Forty-three years ago this month, the USAF/NASA/Martin X-24B became the first lifting body to perform an unpowered precision landing on a concrete runway. The feat was pivotal to convincing NASA officials that landing the Space Shuttle Orbiter in an unpowered state was operationally feasible.
Early Space Shuttle Orbiter operational concepts featured the use of a pair of turbojets to provide a powered landing capability. These air breathing engines were to be internally stowed just below the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods. The turbojets would be deployed and started once the Orbiter had decelerated to high subsonic flight speeds.
While air breathing propulsion would give the Orbiter a loiter and go-around capability, the drawbacks were significant. Jet fuel would have to be carried into and out of earth orbit. The weight of this fuel and the turbojets would severely penalize Orbiter payload capability. Further, the system would increase both the complexity of and cost to Shuttle operations.
As the Shuttle Program grappled with the development of a powered landing capability for the Orbiter, the NASA DFRC flight test community made what appeared to be a rather bold claim. The Orbiter could simply glide all the way to touchdown and land dead-stick. After all, X-planes had been doing so safely and without incident since the late 1940’s.
A leading proponent of unpowered Shuttle landings was NASA DFRC test pilot John Manke. He was convinced that the Orbiter could routinely and safely conduct unpowered precision landings on a concrete runway. If true, the Orbiter could land anywhere a 15,000-foot concrete runway was located.
Manke proposed that the X-24B (S/N 66-13551) lifting body be employed to conduct unpowered precision landings on Runway 04/22 at Edwards Air Force Base. He and fellow test pilot USAF Lt. Col. Michael V. Love practiced low lift-to-drag precision landings using F-104 and T-38 aircraft in preparation for the demonstrations.
On Tuesday, 05 August 1975, John Manke successfully made the first-ever unpowered precision landing of an aircraft on a concrete runway. The X-24B main gear touched-down exactly at the aimpoint situated 5,000 feet down Runway 04/22. On Wednesday, 20 August 1975, Mike Love duplicated the feat.
Following the successful unpowered precision landings with the X-24B lifting body, John Manke was quoted as saying: “We now know that concrete runway landings are operationally feasible and that touchdown accuracies of ±500 feet can be expected.” NASA Space Shuttle Program management concurred and officially adopted the unpowered precision landing concept.
History records that thirty-one years of Orbiter flight operations confirmed the wisdom of that long-ago decision.
Fifty-five years ago today, NASA chief research pilot Joseph A. Walker flew X-15 Ship No. 3 (S/N 56-6672) to an altitude of 354,200 feet. This flight would mark the highest altitude ever achieved by the famed hypersonic research vehicle.
Carried aloft by NASA’s NB-52A (S/N 52-0003) mothership, Walker’s X-15 was launched over Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada at 17:05:42 UTC. Following drop at around 45,000 feet and Mach 0.82, Walker ignited the X-15’s small, but mighty XLR-99 rocket engine and pulled his ship into a steep vertical climb.
The XLR-99 was run at 100 percent power for 85.8 seconds with burnout occurring around 176,000 feet on the way uphill. Maximum velocity achieved was 3,794 miles per hour which translates to Mach 5.58 at the burnout altitude. Following burnout of the XLR-99, Walker’s X-15 gained an additional 178,200 feet in altitude as it coasted to apogee.
Joe Walker went over the top at 354,200 feet (67 miles). Although he did not have much time for sight-seeing, the Earth’s curvature was strikingly obvious to the pilot as he started downhill from his lofty perch. Walker subsequently endured a hefty 5-g’s of eyeballs-in normal acceleration during the backside dive pull-out. The aircraft was brought to a wings-level attitude at 70,000 feet. Shortly after, Walker greased the landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The X-15 maximum altitude flight, in which the aircraft’s design altitude was exceeded by more than 100,000 feet, lasted 11 minutes and 8 seconds from drop to nose wheel stop. In that time, Walker and X-15 Ship 3 covered 305 miles in ground range. This mission was Ship No. 3’s 22nd flight and the 91st of the legendary X-15 Flight Research Program.
