The X15 and Its Pilots

While the aircraft was being designed and built, NACA and the military selected a group of test pilots to begin preparation for flying the X-15. Many had flown in Korea. Several would fly in Vietnam. All had bachelor's degrees in science or engineering.

Scott Crossfield, the man more identified with the X-15 program than any other pilot, had been with the program since its beginning in 1955. Crossfield had first flown in an airplane the same year that Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. He had been the first to fly Mach 2 and had flown virtually all of NACA's early rocket planes, but left NASA to become North American's chief pilot on the project, or as he put it, the ''X-15's chief son-of-a-bitch.'' Though known primarily as a pilot, ''I am an engineer, aerodynami-cist, and designer by training,'' Crossfield stated, to explain leaving the exciting atmosphere of Edwards flight testing to manage the X-15 project.9

Neil Armstrong, the youngest of the X-15 group by more than five years, joined NACA's High Speed Flight Station as soon as he got his bachelor's degree from Purdue in 1955, at age twenty-five, having already flown nearly eighty missions in Korea. Before joining the X-15 program he had specialized in testing high-speed stability and control and handling qualities on the century series of jet fighters (figure 3.3).10

Other pilots who would fly the X-15 during the 1960s included Joe Engle, an air force test pilot; like Armstrong he would move from the X-15 to Apollo (serving as a backup pilot). In 1981, he would become the only person to fly a manual reentry of the space shuttle from Mach 25 back to landing, on Columbia's second flight. One of the later X-15 pilots, Milt Thompson, would spend his career in flight test at NASA Dryden, and would become a prolific and articulate chronicler of the X-15 piloting experience.11

Figure 3.3

Neil Armstrong with the X-15. Armstrong was the first to fly the craft with its novel adaptive control system. (NASA Dryden photo E60-6286.)

Figure 3.3

Neil Armstrong with the X-15. Armstrong was the first to fly the craft with its novel adaptive control system. (NASA Dryden photo E60-6286.)

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