North American X-15

"X-15" redirects here. For other uses, see X-15 (disambiguation).
Black rocket aircraft with stubby wings and short vertical stabilizers above and below tail unit
Role Experimental high-speed rocket-powered research aircraft
Manufacturer North American Aviation
First flight 8 June 1959
Introduction 17 September 1959
Retired December 1968
Primary users United States Air Force
Number built 3

The North American X-15 was a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft. The X-15 set speed and altitude records in the 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and returning with valuable data used in aircraft and spacecraft design. The X-15's official world record for the highest speed ever recorded by a manned, powered aircraft, set in October 1967 when William J. "Pete" Knight flew at 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h), or Mach 6.72, and has remained unchallenged as of 2016.[1][2]

During the X-15 program, 13 flights by eight pilots met the Air Force spaceflight criterion by exceeding the altitude of 50 miles (80 km), thus qualifying these pilots as being astronauts. The Air Force pilots qualified for astronaut wings immediately, while the civilian pilots were eventually awarded NASA astronaut wings in 2005, 35 years after the last X-15 flight. The only Navy pilot in the X-15 program never took the aircraft above the requisite 50 mile altitude and so as a result, never earned himself astronaut wings.[3][4]

Of the 199 X-15 missions, two flights (both by Joseph A. Walker) qualified as true space flights per the international (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) definition of a spaceflight by exceeding 100 kilometers (62.1 mi) in altitude.

Design and development

X-15 after igniting rocket engine
X-15A2, with sealed ablative coating, external fuel tanks, and ramjet dummy test

The X-15 was based on a concept study from Walter Dornberger for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) for a hypersonic research aircraft.[5] The requests for proposal were published on 30 December 1954 for the airframe and on 4 February 1955 for the rocket engine. The X-15 was built by two manufacturers: North American Aviation was contracted for the airframe in November 1955, and Reaction Motors was contracted for building the engines in 1956.

Like many X-series aircraft, the X-15 was designed to be carried aloft and drop launched from under the wing of a NASA B-52 mother ship. Air Force NB-52A, "The High and Mighty One" (serial 52-0003, AKA Balls Three), and NB-52B, "The Challenger" (serial 52-0008, AKA Balls 8) served as carrier planes for all X-15 flights. Release took place at an altitude of about 8.5 miles (13.7 km) and a speed of about 500 miles per hour (805 km/h).[6] The X-15 fuselage was long and cylindrical, with rear fairings that flattened its appearance, and thick, dorsal and ventral wedge-fin stabilizers. Parts of the fuselage were heat-resistant nickel alloy (Inconel-X 750).[5] The retractable landing gear comprised a nose-wheel carriage and two rear skids. The skids did not extend beyond the ventral fin, which required the pilot to jettison the lower fin (fitted with a parachute) just before landing.

Cockpit and pilot systems

Cockpit of an X-15

The X-15 was a research program and changes were made to various systems over the course of the program and between the different models. The X-15 was operated under several different scenarios including attachment to a launch aircraft, drop, main engine start and acceleration, a ballistic flight into thin air/space, re-entry into thicker air, and an unpowered glide to landing. Alternatively, if the main engine was not started the pilot went directly to a landing. The main rocket engine operated only for a relatively short part of the flight, but was capable of boosting the X-15 to its high speeds and altitudes. Without main engine thrust, the X-15's instruments and control surfaces remained functional, but the aircraft could not maintain altitude.