For Joseph Albert Walker, the 22nd of August 1963 marked his 25th and last flight in an X-15 cockpit. The mission qualified him for Astronaut Wings since he had exceeded the 328,000 foot (100 km) FAI/NASA standard set for such a distinction. However, it would be more than four decades after his historic mission that Walker would be officially be recognized as an astronaut. In a special ceremony conducted at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on Tuesday, 23 August 2005, Joe Walker was posthumously awarded his Astronaut Wings.
Fifty-four years ago today, the fabled North American X-15 hit a speed of 3,590 mph (Mach 5.23) in a flight that reached an altitude of 103,300 feet. While decelerating through Mach 4.2, the nose gear of the aircraft unexpectedly deployed in flight.
The 114th powered flight of the legendary X-15 Program took place on Friday, 14 August 1964. USAF Major Robert A. Rushworth was at the controls of X-15 Ship No. 2 (S/N 56-6671). The mission would be Rushworth’s 22nd flight in the famed hypersonic aircraft.
X-15 drop from the NB-52A (S/N 52-0003) launch aircraft took place over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Seconds later, Rushworth called for 100% power from the X-15’s XLR-99 liquid-fueled rocket engine as he pulled into a steep climb. He subsequently pushed-over and then leveled-off at 103,300 feet.
XLR-99 burnout occurred 80.3 seconds after ignition. At this juncture, the X-15 was traveling at 3,590 mph; better than 5 times the speed of sound. Following rocket motor burnout, the aircraft slowed and began to lose altitude under the influence of weight and aerodynamic drag.
As the Mach meter needle passed through Mach 4.2, Rushworth heard a loud bang from the airframe. The aircraft became hard to control as it gyrated in pitch, yaw and roll. Rushworth was equal to the moment and brought his troubled steed under control. However, the aircraft had an uncommanded sideslip and Rushworth had to use left aileron to hold the wings level.
Gathering his wits, Rushworth realized that the loud bang he heard was very similar to that which occurred when the nose gear was deployed in the landing pattern. Unaccountably, the X-15 nose gear had deployed in supersonic flight. An unsettling confirmation of Rushworth’s hypothesis came when the pilot spotted smoke, quite a bit of it, in the X-15 cockpit.
As Rushworth neared Edwards Air Force Base, chase aircraft caught up with him and confirmed that the nose gear was indeed down and locked. Further, the tires were so scorched from aerodynamic heating that they probably would disintegrate during touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake. They verily did.
Despite his tireless nose gear, Rushworth was able to control the rollout of his aircraft fairly well on the playa silt. He brought the X-15 to a stop and deplaned. Man and machine had survived to fly another day.
Post-flight analysis revealed that expansion of the X-15 fuselage due to aerodynamic heating was greater than expected. The nose gear door bowed or deformed outward more than anticipated as well. Together, these two anomalies caused the gear uplock hook to bend and release the nose gear. Fixes were subsequently made to Ship No. 2 to prevent a recurrence of the nose gear door deployment anomaly.
Rushworth next flew X-15 Ship No. 2 on Tuesday, 29 September 1964. He reached a maximum speed of 3,542 mph (Mach 5.2) at 97,800 feet. The nose gear door remained locked. However, while decelerating through Mach 4.5, Rushworth heard a bang that was less intense than the previous flight. This time, thermal stresses caused the nose gear door air scoop to deploy in flight. While the aircraft handled poorly, Rushworth managed to get it and himself back on the ground in one piece.
Following another redesign effort, Rushworth took to the air in X-15 Ship No. 2 on Thursday, 17 February 1965. He hit 3,539 mph (Mach 5.27) at 95,100 feet. On this occasion, both the nose gear door and nose gear door scoop remained in place. Unfortunately, the right main landing skid deployed at Mach 4.3 and 85,000 feet.
Thermal stresses were once again the culprit. Despite degraded handling qualities with the landing skid deployed, the valiant Rushworth safely landed the X-15. Upon deplaning, he is reported to have kicked the aircraft in a show of disgust and frustration. Unprofessional maybe, but certainly understandable.
