X:15

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Adams held the X's controls against the spin, using both the aerodynamic control surfaces and the reaction controls.


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Through some combination of pilot technique and basic aerodynamic stability, the plane recovered from the spin at , feet and went into a Mach 4. Adams was in a relatively high altitude dive and had a good chance of rolling upright, pulling out, and setting up a landing. But now came a technical problem that spelled the end. The Honeywell adaptive flight control system began a limit-cycle oscillation just as the plane came out of the spin, preventing the system's gain changer from reducing pitch as dynamic pressure increased.

The X began a rapid pitching motion of increasing severity. All the while, the plane shot downward at , feet per minute, dynamic pressure increasing intolerably. High over the desert, it passed abeam of Cuddeback Lake, over the Searles Valley, over the Pinnacles, narrowing on toward Johannesburg. As the X neared 65, feet, it was speeding downward at Mach 3. It broke up into many pieces amid loud sonic rumblings, striking northeast of Johannesburg. Two hunters heard the noise and saw the forward fuselage, the largest section, tumbling over a hill. A chase pilot spotted dust on Cuddeback, but it was not the X Then an Air Force pilot, who had been up on a delayed chase mission and had tagged along on the X flight to see if he could fill in for an errant chase plane, spotted the main wreckage northwest of Cuddeback.

Mike Adams was dead and the X destroyed. Adding to this tragedy, Mike's wife and mother were at NASA on the morning of the flight to monitor the flight from the viewing area outside the control room. Walter "Whitey" Whiteside recognized that Mike was in trouble and quickly led Mike's wife and mother from the control room viewing area to spare them the brutal details as Mike fought to save his life and the plane.

What it was like to fly the baddest airplane the world has ever known

America had suffered its first and only reentry accident and would not be destined for a museum. Mike Adams receiving the A. Click on images to enlarge.

HOW IT'S MADE: The Hypersonic X-15 Aircraft

Site content will continue to grow in the coming years. In all cases I believe the material reproduced here to be released for noncommercial use or I seek permission to reproduce it. I owe thanks to people too numerous to list here for their gracious assistance and cooperation in my exploration of the history of the X program. As these web pages mature, at some point I'll add a page of specific individual credits. It was built for sheer straight-line speed.

Its performance would allow engineers to investigate things like stability and control at extreme speeds, and the intense heating that would occur. To conserve fuel, it wouldn't launch itself from the ground. Instead, it blasted off from a B at about 45, feet before igniting its rocket engine for 80 to seconds for a flight that would last around 10 minutes. When it crested outside the atmosphere, the X would use little thruster rockets on its nose and wings for control, since normal aircraft controls wouldn't work at those altitudes.


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  • Those controls were novel then, but they would become customary on spacecraft. Don't think of test pilots as cowboys in the sky.

    Boeing: Historical Snapshot: X Research Aircraft

    For all their daring, their willingness to make flights that could turn fatal in an instant, they're serious about their work and about reducing risks. Over several decades, 87 of the school's graduates have gone on to NASA's astronaut program. In the coming months, the Mercury and X programs would proceed on their separate tracks, the rocket plane flying steadily faster and higher.


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    • The Mercury program, meanwhile, experienced a string of delays and well-publicized rocket launch failures. For all the progress the X was making, for all its excellence as an engineering project, it had a long timeline for getting into space.

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      The proposed XB, with its more powerful engine, had given way to the planned X Dyna-Soar , a craft under development at Boeing that looked like a race car version of the space shuttle, with the expectation that it would be ready to go in November And with Armstrong named as one of six pilot-engineers. And for all the failures of NASA's early, underpowered rockets, they still offered the tantalizing possibility of being good enough for the moment.

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      In November , Armstrong -- clad in his pressure suit, squashed into the cockpit of what he called "a real different machine" -- had his first flight in an X after five years as a research test pilot for NASA and its predecessor. Eventually he'd make a total of seven X flights. It was a "high-tension" moment, he said. Michael Collins, who flew the Apollo 11 command module, said in his memoir Carrying the Fire that Armstrong was by far the most experienced test pilot of the astronauts.

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      He also made note of how his contemporaries rated Armstrong's skills. Armstrong didn't -- yet -- feel the allure of being an astronaut, and Hansen, his biographer, wrote that Armstrong expected he'd eventually become the X chief pilot. Even as Mercury logged its first suborbital flights, Armstrong told Hansen, "we were far more involved in spaceflight research than the Mercury program. But it was the Mercury astronauts , anointed by Life magazine and championed by President Kennedy, who were famous, who were heroes even before they lifted off.

      Especially John Glenn, who in February , in the second manned Mercury flight, became the first American to go into Earth's orbit.

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