Because the X-15 also had to be controlled in an environment where there was too little air for aerodynamic flight control surfaces, it had a reaction control system (RCS) that used rocket thrusters.[7] There were two different X-15 pilot control setups: one used three joysticks; the other, one joystick.[8]

The X-15 type with multiple control sticks for the pilot included a traditional rudder and stick, and another joystick on the left which sent commands to the reaction control system.[9] A third joystick on the right side was used during high-G maneuvers to augment the center stick.[9] In addition to pilot input, the X-15 "Stability Augmentation System" (SAS) sent inputs to the aerodynamic controls to help the pilot maintain attitude control.[9] The reaction control system could be operated in two modes, manual and automatic.[8] The automatic mode used a feature called "Reaction Augmentation System" (RAS) that helped stabilize the vehicle at high altitude.[8] The RAS was typically used for approximately three minutes of an X-15 flight before automatic power off.[8]

The second setup used the MH-96 flight control system which allowed one joystick in place of three and simplified pilot input.[10] The MH-96 could automatically blend aerodynamic and rocket controls depending on how effective each system was at controlling the aircraft.[10]

Among the many controls were the rocket engine throttle and a control for jettisoning the ventral tail fin.[9] Other features of the cockpit were heated windows to prevent icing, and a forward headrest for periods of high deceleration.[9]

The X-15 had an ejection seat that allowed ejection at speeds up to Mach 4 (2,784 mph; 4,480 km/h) and/or 120,000 feet (37 km) altitude, although it was not used during the program.[9] In the event of ejection, the seat had deployable fins which were used until it reached a safer speed/altitude, where it could deploy its main parachute.[9] Pilots wore a pressure suit, which could be pressurized with nitrogen gas.[9] Above 35,000 feet (11 km) altitude, the cockpit was pressurized to 3.5 psi (0.24 atm) with nitrogen gas, and oxygen for breathing was fed separately to the pilot.[9]


X-15 tail with XLR-99

The initial 24 powered flights used two Reaction Motors XLR11 liquid-propellant rocket engines, enhanced to provide a total of 16,000 pounds-force (71 kN) of thrust as compared to the 6,000 pounds-force (27 kN) that a single XLR11 provided in 1947 to make the Bell X-1 the first aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound. The XLR11 used ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen.

By November 1960, Reaction Motors was able to deliver the XLR99 rocket engine, generating 57,000 pounds-force (250 kN) of thrust. The remaining 175 flights of the X-15 used XLR99 engines, in a single engine configuration. The XLR99 used anhydrous ammonia and liquid oxygen as propellant, and hydrogen peroxide to drive the high-speed turbopump that delivered propellants to the engine.[7] It could burn 15,000 pounds (6,804 kg) of propellant in 80 seconds.[7] The XLR99s could be throttled, and were the first such controllable engines that were man-rated.

The X-15 reaction control system (RCS), for maneuvering in low-pressure/density environment, used high-test peroxide (HTP), which decomposes into water and oxygen in the presence of a catalyst and could provide a specific impulse of 140 seconds.[8][11] The HTP also fueled a turbopump for the main engines and auxiliary power units (APUs).[7] Additional tanks for helium and liquid nitrogen performed other functions, for example the fuselage interior was purged with helium gas, and the liquid nitrogen was used as coolant for various systems.[7]

Wedge tail and hypersonic stability

X-15 attached to its B-52 mother ship with a T-38 flying nearby

The X-15 had a thick wedge tail to enable it to fly in a steady manner at hypersonic speeds.[12] This produced a significant amount of drag at lower speeds;[12] the blunt end at the rear of the X-15 could produce as much drag as an entire F-104 Starfighter.[12]

A wedge shape was used because it is more effective than the conventional tail as a stabilizing surface at hypersonic speeds. A vertical-tail area equal to 60 percent of the wing area was required to give the X-15 adequate directional stability.
Wendell H. Stillwell, X-15 Research Results (SP-60)

Stability at hypersonic speeds was aided by side panels which could be extended out from the tail to increase the overall surface area, and these panels doubled as air-brakes.[12]

Operational history

Neil Armstrong with X-15 number 1
X-15 pilots as of December 1965, left to right: Engle, Rushworth, McKay, Knight, Thompson, and Dana.

Altitudes attained by X-15 aircraft do not match those of Alan Shepard's and Gus Grissom's Project Mercury space capsules in 1961, nor of any other manned spacecraft. However, the X-15 ranks supreme among manned rocket-powered aircraft, becoming the world's first operational spaceplane in the early 1960s.