Yet another redesign effort followed in the aftermath of the unexpected main landing skid deployment. This was the third consecutive mission for X-15 Ship No. 2 and Rushworth to experience a thermally-induced landing gear or landing skid deployment anomaly. Happily, subsequent flights of the subject aircraft were free of such vexing problems.
Forty-one years ago this month, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise successfully completed the first free flight of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) Program. NASA Astronauts Fred W. Haise, Jr. and Charles G. “Gordon” Fullerton were at the controls of the pathfinder orbiter vehicle (OV-101).
Developers of the Space Shuttle Orbiter faced the challenge of designing a vehicle capable of flight from 17,500 mph (Mach 28) at entry interface (400,000 ft) to 220 mph (Mach 0.3) at landing. Complicating this task was the fact that the Orbiter flew an unpowered, lifting entry that covered a distance of more than 4,400 nm. Once at the landing site, Shuttle pilots had a single opportunity to land the winged ship.
An Orbiter’s approach to the landing field is quite steep compared to that of a commercial airliner. Whereas the glide slope of the latter is around 2-3 degrees, the Orbiter’s flight path during approach is about 22 degrees below the horizon. Falling like a rock is an apt description of its flight state.
The Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) involved a series of flight tests intended to verify the subsonic airworthiness and handling qualities of the Orbiter. Conducted at Edwards Air Force Base between February and October 1977, the ALT employed a modified Boeing 747 known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). The Orbiter Enterprise was attached atop the SCA to hitch a ride to altitude.
The Shuttle ALT consisted of a total of thirteen (13) flight tests; five (5) Captive-Inactive (CI) tests, five (5) Captive-Active (CA) tests and three (3) Free Flight (FF) tests. CI testing was aimed at verifying the handling qualities of the SCA-Orbiter combination in flight. There was no crew was onboard the Orbiter for these tests. CA testing focused on preparing for the upcoming free flight series. A crew flew onboard the Orbiter which remained mated to the SCA.
The ALT Free Flights were where the rubber met the road so to speak. The Enterprise and her crew separated from the SCA at altitudes ranging from between 19,000 and 26,000 ft to test the Orbiter in free flight. Landings were made initially on Rogers Dry Lake (Runway 17) and ultimately on Edwards’ 15,000-ft concrete runway (Runway 22).
The Enterprise was flown in two (2) different configurations. The first involved the use of a tailcone fairing which streamlined the base region of the Orbiter. This increased the Orbiter’s lift-to-drag ratio which decreased the vehicle’s rate of descent. It also reduced the level of buffeting experienced by the SCA’s empennage while the Orbiter rode atop the carrier aircraft.
The second Enterprise configuration flown involved removal of the tailcone. This significantly reduced the Orbiter’s lift-to-drag ratio and correspondingly increased the rate of sink. Indeed, the Orbiter’s descent rate without the tailcone was roughly twice as high as that with the tailcone. Removal of the tailcone also markedly increased the buffet loads sustained by the SCA’s empennage.
ALT Free Flight No. 1 took place on Friday, 12 August 1977. With Fitzhugh L. Fulton, Jr. and Thomas C. McMurtry flying the SCA (N905NA), the Enterprise and her crew of Haise and Fullerton was carried to an altitude of 24,100 ft. At a speed of 310 mph in a slight dive, the big glider cleanly separated from the SCA. Just 321 seconds later, the Orbiter touched-down on Rogers Dry Lake at 213 mph.
ALT Free Flights No. 2-5 were successfully conducted over the next several months. Astronauts Joseph H. Engle and Richard H. Truly flew Enterprise on the second and fourth free flights while Haise and Fullerton manned the Orbiter’s cockpit on the third and fifth missions.
Enterprise flew without the tailcone during the last two ALT flights. As expected, the trip downstairs was rapid. Time of descent from 22,400 ft for Free Flight No. 4 was 154 seconds with a landing speed of 230 mph. Free Flight No. 5 took only 121 seconds to descend 19,000 ft and landed at 219 mph.
