Fifty-three years ago this month, the Bell X-2 rocket-powered research aircraft reached a record speed of 2,094 mph with USAF Captain Milburn G. “Mel” Apt at the controls. This corresponded to a Mach number of 3.2 at 65,000 feet.
Mel Apt’s historic achievement came about because of the Air Force’s desire to have the X-2 reach Mach 3 before turning it over to the National Advisory Committee For Aeronautics (NACA) for further flight research testing. Just 20 days prior to Apt’s flight in the X-2, USAF Captain Iven C. Kincheloe, Jr. had flown the aircraft to a record altitude of 126,200 feet.
On Thursday, 27 September 1956, Apt and the last X-2 aircraft (S/N 46-674) dropped away from the USAF B-50 motherhip at 30,000 feet and 225 mph. Despite the fact that Apt had never flown an X-aircraft, he executed the flight profile exactly as briefed. In addition, the X-2’s twin-chamber XLR-25 rocket motor burned propellant 12.5 seconds longer than planned. Both of these factors contributed to the aircraft attaining a speed in excess of 2,000 mph.
Based on previous flight tests as well as flight simulator sessions, Apt knew that the X-2 had to slow to roughly Mach 2.4 before turning the aircraft back to Edwards. This was due to degraded directional stability, control reversal, and aerodynamic coupling issues that adversely affected the X-2 at higher Mach numbers.
However, Mel Apt was now faced with a difficult decision. If he waited for the X-2 to slow to Mach 2.4 before initiating a turn back to Edwards Air Force Base, he quite likely would not have enough energy and therefore range to reach Rogers Dry Lake. On the other hand, if he decided to initiate the turn back to Edwards at high Mach number, he risked having the X-2 depart controlled flight. Apt opted for the latter.
As Apt increased the aircraft’s angle-of-attack, the X-2 careened out of control and subjected him to a brutal pounding. Aircraft lateral acceleration varied between +6 and -6 g’s. The battered pilot ultimately found himself in a subsonic, inverted spin at 40,000 feet. At this point, Apt effected pyrotechnic separation of the X-2’s forebody which contained the cockpit and a drogue parachute.
X-2 forebody separation was clean and the drogue parachute deployed properly. However, Apt still needed to bail out of the X-2’s forebody and deploy his personal parachute to complete the emergency egress process. But, it was not to be. Mel Apt ran out of time, altitude, and luck. He lost his life when the X-2 forebody that he was trying to escape from impacted the ground at several hundred miles an hour.
Mel Apt’s flight to Mach 3.2 established a record that stood until the X-15 exceeded it in August 1960. However, the price for doing so was very high. The USAF lost a brave test pilot and the lone remaining X-2 on that fateful day in September 1956. The mishap also ended the USAF X-2 Program. NACA never did conduct flight research with the X-2.
However, for a few terrifying moments, Mel Apt was the fastest man alive.