In the cockpit of the sleek, black aircraft slung underneath the wing of the B-52 bomber, my interphone crackles. "Ah, Robert, it’s a lovely morning," says Jack Allavie, the commander of the B-52 launch aircraft.
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"Yes it is, Jack," I respond while running through the preflight checklist for our July 17, 1962 mission.
The North American Aircraft X-15 was designed to investigate flight at hypersonic (Mach 5-plus) speeds and extremely high altitudes, and the effects of aerodynamic heating on aircraft surfaces. It was the first aircraft to fly Mach 4, Mach 5, and Mach 6—and I had the good fortune to be the pilot of these flights. I was also the first to fly faster than 3,000 mph and the first to fly above 200,000 feet. Today we would try to best that altitude by another 100,000 feet.
I finish the checklist. The flight has been aborted three times, so the crew—drop pilots Allavie and Harry Archer and panel operator Stan Butchart—is anxious to get it going today. Fellow X-15 pilot Joe Walker will be "NASA 1," mission control on the ground. Walker and I, with Scott Crossfield and Forrest Peterson, are to fly to Washington, D.C., later today to meet with President Kennedy. He’ll present us with the Collier Trophy for our work with the X-15 program—a grand honor, as the trophy is awarded for "the greatest achievement in aeronautics…in America" each year.
Allavie fires up the B-52 and requests ground control clearance to taxi out: "Eddie tower, this is zero-zero-three, taxi."
"Ready to roll, buddy?" Jack radios.
"Ready when you are, Jack." As we taxi, the starters and ladders are pulled away from the F-104 and T-38 for chase pilots Jim McDivitt and Jack McKay.
I hear Allavie over the interphone: "Say Bob, the temperature is up a bit. It’s going to be a long run to unstick today"—meaning the B-52 will need a long ground run to get airborne. He knows he just opened the door for some fighter-versus-bomber banter, and I do not disappoint. "Sure you and Harry can manage, Jack? I’ll be happy to crawl over and give you a hand if you have any little problems."
"Bob, you know we never let beginners fly this thing," he replies. "You just stick to your toy airplanes and leave the real flying to the pros."
The climbout goes smoothly. The drop pilots will breathe easier after we pass 26,000 feet. Below that altitude, they cannot release the X-15 in an emergency; I would not have enough time to fully jettison the propellants. The excess weight of residual propellants would result in a faster-than-normal landing, and that extra weight could cause structural failure. We had discovered the problem when an X-15 landed with residual propellant: Its fuselage buckled and landing gear collapsed. Above 26,000 feet, the X-15 pilot can either bail out or vent the tanks and land.