Mar 24th, 2020

Joe Walker and the X-15 Sixty Years Ago Today

Joe Walker first flew the X-15 sixty years ago today.  The X-15 is the fastest aircraft ever flown by the United States.  It was literally a rocket plane.

The X-15, manufactured by North American, was one of the last in a series of supersonic test aircraft designed to test aircraft performance above the sound barrier of Mach 1.  It followed in the path of such aircraft as the XF-92, X-4, X-5, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.  Of course, it all began with Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1.

Scott Crossfield

The X-15 was first flown in 1959 by Scott Crossfield.  Crossfield, famously, passed up the opportunity to be the first to break the sound barrier over a pay squabble with the US government.  Enter stage right Air Force Captain, Chuck Yeager, and Yeager went down into history as the first to pass Mach 1.

X-15 mounted to B-52

However, Scott Crossfield was not done.  As North American’s Chief test pilot he was the first to fly Mach 2, in a Skyrocket in 1953.  He took the controls of the X-15 in June of 1959; it was an unpowered glide.  The X-15 was mounted to a B-52 and then dropped at altitude.  In September he flew the X-15 in a powered flight for the first time. 

Joe Walker’s Flight

Joe Walker

On March 24, 1960, it was Joe Walker’s turn.  Joseph Albert Walker was born in Pennsylvania.  Like many early test pilots, he had a science degree in physics (the other common degree being engineering).  He also had a background as a fighter pilot, flying the P-38 in World War II.  Eventually he became a test pilot for NASA. 

X-15 in flight

On his first flight in the X-15 Walker underestimated the power in the bird.  He recalls being crushed back into the pilot’s seat after igniting the rocket engine.  Walker quickly accelerated to Mach 2.0 and 48,000+ feet.  The flight lasted a total of 9 minutes and 8 seconds before Walker settled the craft onto Rodgers Dry Lakebed. 

Tail 56-6670

This X-1, Tail # 56-6670, was the first of three to be built.  Only 12 men ever flew the bird in its total of 199 flights, Walker flew 25 of them.  His fastest speed was Mach 5.92.  His career ended in a disaster and will be chronicled in another blog.

Safe to say, that Walker was one of the fortunate few.  Flying the X-1 for the first time sixty years ago today. 

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