Above and Beyond: An Extra Two Seconds
- By Robert M. White as told to Al Hallonquist
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
Air Force Flight Test Center History Office
(Page 3 of 4)
As Allavie rolls the B-52 onto the heading of 222 degrees, at the launch speed of 0.82 Mach, I start the first-stage ignition. Think of this as a pilot light on a gas stove; there is no real power yet because it’s "idling." Joe Walker calls the countdown: "Four…three…two…one…LAUNCH!"
I flick the "Drop" toggle switch. The X-15 falls away and I shove the throttle forward. The acceleration is tremendous, and as I pitch up in a 40-degree climb, the G-forces build. X-15 pilot Bill Dana was fond of saying that because of the 4 Gs against the chest endured during powered flight, the X-15 is the only aircraft in which he was glad when the engine quit.
The plan called for an 80-second burn to reach 282,000 feet and Mach 5.15. But this engine performed very well, and by topping off the LOX, I was able to burn the engine for an extra two seconds, which allowed me to accelerate to Mach 5.45 and peak at 314,750 feet, becoming the first person to fly an aircraft above 300,000 feet and also the first pilot to fly a winged vehicle into space.
The X-15 now starts to decelerate. I can feel the MH-96 firing. At this altitude my standard controls are ineffective, so the MH-96 is now using jets of hydrogen peroxide to control yaw, pitch, and roll, keeping the nose on the proper heading.
While I am enjoying the view, I startle Walker when I transmit: "There’s something out there." He does not know if I mean something is going wrong with the flight, or if something is out there flying along with me.
No time to worry about this now; reentry is fast approaching. When it begins, the "eyeballs out" negative G forces start to build. I place my helmet against the reverse headrest, which allows my helmet to settle forward slightly and stay in place as the aircraft decelerates and the pressures on my body increase. Without this headrest, the negative G forces would push my head so far forward I could lose sight of the control panel.
The X-15 soon encounters enough atmosphere to regain the use of the aerodynamic control surfaces. Coming out almost directly over Edwards Air Force Base, we are still at Mach 3-plus and around 75,000 feet, much faster and higher than previous X-15 flights. Overflying the landing site, I make one circle and roll out on heading, having lost enough altitude to be right on target for the lakebed runway. The Gs are so great that after the flight I find a huge patch of burst capillaries all over my right shoulder and chest (it disappears after a few days).
I was highly satisfied with the touchdown, but I had to get ready for the flight to Washington, so there was no time for a formal debrief. However, some of the engineers and staff did ask me about my comment that there was "something out there." I described the object as the color of cardboard, about six feet by six feet, and explained that it flew formation with me briefly. They scratched their heads and looked at me funny, but let me go.