Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.
November 19, 2003
"Fastest Man Alive" Recalls 50th Anniversary of Historic Flight
On Nov. 20, 1953, shortly before the 50th anniversary of powered flight, A. Scott Crossfield piloted the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket research aircraft to Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, and became the "fastest man alive."
As an aeronautical research pilot at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Research Station (HSFRS), now NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Crossfield was in the right place at the right time 50 years ago.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy were pushing the frontiers of flight, flying experimental research airplanes from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Higher, faster and farther was the mantra as speed and altitude records were being set and broken by a cadre of Air Force, Navy and NACA test pilots.
Although NACA was primarily interested in obtaining data from flight experiments, the Air Force and Navy had a different agenda. They maintained a friendly interservice rivalry over reaching the next major flight milestone. The Air Force had a major coup with the first supersonic flight by Capt. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager in the Bell X-1 rocket plane just six years earlier. The military services had an intense interest in being the first to reach Mach 2.
"The Air Force was going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight with another Mach number. It just occurred to us that it would be kind of interesting if we beat Yeager and the Air Force to Mach 2 in the Navy airplane," Crossfield recalled. "We were turned down by headquarters, because we didn't do that kind of thing at NACA. The next thing we knew, NACA director Hugh L. Dryden sent HSFRS chief Walter C. Williams authorization to try for one Mach 2 flight," he said. "It was a very friendly competition. The base was made up of fighter pilots from the top on down, and they're competitive," Crossfield said.
The Skyrocket was designed for a top speed of about Mach 1.5, but extensions on the four nozzles of its rocket engine had enabled Crossfield to reach Mach 1.96 in shallow dives in previous flights. "It was very close, but it was all the airplane had in it," he said.
The swept-wing research aircraft was carried aloft to the launch altitude of 32,000 feet by a Boeing P2B-S1 (the Navy designation of the B-29 Superfortress) "mother ship" early on Nov. 20, 1953. Dropping clear of the converted bomber, Crossfield ignited the Skyrocket's rocket engine. He reached 72,000 feet before pushing over into a shallow dive. The Mach meter gradually crept upward. The needle finally stopped at Mach 2.005 (1,290 mph), just over twice the speed of sound.
Crossfield's speed record was short-lived. Less than a month later, on Dec. 12, 1953, Yeager flew the improved X-1A at Mach 2.44 (1,612 mph). Crossfield's record flight was part of a carefully planned program of flight research with the Skyrocket. The program featured incremental increases in speed, while NACA instrumentation recorded flight data for each segment. Skyrocket No. 144, the craft Crossfield flew to Mach 2, is enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
As the Centennial of Flight approaches, Crossfield is still involved in experimental aviation. As Director of Flight Operations for the Wright Experience, he is training the pilots who will fly a replica of the original Wright Flyer during the ceremonial re-enactment of the first powered flight at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, N.C. The replica will fly on Dec. 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic flight.
Photos of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket and Scott Crossfield, including several taken the day of the first Mach 2 flight, are available for downloading on the Internet at:
Video footage, including historic flight footage of the Douglas Skyrocket and portions of a recent interview with Crossfield, are available by contacting the NASA Dryden public affairs office at: 661/276-3449.
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