...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

April 20, 2006

In Memoriam: Scott Crossfield

Yesterday we lost one of the great legends of aviation, and an American hero. Scott Crossfield was the first man to travel twice the speed of sound. He died when his single engine Cesna 210A crashed in Gordon County, Georgia.

On November 20, 1953, Scott Crossfield's Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket dropped from the belly of a B-29 and accelerated to 1,291 miles per hour at about 72,000 feet over California's Mojave desert. He had just lapped the sound barrier, twice.

If you would like to see actual footage of the Skyrocket launching from a B-29, go here.*

If aviation fanatacism were a religion, the entrance gallery of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum would be its Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mecca all rolled into one. As any visitor to this temple knows, all you have to do is look up and you will see alongside the Wright Flyer** a constellation of the greatest planes in the history of the world. One of these planes is the North American X-15.

Scott Crossfield was the first man to pilot the X-15, in its dual rocket configuration, on June 8, 1959. He was one of 12 test pilots, a group which also included Neil Armstrong. The plane flew 199 times, launching from under the wing of a B-52. Thirteen of those flights exceeded 50 miles in altitude, bestowing the title of "astronaut" on the pilots. Two flights exceeded 65 miles.

One X-15 pilot, Michael Adams, was killed when the plane began to spin and hit 15 g's before it broke up over the desert.

Here's a picture after a hard landing with Scott Crossfield at the controls. This was the X-15's third flight, and one of the rocket engines had exploded after launch. Amazingly, Crossfield walked away from this landing unhurt. Stud.


Scott Crossfield survived 30 flights in the X-15, including another mid-flight engine explosion. His last flight was in 1960, and all of the speed and altitude records were set later, by other men. But it was Scott Crossfield who made the courageous first test flights of this amazing and historic aircraft.

The X-15 could go 4,520 mph, almost seven times the speed of sound. It set altitude records that were not broken by any plane except the Space Shuttle until the recent flight of SpaceShipOne. The fifth American to enter space did so in an X-15!

Its highest flight made it to over 67 miles (354,199 feet). The X-15's rate of climb was 60,000 feet per minute. Contrast that with the 767 I flew in recently, which gets to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet at about 2,400 feet per minute.

But those are just numbers. Wanna see how bad-ass this thing was? And how insane pilots like Scott Crossfield were to fly them? Check out this unbelievable video from inside the X-15, looking backwards as it launches. I had to run it a few times, and each time I was moved to shout something like "holy shit..." in disbelief. Keep an eye on the upper left, and you can see the contrails of the B-52 launch plane disappear in about five seconds as the X-15 rockets into space.

Just amazing.

Albert Scott Crossfield: pilot, American hero; born October 2, 1921 in Berkeley California; slipped the surly bonds of earth April 19, 2006.

* By the way, the Dryden Test Center site is amazing. There's so much good stuff here. Check out this fly-over shot of my alltime favorite jet. It's absolutely awe-inspiring!

** Not a reproduction, mind you. I'm talking about the real actual very first airplane ever.

Posted by annika, Apr. 20, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: History & Science & Technology


If a pilot has to die, this is the way to do it.

You can still fly your own plane at 85 and then you get instant death when it crashes.

Posted by: Jake on Apr. 20, 2006

Something like half of all auto fatalities are surmised to be suicides. Plausible deniability adds verisimilitude, plus one gets to drop in the harness, or as The Great Santini would say, "It beats dying of the piles!"

Posted by: Casca on Apr. 20, 2006

My exposure to this world is via Chuck Yeager's autobiography, which I haven't cracked open in a few years but which is an entertaining read. I've forgotten his opinion of Crossfield.

Posted by: Ontario Emperor on Apr. 20, 2006

I surmise Casca is full of verisimilitude...

...sad to hear; I lost a high school friend who had been at the Air Force Academy. Matt and a friend decided to buy motorcycles and the 1st day they took them out a truck ran a red light; RIP x2

Posted by: Scof on Apr. 21, 2006

*that story is relevant cuz Matt was an accomplished pilot; it takes bravery to fly those machines and these guys get joy out of it.

Posted by: Scof on Apr. 21, 2006

These guys were truly remarkable, but I don't think Yeager was too keen on Crossfield, who he described as taking far too many risks.
Funny that only a few years ago Yeager was landing a small plane in north Georgia and got pushed off the runway in a crosswind gust. (no injuries)
All these guys are heroes in my eyes, hell the Cessna I fly won't descend half as fast as these guys climbed.

Posted by: Mike C. on Apr. 21, 2006

Annika, you did sort of strike me as a Blackbird kind of gal. Really cool shot. Thanks for the post and the link to the flyover.

Posted by: jd on Apr. 21, 2006

My Grandma helped assemble the cockpit of that thing, when she worked at the Skunkworks.

Posted by: annika on Apr. 21, 2006


Thanks for reviving my memories of the X-15 and all the brave and fearless guys who flew them. As a kid I was a big X-15 fan, read the books about the pilots and their flights and rue the day the Kennedy administration took the space program from these guys to go with the "spam in the can" approach. This was and should have continued to be the thrust into space not just touching it's hem.

Skunkworks eh? I loved that book and love driving up the West Side Hyw. in Manhattan because, as you probably know, a SR-71 sits on the foward deck of the Intrepid. What a sight! We have a friend who was a buddy of Ben Rich's and was a very senior engineer on the B-2.

Posted by: Strawman on Apr. 21, 2006

Mike C, thanks.

Strawman, didn't the X-15 crowd sort of win when we adopted the shuttle approach?

Posted by: Ontario Emperor on Apr. 21, 2006

O Emperor,

I don't think so. I think the shuttle is just a bigger and more complicated spam can. Other than applying a little speed brake during landing I think she flies by wire the entire trip.

All in all though I have not been a fan of the Shuttle project since its inception. It was a program to nowhere eating up vast sums of money and endangering far too many lives for the very, very small amount of real science or repairs it did. Fixing the Hubble was terrific and what a loss that would have been if not for the shuttle but other than that I can't think of anything else note worthy. NASA lied through its teeth when presenting the mission statement with regard tot he cost/per launch using inflated numbers. I think they had NO years when they launched even half as many as they projected hence the cost/per launch doubled and then tripled. I won't get into the bad science that led them to their safety protocols, (Richard Feynman lambasted them for that), or their incredible debacle of the Challenger. I know this will sound awfully immodest, but I watched that tragedy on that 30 degree FL morning and leaned over to my wife and said "cold rubber seals, those fucking idiots".

I will try and find the citation for an article in Scientific A. written by a group of ex-astronauts, led by Sally Ride, analyzing the shuttle program and doing a comparison to the Soviet space program which they found to be far more forward thinking and economical. They loved the Proton rocket because it was being built like airliners; assembly line not hand built like our rockets. (I just checked the SA archives and they only go back to '93)

The summary was that if NASA had spent the Shuttle budget on a plan for and execution of a Moon base it would have been better spent. Clinton was stupid not to step in and fund the bankrupt Soviet rocket program and keep alive the most advanced and only heavy-lift rocket program on earth; the Energia hydrogen fueled heavy lift vehicle they were developing. It was a big mistake. This thing could have put 32 tons on the moon.


Posted by: Strawman on Apr. 22, 2006