Before 1958, United States Air Force (USAF) and NACA officials discussed an orbital X-15 spaceplane, the X-15B that would launch into outer space from atop an SM-64 Navaho missile. This was canceled when the NACA became NASA and adopted Project Mercury instead.

By 1959, the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar space-glider program was to become the USAF's preferred means for launching military manned spacecraft into orbit. This program was canceled in the early 1960s before an operational vehicle could be built.[3] Various configurations of the Navajo were considered, and another proposal involved a Titan I stage.[13]

Three X-15s were built, flying 199 test flights, the last on 24 October 1968.

The first X-15 flight was a captive-carry unpowered test by Scott Crossfield, on 8 June 1959. Crossfield also piloted the first powered flight, on 17 September 1959, and his first flight with the XLR-99 rocket engine on 15 November 1960. Twelve test pilots flew the X-15. Among these were Neil Armstrong, later a NASA astronaut and first man to set foot on the Moon, and Joe Engle, later a commander of NASA Space Shuttle test flights.

In a 1962 proposal, NASA considered using the B-52/X-15 as a launch platform for a Blue Scout rocket to place satellites weighing up to 150 pounds (68 kg) into orbit.[13][14]

In July and August 1963, pilot Joseph A. Walker exceeded 100 km in altitude, joining NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts as the first human beings to cross that line on their way to outer space. The USAF awarded astronaut wings to anyone achieving an altitude of 50 miles (80 km), while the FAI set the limit of space at 100 kilometers (62.1 mi).

On 15 November 1967, U.S. Air Force test pilot Major Michael J. Adams was killed during X-15 Flight 191 when the X-15-3, AF Ser. No. 56-6672, entered a hypersonic spin while descending, then oscillated violently as aerodynamic forces increased after re-entry. As his aircraft's flight control system operated the control surfaces to their limits, acceleration built to 15 g0 (150 m/s2) vertical and 8.0 g0 (78 m/s2) lateral. The airframe broke apart at 60,000 feet (18 km) altitude, scattering the X-15's wreckage for 50 square miles (130 km2). On 8 May 2004, a monument was erected at the cockpit's locale, near Randsburg, California.[15] Major Adams was posthumously awarded Air Force astronaut wings for his final flight in X-15-3, which had reached an altitude of 50.4 miles (81.1 km). In 1991, his name was added to the Astronaut Memorial.[15]

The second X-15A was rebuilt after a landing accident. It was lengthened by 2.4 feet (73 cm), had a pair of auxiliary fuel tanks attached beneath its fuselage and wings, and a complete heat-resistant ablative coating was added. The plane was renamed the X-15A-2, and took flight for the first time on 28 June 1964. It reached its maximum speed of 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h) in October 1967 with pilot William "Pete" Knight of the U.S. Air Force in control.

Five aircraft were used during the span of the X-15 program: three X-15s planes and two B-52 bombers:

A 200th flight over Nevada was first scheduled for 21 November 1968, to be flown by William "Pete" Knight. Numerous technical problems and outbreaks of bad weather delayed this proposed flight six times, and it was permanently canceled on 20 December 1968. This X-15 was detached from the B-52 and then put into indefinite storage. The aircraft was later donated to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for display.

Current static displays

X-15 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.


Stratofortress mother ships

NB-52B takes off with an X-15

Record flights

Highest flights

The FAI set the limit of space at 100 kilometers (62.1 mi). But in the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force considered an altitude of 50 miles (80 km) as the limit of space; U.S. Air Force and NASA pilots and crew exceeding that altitude at the time could be awarded the astronaut badge. Thirteen X-15 flights went higher than 50 miles, two of which exceeded 100 kilometers.