ALT Free Flight No. 5 was notable in that (1) the Enterprise made its first landing on concrete and (2) a Pilot-Induced Oscillation (PIO) occurred at initial touchdown. For a few tense moments Command Pilot Haise struggled to keep his skittish steed on the ground. Following several disturbing skips and bounces, the Enterprise finally settled down and rolled to a stop.
The Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) were a necessary prelude to space for the Orbiter. Indeed, the ALT flights represent the first time that NASA’s new winged reentry vehicle took to the air. Having successfully demonstrated the ability to safely land an Orbiter, the next flight in the Space Shuttle Program would be STS-1 in April 1981. Interestingly, that 2-day mission would come to a successful conclusion when the Columbia landed on Rogers Dry Lake back at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Sixty-four years ago this month, USAF Major Arthur W. “Kit” Murray set a new world altitude record of 90,440 feet in the rocket-powered USAF/Bell X-1A. In doing so, Murray reported that he could detect the curvature of the Earth from the apex of his trajectory.
The USAF/Bell X-1A was designed to explore flight beyond Mach 2. The craft measured 35.5 feet in length and had a wing span of 28 feet. Gross take-off weight was 16,500 pounds. Power was provided by an XLR-11 rocket motor which produced a maximum sea level thrust of 6,000 lbs. This powerplant burned 9,200 pounds of propellants (alcohol and liquid oxygen) in about 270 seconds of operation.
Similar to other early rocket-powered X-aircraft such as the Bell XS-1, Douglas D-558-II, Bell X-2 and North American X-15, the X-1A flew two basic types of high performance missions. That is, the bulk of the vehicle’s propulsive energy was directed either in the horizontal or in the vertical. The former was known as the speed mission while the latter was called the altitude mission.
On Saturday, 12 December 1953, USAF Major Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager flew the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) to an unofficial speed record of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44). Moments after doing so, the X-1A went divergent in all three axes. The aircraft tumbled and gyrated through the sky. Control inputs had no effect. Yeager was in serious trouble. He could not control his aircraft and punching-out was not an option. The X-1A had no ejection seat.
Chuck Yeager took a tremendous physical and emotional beating for more than 70 seconds as the X-1A wildly tumbled. His helmet hit the canopy and cracked it. He struck the control column so hard that it was physically bent. His frantic air-to-ground communications were distinctly those of a man who was convinced that he was about to die.
As the X-1A tumbled, it decelerated and lost altitude. At 33,000 feet, a battered and groggy Yeager found himself in an inverted spin. The aircraft suddenly fell into a normal spin from which Yeager recovered at 25,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains situated northwest of Edwards. Somehow, Yeager managed to get himself and the X-1A back home intact.
The culprit in Yeager’s wide ride was the then little-known phenomenon identified as roll inertial coupling. That is, inertial moments produced by gyroscopic and centripetal accelerations overwhelmed aerodynamic control moments and thus caused the aircraft to depart controlled flight. Roll rate was the critical mechanism since it coupled pitch and yaw motion.
In the aftermath of Yeager’s near-death experience in the X-1A, the Air Force ceased flying speed missions with the aircraft. Instead, a series of flights followed in which the goal was to extract maximum altitude performance from the aircraft. USAF Major Arthur W. “Kit” Murray was assigned as the Project Pilot for these missions.
On Thursday, 26 August 1954, Kit Murray took the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) to a maximum altitude of 90,440 feet. This was new FAI record. Murray also ran into the same roll inertial coupling phenomena as Yeager. However, his experience was less traumatic than was Yeager’s. This was partly due to the fact that Murray had the benefit of learning from Yeager’s flight. This allowed him to both anticipate and know how to correct for this flight disturbance.
Murray’s achievement in the X-1A meant that the X-1A held the records for both maximum speed and altitude for manned aircraft. It did so until both records were eclipsed by the Bell X-2 in September of 1956.
Kit Murray was a highly accomplished test pilot who never received the public adulation and notoriety that Chuck Yeager did. He retired from the Air Force in 1960 after serving for 20 years in the military. Murray went on to a very successful career in engineering following his military service. Kit Murray lived to the age of 92 and passed from this earthly scene on Monday, 25 July 2011.