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X-15 in Flight
This U.S. Air Force photo shows the X-15 ship #3 (56-6672) in flight over the desert in the 1960s. Ship #3 made 65 flights during the program, attaining a top speed of Mach 5.65 and a maximum altitude of 354,200 feet. Neil Armstrong piloted Ship #3 on its first flight, on 20 December 1961.
The X-15 was a rocket-powered aircraft 50 ft long with a wingspan of 22 ft. It was a missile-shaped vehicle with an unusual wedge-shaped vertical tail, thin stubby wings, and unique side fairings that extended along the side of the fuselage. The X-15 weighed about 14,000 lb empty and approximately 34,000 lb at launch. The XLR-99 rocket engine, was pilot controlled and was capable of developing 57,000 lb of thrust. North American Aviation built three X-15 aircraft and they made a total of 199 flights.
The X-15 research aircraft was developed to provide in-flight information and data on aerodynamics, structures, flight controls, and the physiological aspects of high-speed, high-altitude flight. A follow-on program used the aircraft as a testbed to carry various scientific experiments beyond the Earth's atmosphere on a repeated basis. For flight in the dense air of the usable atmosphere, the X-15 used conventional aerodynamic controls such as rudder surfaces on the vertical stabilizers to control yaw and movable horizontal stabilizers to control pitch when moving in synchronization or roll when moved differentially. For flight in the thin air outside of the appreciable Earth's atmosphere, the X-15 used a reaction control system. Hydrogen peroxide thrust rockets located on the nose of the aircraft provided pitch and yaw control. Those on the wings provided roll control.
Because of the large fuel consumption, the X-15 was air launched from a B-52 aircraft at 45,000 ft and a speed of about 500 mph. Depending on the mission, the rocket engine provided thrust for the first 80 to 120 sec of flight. The remainder of the normal 10 to 11 min. flight was powerless and ended with a 200-mph glide landing.
The X-15 was flown over a period of nearly 10 years -- June 1959 to Oct. 1968 -- and set the world's unofficial speed and altitude records of 4,520 mph or Mach 6.7 (set by Ship #2) and 354,200 ft (set by Ship #3) in a program to investigate all aspects of manned hypersonic flight. Information gained from the highly successful X-15 program contributed to the development of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned spaceflight programs, and also the Space Shuttle program.
Date Taken: 1960s