Forty-eight years ago this month, USAF Major Robert A. Rushworth flew the 100th flight test of the X-15 Program. Piloting his 18th mission in the manned hypersonic aircraft, Rushworth achieved a maximum speed of 3,618 mph (Mach 5.34 ) in X-15 Ship No. 1 (S/N 56-6670). The date was Tuesday, 28 January 1964. Peak altitude attained during the 8 minute and 17 second flight was 107,402 feet. Using a trio of aircraft, the X-15 Program would go on to register 199 official research missions between June of 1959 and October of 1968. Bob Rushworth flew 34 of those missions; more than any of the twelve men who piloted the famed black rocket-plane. Bob Rushworth had many notable experiences while at the controls of the X-15 including one episode where the nose gear deployed above Mach 4.2 and another where a main landing skid deployed above Mach 4.4! Each time he was able to get the airplane back on the ground in one piece. On a more positive note, Bob Rushworth flew the X-15 as fast as 4,018 mph (Mach 6.06) and as high as 285,000 feet. For this latter achievement, Rushworth was awarded Astronaut Wings by the United States Air Force.
Forty-five years ago this week (Friday, 27 January 1967), the Apollo 1 prime crew perished as fire swept through their Apollo Block I Command Module (CM) during a ground test at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The crew of Command Pilot Vigil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee had been scheduled to make the first manned flight of the Apollo Program some three weeks hence. Shortly after the fire started at 23:31:04 UTC (6:31:04 pm EST), “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit” was reported across the communication network by Astronaut Chaffee. Believed to have started just below Grissom’s seat, the fire quickly erupted into an inferno that claimed the men’s lives within 30 seconds. While each received extensive 3rd degree burns, death was attributed to toxic smoke inhalation. The post-mishap investigation uncovered numerous defects in CM design, manufacturing and workmanship. The use of a (1) pure oxygen atmosphere pressurized to 16.7 psia and (2) complex 3-component hatch design (that took a minimum of 90 seconds to open) sealed the astronauts’ fate. A haunting irony of the tragedy is that America lost her first astronaut crew, not in the sideral heavens, but in a spacecraft that was firmly rooted to the ground.
Twenty-one years ago this week (Thursday, 17 January 1991), USAF/Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk aircraft were employed against more than 31 percent of Iraqi targets during the initial 24 hours of Operation Desert Storm. This high utilization rate came despite the fact that the Nighthawk comprised a mere 2.5 percent of all Coalition aircraft used in the Persian Gulf War air campaign. The Black Jet’s unique stealth characteristics allowed it to attack high-value military targets with impunity in the Baghdad area despite the city’s heavy SAM and AAA defenses. Moreover, the use of precision-guided weapons provided for target elimination while minimizing collateral damage and civilian casualties. By the end of hostilities, F-117A forces had flown 1,300 missions and dropped in excess of 2,000 tons of ordnance. Roughly 1,600 targets were struck at a success rate of 80 percent. No Nighthawk aircraft or pilot was lost in the conflict. The F-117A’s phenomenal success during Operation Desert Storm led her air and ground crews to coin this bold motto; “We own the night.”
Forty-one years ago this week (Tuesday, 12 January 1971), the USAF/Boeing Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM) was ordered into production. Known as the AGM-69, the nuclear-armed weapon was designed for both internal and external carriage by the USAF/Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. SRAM would eventually see service with the F-111A Aardvark and the B-1B Lancer as well. Featuring a maximum range of 110 nm, the Mach 3-capable missile was able to deliver its W69 variable-yield nuclear warhead with a CEP of 1,400 feet. The SRAM external airframe was completely covered with 3/4-inch of rubberized material to reduce its radar cross-section (RCS). Additional RCS reduction was achieved through the use of phenolic tail control surfaces. Approximately 1,500 SRAM’s were manufactured before the missile’s production cycle was halted in August of 1975.
Forty-seven years ago this week, the USAF/General Dynamics F-111A Aardvark tactical strike aircraft successfully swept its variable-geometry wings for the first time in flight. Company test pilots Dick Johnson and Val Prahl flew this test on what was the second flight of Ship No 1. (S/N 63-9766). Flying out of Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, the aircraft’s wings were swept through the full range of wing sweep (16 to 72.5-deg) without incident. This important milestone in the development of the all-weather, supersonic-capable, low-level penetration F-111A took place on Wednesday, 06 January 1965.