We’re still roughly a month away from Mach 1 Day, the celebration of Chuck Yeager’s historic first supersonic flight on October 14, 1947, but this is too important of a date in the annals of aviation to pass up on until then. September 17th is also a major day for introducing not one, but two of the most important aircraft ever flown, and yes, they both broke the sound barrier. In fact, to put it lightly, they each fucking shattered it!
In the mid-1950s, the United States was cruising through the air with numerous supersonic planes and had already surpassed Mach 1, Mach 2, and Mach 3. Of course, when it comes to the field of aviation, there’s truly nowhere to go but up, and you always can go up farther. The US wanted to hit hypersonic speeds, otherwise known as speeds of Mach 5-7, and they wanted to do it for one big reason, the biggest of all in fact: space.
In 1954, the US military sought to commission a hypersonic aircraft that could land on its own. After a four company competition which included Bell Aviation, the creator of the Bell X-1 that Yeager flew in 1947, the winner was announced. No design (and price) blew away the Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics that would in October 1958 be transferred into the new government agency known as NASA), but they were most favorable toward North American Aviation’s mock-up and ordered three to be built. Another company, Reaction Motors, was tasked to construct the rocket-powered engines for the aircraft.
The North American X-15 was tested out a bit after its construction, and it was formally unveiled on September 17, 1959, ushering in an exciting era of extreme aerial speed. All black with a unique design (see above) to help manage the craft’s aerodynamics at hypersonic speeds, the X-15, like other rocketplanes, was flown up attached to the undercarriage of a larger mothership – in this case a B-52 Stratofortress – then dropped to open up its rocket thrust.
The X-15 had twelve total pilots, including Neil Armstrong, future first man on the Moon, and Scott Crossfield who was the first man to fly beyond Mach 2. But for as impressive as Crossfield’s Mach achievement was, it was nothing compared to those of Major Robert White. White was a test pilot in the United States Air Force who made the first flights beyond Mach 4 and Mach 5, but he was not even close to calling it there. On November 9, 1961, Major Robert White became the first person to push past Mach 6. Yeah, Mach 6! He flew the X-15 to 4093 miles per hour (6590 km/hr)!
But wait, there’s more! Two years later, in both July and August of 1963, Joseph A. Walker topped the X-15’s altitude mark by flying it beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level. This mark is referred to as the Karman Line, and it marks the boundary of Earth and Space. That’s right, Walker flew a plane into Outer Space. He holds the distinction of being the the seven American to travel to Space and was granted the title of astronaut for having left the confines of Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, as was the case with too many test pilots, Walker died three years later in a midair collision during another test flight.
The X-15 was a remarkable plane that was the world’s first spaceplane, and still holds the record for altitude achieved by a plane, as well as speed, which it officially maxed out with William Knight’s 1967 flight that reached Mach 6.72, or 4520 mph (7274 km/h)! We’ll focus on Knight’s tenure as a pilot here, and not drift into his later years as politician in California who wrote the infamous Proposition 22 that banned gay marriage in the state and was openly defied by Knight’s own son David who married his partner in San Francisco in 2004.
The amazing X-15 was slated to be the first step in hypersonic space flight with a winged plane. Projects like Dyna-Soar were to carry on it’s legacy and take it to even higher heights. However, NASA and the USAF would shift their focus to rockets like the Mercury Redstone to reach the realm of Outer Space. They would come back to a winged vehicle that could operate in Space and land itself though. More familiar than the X-15 was the spacecraft that probably what most people think of when they hear the word “spaceplane”.
Once again, on September 17th, this time in 1976, another winged wonder was rolled out. With the primary goal of operating in Space and returning on its own power to Earth, the space shuttle made its debut with prototypical craft Enterprise. Originally supposed to bear the name Constitution, the power of fandom intervened, and then-President Gerald Ford was inundated with letters from Trekkies requesting the name be changed to Enterprise. Ford liked the name, and he requested NASA change it. Thus the Star Trek fans were appeased, and more importantly, the world’s first space shuttle was displayed. Though Enterprise never went into orbit, its following fellow craft did from 1981-2011, rocketing along a road that was first paved by the likes of fast craft like the X-15.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to learn more about the X-15, then check out this piece from HistoryNet. I found it quite interesting and educational. If you express any interest in my writings, then please send me your feedback, or suggestions for the future at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to zip back here next week for more high-flying fun!
I’m a Rocketman! ROCKETMAN!
P.S. Congrats to Holly Ridings, the new chief flight director at NASA who is the first female to hold the position!