Four of the five surviving X-15 pilots gathered at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in August 2005 when astronaut wings were presented to the three NASA pilots who flew the X-15 rocket plane into space in the 1960s - Bill Dana, Joe Walker (deceased) and Jack McKay (deceased). From left, Robert White, Dana, Neil Armstrong, Joe Engle. White died March 17, 2010 at the age of 85. (NASA photo / Tony Landis) Maj. Gen. Robert M. White, a former commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base who earned his astronaut wings as a test pilot in the X-15 rocket plane in the early 1960s, has died. He was 85.
White had been in declining health, and passed away peacefully March 17 at an assisted living facility in Orlando, Fla.
White was one of the initial pilots selected for the X-15 program, assigned by the Air Force as its chief X-15 pilot in the joint program with NASA, the Navy, and North American Aviation. Between April 1960 and December 1962, he made 16 flights in the rocket-powered aircraft. He was the first pilot to fly to Mach 4, 5, and 6 (four, five and six times the speed of sound, respectively). He also flew the X-15 to the altitude of 314,750 feet on July 17, 1962, setting a world altitude record. This was 59.6 miles, significantly higher than the 50 miles the Air Force accepted as the beginning of space, qualifying White for Air Force astronaut wings. His flights into the stratosphere, and those of other X-15 pilots, were forerunners of the space shuttle program that would follow years later, and demonstrated that a winged craft could travel and be controlled in space.
White entered the military in 1942 as an aviation cadet and was commissioned as a pilot in 1944 during World War II. His P-51 fighter plane was shot down over Germany in early 1945, and he spent a couple of months in a prisoner of war camp before being liberated.
Then-Major Robert M. White is seen here next to the X-15 aircraft after a research flight in 1961. (Air Force photo) He also flew combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and commanded the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards for several years in the early 1970s, a decade after his pioneering high-speed, high-altitude X-15 flights. White retired from the Air Force in 1981.
White returned to Edwards in 2005 to join other former X-15 pilots and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Maj. Gen. Joe Engle at an astronaut wings pinning ceremony for former NASA X-15 research pilot William F. Dana at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.