Richmond

Jeff Richmond

Jeff has been flying and writing for more than thirty-five years. He flew in the Air Force and later taught college-level aeronautics. He has worked as professional photographer and a business and technical writer for both Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin. Now retired, Jeff is on a mission to visit, photograph and write about aerospace museums—especially the smaller, lesser known museums.