X-15 flights higher than 50 miles in chronological order
Flight Date Top speed Altitude Pilot
Flight 62 17 July 1962 3,831 mph (6,165 km/h) 59.6 mi (95.9 km) Robert M. White
Flight 77 17 January 1963 3,677 mph (5,918 km/h) 51.4 mi (82.7 km) Joseph A. Walker
Flight 87 27 June 1963 3,425 mph (5,512 km/h) 53.9 mi (86.7 km) Robert A. Rushworth
Flight 90 19 July 1963 3,710 mph (5,970 km/h) 65.8 mi (105.9 km) Joseph A. Walker
Flight 91 22 August 1963 3,794 mph (6,106 km/h) 67.0 mi (107.8 km) Joseph A. Walker
Flight 138 29 June 1965 3,431 mph (5,522 km/h) 53.1 mi (85.5 km) Joseph H. Engle
Flight 143 10 August 1965 3,549 mph (5,712 km/h) 51.3 mi (82.6 km) Joseph H. Engle
Flight 150 28 September 1965 3,731 mph (6,004 km/h) 55.9 mi (90.0 km) John B. McKay
Flight 153 14 October 1965 3,554 mph (5,720 km/h) 50.4 mi (81.1 km) Joseph H. Engle
Flight 174 1 November 1966 3,750 mph (6,040 km/h) 58.1 mi (93.5 km) William H. "Bill" Dana
Flight 190 17 October 1967 3,856 mph (6,206 km/h) 53.1 mi (85.5 km) William J. "Pete" Knight
Flight 191 15 November 1967 3,569 mph (5,744 km/h) 50.3 mi (81.0 km) Michael J. Adams
Flight 197 21 August 1968 3,443 mph (5,541 km/h) 50.6 mi (81.4 km) William H. Dana


Fastest recorded flights

Key speed and altitude benchmarks of the X-15.
X-15 ten fastest flights
Flight Date Top Speed Altitude Pilot
Flight 45 9 November 1961 4,092 mph (6,585 km/h) 19.2 mi (30.9 km) Robert M. White
Flight 59 27 June 1962 4,104 mph (6,605 km/h) 23.4 mi (37.7 km) Joseph A. Walker
Flight 64 26 July 1962 3,989 mph (6,420 km/h) 18.7 mi (30.1 km) Neil A. Armstrong
Flight 86 25 June 1963 3,910 mph (6,290 km/h) 21.7 mi (34.9 km) Joseph A. Walker
Flight 89 18 July 1963 3,925 mph (6,317 km/h) 19.8 mi (31.9 km) Robert A. Rushworth
Flight 97 5 December 1963 4,017 mph (6,465 km/h) 19.1 mi (30.7 km) Robert A. Rushworth
Flight 105 29 April 1964 3,905 mph (6,284 km/h) 19.2 mi (30.9 km) Robert A. Rushworth
Flight 137 22 June 1965 3,938 mph (6,338 km/h) 29.5 mi (47.5 km) John B. McKay
Flight 175 18 November 1966 4,250 mph (6,840 km/h) 18.7 mi (30.1 km) William J. "Pete" Knight
Flight 188 3 October 1967 4,519 mph (7,273 km/h) 19.3 mi (31.1 km) William J. "Pete" Knight

X-15 pilots

X-15 pilots and their achievements during the program
Pilot Organization Total
Michael J. Adams U.S. Air Force 7 1 0 5.59 3,822 50.3
Neil A. Armstrong NASA 7 0 0 5.74 3,989 39.2
Scott Crossfield North American Aviation 14 0 0 2.97 1,959 15.3
William H. Dana NASA 16 2 0 5.53 3,897 58.1
Joseph H. Engle U.S. Air Force 16 3 0 5.71 3,887 53.1
William J. Knight U.S. Air Force 16 1 0 6.70 4,519 53.1
John B. McKay NASA 29 1 0 5.65 3,863 55.9
Forrest S. Petersen U.S. Navy 5 0 0 5.3 3,600 19.2
Robert A. Rushworth U.S. Air Force 34 1 0 6.06 4,017 53.9
Milton O. Thompson NASA 14 0 0 5.48 3,723 40.5
Joseph A. Walker NASA 25 3 2 5.92 4,104 67.0
Robert M. White** U.S. Air Force 16 1 0 6.04 4,092 59.6

Killed in the crash of an X-15
** White replaced selected pilot Iven Kincheloe, who died before the first X-15 flight.

