Fifty years ago this month, USAF Major William J. “Pete” Knight piloted the fabled USAF/North American X-15A-2 hypersonic flight research aircraft to a record speed of 4,520 mph – roughly a mile and a quarter per second. This is about 50 percent faster than the highest speed ever attained by a “speeding bullet”.
North American’s original X-15 production run consisted of three (3) aircraft. The X-15A-2 was a rebuild of the 2nd airframe (S/N 56-6671) which had been severely damaged during an emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada in November of 1962.
The rebuilt aircraft was configured with a pair of droppable propellant tanks that allowed the type’s XLR-99 rocket engine to operate 60 seconds beyond the stock X-15’s 80-second burn time. Among other modifications, the aircraft also carried a pylon-mounted dummy ramjet in the ventral region of the aft fuselage.
With the addition of the external propellant tanks, the X-15A-2 was really a three-stage vehicle. The first stage was the NASA NB-52B mothership which launched the X-15 at Mach 0.82 and 45,000 feet. The second stage consisted of the propellant-laden external tanks which were jettisoned at Mach 2.0 and 70,000 feet. The third stage was the X-15A-2 with its entire internal propellant load.
Due to the increased speed of the X-15A-2, the aircraft was covered with Martin MA-25S ablator to protect it from the higher aerodynamic heating loads. The baseline ablator was pink in color and gave the X-15A-2 a rather odd appearance. Fortunately, application of a white wear/sealer over the ablator gave the aircraft a more dignified look.
On Tuesday, 03 October 1967, Pete Knight and the X-15A-2 dropped away from the NB-52B (S/N 52-008) at the start of the X-15 Program’s 188th mission. Knight ignited the XLR-99 rocket engine and executed a pull-up followed by a pushover to level flight at a little over 102,000 feet. Aircraft speed at XLR-99 burnout was 4,520 mph (Mach 6.7).
As the aircraft decelerated following burnout, Knight executed a series of pre-planned flight maneuvers to acquire vital aerodynamics data. However, passing through Mach 5.5, he received an indication in the cockpit that a high temperature condition existed in the XLR-99 engine bay.
Knight attempted to jettison the aircraft’s remaining propellants, but to no avail. The jettison tubes were welded shut by whatever was happening in the engine bay. This meant he would land heavier and faster than usual. Fortunately, Knight’s piloting skills allowed him to get the X-15A-2 on to Rogers Dry Lake in one piece.
As flight support personnel inspected the X-15A-2 airframe following Knight’s emergency landing, they were alarmed at what they found. The aft ventral region of the aircraft had incurred significant thermal damage. Further, the dummy ramjet was gone.
As reported in the classic NASA document, TM-X-1669, higher-than-expected aerodynamic heating levels were responsible for the damage to the X-15A-2.
First, shock wave/boundary layer interaction heating on the lower fuselage just ahead of the pylon (1) completely destroyed the ablator in that region and (2) penetrated the Inconel-X airframe structure. This introduced very high temperature air into the X-15 engine bay.
Second, impingement of the dummy ramjet nose shock on the detached bow shock coming off of the pylon produced a shear layer that focused on the pylon leading edge. The resulting heating rates were of sufficient magnitude and duration to both burn away the pylon ablator and burn through the pylon structure. The weakened pylon structural attachment eventually failed and the dummy ramjet departed the main airframe.
Pete Knight will forever hold the record for the fastest X-15 flight. However, the X-15A-2 never flew again. Only 11 more flights remained in the X-15 Program at the time. A lack of time and funding meant that little was to be gained by repairing the thermally-damaged aircraft.
As for the final disposition of the X-15A-2 (S/N 56-6671), the aircraft’s remaining ablator was removed with its external surface cleaned-up and original markings restored. The aircraft now resides in a place of honor at the National Museum of the United States Air Force located at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.