The Navaho Missile and Its Supersonic Stand-In

The X-10 supersonic drone that proved the flight characteristics of the Navaho missile. Credit: USAF Museum

The X-10 supersonic drone that proved the flight characteristics of the Navaho missile. Credit: USAF Museum

In 1945, the US Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics contracted the Bell Aircraft Company to build an experimental supersonic aircraft. Taking its designation from its “experimental supersonic” description, the XS-1 – later renamed the X-1 – took to the air in 1946. A year later, Chuck Yeager flew the aircraft on the history’s first level supersonic flight.

The X-1 marked the beginning of the X-series of experimental aircraft. Only a few of each model was built, typically with the sole purpose of gathering data that couldn’t be collected in wind tunnels or with small-scale models. And X-planes were usually piloted; having a man at the controls would give engineers valuable perspective on how an aircraft handled in flight. An early exception to this piloted rule was the X-10. It was a drone, and unpiloted stand-in for North American Aviation’s Navaho missile that allowed engineers to study the weapon’s flight characteristics. And while the Navaho never flew, its history, as well as the X-10′s, is absolutely fascinating. I dug into the Navaho missile’s story for DVICE, and focused a little more closely on the X-10 supersonic drone for Motherboard.

The U-2 With Fictitious NASA Markings

A stunning picture of the U-2 with fictitious NASA markings. Presumably sometime in mid-1960. Credit: via cloudsovercuba.com

A stunning picture of the U-2 with fictitious NASA markings. Presumably sometime in mid-1960. It’s worth clicking on this one to see it full resolution. Credit: via cloudsovercuba.com

Researching the U-2 spy plane the other day, I came across this stunning picture of the aircraft in silhouette. For the first time I noticed a yellow NASA stripe and an ID number – 55741 – on the tail, the same markings the agency put on the X-15’s tail when it assumed control of that program in 1958. Idly interested in NASA’s history with the U-2, I searched for records of the aircraft by its ID number. Turns out, these NASA markings were put on the aircraft entirely for show.   [Read more...]

Scott Crossfield’s Supersonic Bellyache

The Douglas Skyrocket mounted to its launch plane in August of 1953. Credit: NASA/Dryden Flight Research Center

Friendly interservice rivalries in the United States aren’t uncommon, and they were just as standard in the 1950s. Particularly among pilots who were always trying to one-up each other as it was. At Edwards Air Force Base, where the hottest planes were put through their paces, things got particularly competitive as men tried to score records as much for themselves as for their branch of the service. Between Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager and Navy aviator Scott Crossfield, there was a battle to be the first to Mach 2.

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When Yeager Eased Through the Sound Barrier

Yeager in the cockpit of the Bell XS-1. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

It’s an interesting historic parallel. Weather permitting, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner is set to break Joe Kittinger’s high altitude jump record this morning by sky diving from 120,000 feet. On the way down he’s going to break the sound barrier without the benefit of an aerodynamic shell like a fuselage, 65 years to the day that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. On October 14, 1947, Yeager ushered in a new era of supersonic aviation where faster planes started reaching the fringes of space.  [Read more...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Crossfield’s Worst Landing

I stumbled across this picture the other day and was reminded of the story. I thought it was worth retelling. This is the result of Crossfield’s first landing in an F-100 – I’d recommend clicking for the full resolution version. Credit: NASA

Scott Crossfield held that every pilot had a specialty. In his case it was landings, specifically landings without power often called dead stick landing. So how did Crossfield, a former flight instructor and by all accounts an ace pilot, manage to land a plane then drive it through a hangar wall? It was only partly the fault of the plane; it was mostly the fault of the pilot.

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The X-15′s First Glide

Crossfield stands in front of the X-15. Credit: The Scott Crossfield Foundation online

It was a chilly morning on June 8, 1959 when Scott Crossfield climbed into the cockpit of the X-15 rocket aircraft. By 8:30, he was airborne, and the aircraft  was nestled under the wing of the larger B-52 launch plane. Pilots Captain Charles Bock and Captain Jack Allavie kept a steady conversation with Crossfield about the X-15’s status. The B-52 was scheduled to launch the X-15 that morning at 8:40. More men than just the three in the air hoped nothing would prevent Crossfield making this maiden voyage.  [Read more...]

The Life and Times of Don McCusker

I got an email from a reader a few months ago who was particularly pleased that an old post mentioned his father, Don McCusker. McCusker was a North American Aviation test pilot and one of the few men to fly the full scale Gemini manned Test Tow Vehicle (TTV), the full scale Gemini spacecraft mated to the paraglider wing. Some research in unusual places, and a fascinating correspondence with his wife Helena, gave me fairly good picture of McCusker’s life. So while my research isn’t quite finished, I thought I’d write a short overview of the very interesting life of a test pilot that almost no one knows about. (Left, the Martin-built B57 that was used in research and development tests of a guidance systems. Don McCusker is on top, at the time serving as manager of the simulated MACE program. USAF.)

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A History of the Dyna-Soar

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing some research into the USAF Dyna-Soar or X-20 program, and its story is much more interesting than I realized. Like many of the unrealized programs of the early space age, its impact extends far beyond its immediate application. Dyna-Soar is typically referenced in passing as an upgraded version of the X-15, an aircraft capable of achieving orbiting, but this connection is misleading. Dyna-Soar came from an entirely different place than the X-15, and its story is much more complicated than a simple cancelled research program. (A worker inspects a full-scale mockup of Dyna-Soar. Reader’s Digest described the vehicle as a cross between a porpoise and a manta ray. Early 1960s. Photo: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.) [Read more...]

How the Airplane got its Shape

Part of what fascinates me about the history of technology is how major pieces – such as spacecraft – come to look like they do. But the more time I spend looking at spacecraft, the more I find I’m interested in the development of aircraft. Both fly, albeit very differently, but their histories are inextricably linked. Particularly when you consider that until getting into space became an immediate need in the late 1950s, spaceflight was on track to take airplane-inspired vehicles into orbit. I’ve always been fascinated by airplanes as wonderfully complex machines that humans interact with without really thinking, and so I thought I’d begin a look at the design decisions of spaceflight with some of the design decisions that led to modern aircraft design. If nothing else, the rapid development from humans stuck firmly on the ground to trans-oceanic flights is pretty amazing. (Pictured, an NACA Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane with a model wing suspended beneath it. 1921.) [Read more...]

In Support of the X-15

I’ve recently delved back into the X-15 again. But instead of focussing on the aircraft and its role in America’s move into space, I’ve been looking into the structure of the program as a whole. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, at the manpower involved each flight. Like the impressive number of men on hand to recover a single Mercury astronaut, each X-15 flight had a substantial crew both in the air and on the ground at multiple points – another similarity shared with Mercury recover efforts.  (Left, workers secure the X-15 after landing.)

In two previous posts, I’ve looked at the dual nature of the X-15. It was at once a cutting edge research aircraft as well as a precursor to orbiting space planes; the space shuttle’s roots in the X-15 is a connection I’ve previously pointed to. A closer look at the test program reveals just how complicated flying the unique vehicle was. During a single flight, the X-15 acted like a traditional jet, a spaceplane, and a glider. It accelerated to speeds upwards of Mach 5 in a minute of powered flight before landing without power on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Each flight lasted on average less than ten minutes. A successful flight demanded a lot happen in a very short time span. [Read more...]