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Fifty-years ago this week, future Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong piloted the fifty-first and longest mission of the X-15 Program.  The research flight was highlighted by Armstrong having to make a 180-degree turn over Los Angeles to recover the X-15 back at Edwards Air Force Base following a 45-mile overshoot of the intended landing area.  X-15 Ship No. 3 (S/N 56-6672) was configured with the Honeywell MH-96 adaptive flight controller for the purpose of easing the pilot’s workload during atmospheric exit and entry.  NASA test pilot Neil Armstrong was assigned responsibility to perform the early flight testing of this unit.  On Friday, 20 April 1962, Armstrong made his fourth and last flight in Ship No. 3.  Peak altitude and speed achieved during the flight was 207,447 feet and 3,788 mph (Mach 5.31), respectively.  As Armstrong approached the Edwards area from the northeast, his trajectory ballooned anomalously.  That is, rather that continuing to descend and scrub-off velocity, the X-15 climbed slightly and maintained an above-nominal speed.  As he passed by Rogers Dry Lake heading south, Armstrong was still traveling at 100,000 feet and Mach 3.  Armstrong banked the aircraft until it was practically inverted and invoked full elevator in an effort to get the X-15 to bite into the atmosphere and turn back towards Edwards AFB.  However, it wasn’t until he was over Los Angeles, roughly 45 miles beyond the base, that he got the aircraft turned around.  Now, would he have enough energy to glide back and touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake?  Somehow, Armstrong managed his energy state properly and made it back to Edwards.  But it was a close thing.  Rather than making the standard overhead turn and landing on the north side of Rogers Dry Lake, Armstrong executed a straight-in approach and landed on the south side of the desert playa.  Chase pilots are recorded to have said that he cleared the Joshua trees at the south end of Rogers Dry Lake by only about 100-150 feet.  Nonetheless, pilot and aircraft were unscathed in what turned-out to be the longest flight in the history of the X-15 Program (12 minutes 28.7 seconds).  In the post-flight joviality, fellow NASA test pilots reportedly referred to Armstrong’s adventure as “Neil’s cross-country flight”.

Posted in Aerospace, History

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