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.
Later, the engineers and others reviewed the film from a wide-angle camera mounted above and behind the cockpit, facing rearward. The footage showed something flying by. To this day no one is sure what it was, but the consensus is it was likely ice that had broken loose.
At the time, four Americans had earned astronaut wings: Project Mercury’s Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter. With that X-15 flight, I became the fifth.
Bob White, who passed away on March 17, 2010, was a retired major general in the U.S. Air Force. Al Hallonquist has studied aerospace history since high school, when he learned to fly.