Specifications (X-15)

Other configurations include the Reaction Motors XLR11 equipped X-15, and the long version.

General characteristics


See also

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists


  1. "North American X-15 High-Speed Research Aircraft". 2010. Retrieved 24 November 2008.
  2. Gibbs, Yvonne, ed. (28 February 2014). "NASA Armstrong Fact Sheet: X-15 Hypersonic Research Program". NASA. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  3. 1 2 Jenkins 2001, p. 10.
  4. Thompson, Elvia H.; Johnsen, Frederick A. (23 August 2005). "NASA Honors High Flying Space Pioneers" (Press release). NASA. Release 05-233.
  5. 1 2 Käsmann 1999, p. 105.
  6. "X-15 launch from B-52 mothership". Armstrong Flight Research Center. 6 February 2002. Photo E-4942.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Raveling, Paul. "X-15 Pilot Report, Part 1: X-15 General Description & Walkaround". Retrieved 30 September 2011.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Jarvis, Calvin R.; Lock, Wilton P. (1965). Operational Experience With the X-15 Reaction Control and Reaction Augmentation Systems (PDF). NASA. OCLC 703664750. TN D-2864.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Raveling, Paul. "X-15 Pilot Report, Part 2: X-15 Cockpit Check". Retrieved 1 October 2011.
  10. 1 2 "Forty Years ago in the X-15 Flight Test Program, November 1961–March 1962". Goleta Air & Space Museum. Retrieved 3 October 2011.
  11. Davies 2003, p. 8.28.
  12. 1 2 3 4 Stillwell, Wendell H. (1965). X-15 Research Results: With a Selected Bibliography. NASA. OCLC 44275779. NASA SP-60.
  13. 1 2 Wade, Mark. "X-15/Blue Scout". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
  14. "Historical note: Blue Scout / X-15". 21 March 2012.
  15. 1 2 Merlin, Peter W. (30 July 2004). "Michael Adams: Remembering a Fallen Hero". The X-Press. 46 (6).
  16. USAF Museum Guidebook 1975, p. 73.
  • Davies, Mark, ed. (2003). The Standard Handbook for Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineers. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 8–28. ISBN 978-0-07-136229-0. 
  • Godwin, Robert, ed. (2001). X-15: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books. ISBN 1-896522-65-3. 
  • Hallion, Richard P. (March–June 1978). "Saga of the Rocket Ships". In Green, William; Swanborough, Gordon. Air Enthusiast Six. Bromley, Kent, UK: Pilot Press. 
  • Jenkins, Dennis R. (2001). Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System: The First 100 Missions (3rd ed.). Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press. ISBN 0-9633974-5-1. 
  • Jenkins, Dennis R.; Landis, Tony; Miller, Jay (June 2003). American X-Vehicles: An Inventory—X-1 to X-50 (PDF). Monographs in Aerospace History No. 31. NASA. OCLC 68623213. SP-2003-4531. 
  • Jenkins, Dennis R. (2007). X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight (PDF). NASA. ISBN 9780160792854. 
  • Käsmann, Ferdinand C. W. (1999). Die schnellsten Jets der Welt: Weltrekord-Flugzeuge [The Fastest Jets in the World: World Record Aircraft] (in German). Kolpingring, Germany: Aviatic Verlag. ISBN 3-925505-26-1. 
  • Price, A. B. (12 January 1968). Design Report - Thermal Protection System, X-15A-2. Denver, Colorado: Martin Marietta Corporation. NASA CR-82003. 
  • Thompson, Milton O. (1992). At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-107-5. 
  • Tregaskis, Richard (2000). X-15 Diary: The Story of America's First Space Ship. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse. ISBN 0-595-00250-1. 
  • United States Air Force Museum Guidebook. Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio: Air Force Museum Foundation. 1975. 
  • Watts, Joe D. (October 1968). Flight Experience With Shock Impingement and Interference Heating on the X-15-2 Research Airplane (PDF). NASA. NASA-TM-X-1669. 
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