The Real X-Men
Life came at you fast when you flew the X-15.
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, November 2007
(Page 3 of 6)
“We did a tremendous amount of practicing approaches in -104s to the uprange lake beds, and all of the lake beds,” says Joe Engle, “because each one of them was different and unique, and the approach was different and your cues were different, and they were different lengths. Some of them were [so short that it was] critical to touch down right at the end.”
Bob White worked harder on his landings, he acknowledges, than other pilots in the program: “Joe Walker, he made the first government flight, and Joe landed a couple of miles down from the intended touchdown point. Apparently he didn’t work the problem like I did. I took the -104, I would go to different lakes, and you know, engine back in the -104—Okay, here I am, I’m gonna dead-stick—and I set up, and I established all my cues around the landing pattern, and now I was going to make my first flight, and I remember Dick Day, one of the two engineers at Edwards, said, ‘Bob, how far from the landing spot do you think you’re going to be when you land?’ I said, ‘I’ll be within plus or minus 1,000 feet, no worse than that.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll bet you a martini.’ And I said, ‘Make it two.’ And he bought me two martinis.”
The reentry and glide of the space shuttle resembled those of the X-15, and Joe Engle, who flew both, was the only pilot to hand-fly a shuttle at hypersonic speeds. He recalls the X-15 with evident warmth:
“I really look back on this airplane with fondness. I’m not at all shy or bashful to say that I enjoyed flying the airplane more than any other. If you have a favorite airplane it would have to be the X-15—because it was an absolutely awesome airplane. It was a very ingenious design for its time. It was really very, very advanced. It was a real pilot’s airplane; you weren’t separated from the airplane by a lot of computers and automatic control systems, and yet you got to fly a very, very impressive profile in both speed and altitude.”
FLYING THE HIGHEST-PERFORMANCE aircraft ever built required intense practice, and still there were surprises. The research program moved at a fast pace, and pilots had few opportunities to share impressions that were not related to the research goals of their flights. Milt Thompson was startled by the violence with which the X-15 detached itself from the B-52 mothership, and at finding, on his first flight, that when acceleration from the huge engine pinned him against his seat, he could no longer scan the instruments in the way he had developed while slouched comfortably in the simulator. Other pilots must have experienced the same thing, but no one had warned him.
“There’s some professional pride there,” Bill Dana comments. “You don’t want to help the other guy do too good a job on his program. I never worried about that—I was never in it for the reputation. But a lot of people did.”
In the chase for records during the X-plane era, some test pilots clearly focused on their own achievements. But Joe Engle remembers the experience differently. “The real thing I’m grateful for is to have gotten to be part of the X-15 program,” he says. “The X-15 program had—I don’t want to sound gooey about it—almost a family attitude about it. Everybody there was family, you weren’t holding back from anybody.... Among the pilots there wasn’t any competition, everybody had the ultimate design limits in mind, and to be part of that climbing-the-mountain process made everybody part of the same team. I would love to do it again.”
One thing most pilots remembered in the same way: the hard physical work of flying the airplane.