Search Dryden


Text Size

Volume 46 | Issue 6 | July 30, 2004

People and Places

Michael Adams: Remembering a Fallen Hero

Michael Adams poses beside the number one X-15.
Michael Adams poses beside the number one X-15 following a successful research flight on March 22, 1967. Adams perished in the crash of the number three ship on Nov. 15, 1967. He was recently honored with a memorial at the crash site.
NASA Photo


Adams emerges from the cockpit of a Northrop F-5A, in which he conducted stability and control tests.
Adams emerges from the cockpit of a Northrop F-5A, in which he conducted stability and control tests.
Photo courtesy Air force Flight Test Center History Office.


Firefighters survey the wreckage of the X-15.

Firefighters survey the wreckage of the X-15 Nov. 15, 1967.
NASA Photo


Dedication of a monument created by Bodylski for his Eagle Scout project to honor Adams.
Eagle Scout candidate John Bodylski and aerospace historian Greg Frazier lead the dedication of a monument created by Bodylski for his Eagle Scout project to honor Adams.
NASA Photo by Peter Merlin


Members of the Adams family.

Members of the Adams family attended the unveiling ceremony of the monument that recognizes the sacrifices of Maj. Michael Adams, who perished in an X-15 crash. Family members in attendance included, from left, David, George, Brent and Dan Adams.
NASA Photo by Peter Merlin


Eagle Scout candidate John Bodylski unveils the monument he designed.

Eagle Scout candidate John Bodylski unveils the monument he designed.
NASA Photo by Peter Merlin


Artwork that appears on the monument.

Artwork that appears on the monument.
NASA Photo


Maj. Michael J. Adams.

After nearly a week of weather cancellations and aborts of his first scheduled X-15 flight, Maj. Michael J. Adams posed for this Air Force photo on the wet lakebed Oct. 4, 1966, holding his pressure suit helmet and an umbrella.
Photo courtesy Air Force Flight Test Center History Office


By Peter W. Merlin
Dryden History Office

A monument to Maj. Michael J. Adams, the first American astronaut to die during a space mission, was dedicated May 8 in a remote area of the Mojave Desert with many of Adams' friends, family and former colleagues in attendance. Adams perished during a research flight in the     X-15 rocket plane on Nov. 15, 1967. The vehicle disintegrated following reentry and crashed four miles north of Johannesburg, a small mining town about 35 miles northeast of Edwards Air Force Base.

The memorial honoring Adams and his contributions to the U.S. space program was unveiled on public land near the crash site. A Civil Air Patrol color guard and a bugler playing Taps lent an air of military ceremony to the event.

Eagle Scout candidate John Bodylski and aerospace historian Greg Frazier spearheaded the effort to raise the monument. Frazier is a senior member of Civil Air Patrol Squadron 68, part of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, in Costa Mesa. Bodylski is a member of both Squadron 68 and Boy Scout Troop 323 in Tustin. The two developed the idea of a memorial to fulfill Bodylski's Eagle Scout Leadership Project requirement.

Bodylski and Frazier approached Hector Villalobos at the Bureau of Land Management's Ridgecrest field office to secure permission for placement of the memorial. The BLM was very supportive, according to Frazier, even agreeing to donate and transport 65 bags of concrete and 250 gallons of water to build the monument. Bodylski obtained a piece of Inconel-X (the same material used to build the X-15) from Special Metals Inc. of Conroe, Texas, to serve as a plaque and had it engraved with a likeness of Adams and text describing the site's significance. Dozens of volunteers from Troop 323 helped erect the cylindrical concrete monument, which weighs nearly two tons, just north of the X-15 impact point.

More than 60 people attended the ceremony at the remote desert site, including several members of the Adams family. George Adams, Mike's brother, brought his two sons, Dan and David, from Sacramento to attend the event. Fighting back tears, George Adams thanked Bodylksi and Frazier for their efforts.

"This," he said, "is a great honor."

Mike Adams' son Brent, who traveled from his home in Louisiana, recalled his father as an avid outdoorsman and hunter who followed a strict physical fitness regimen. He also remembered his father's tender side, as illustrated by the time Mike Adams brought a pet dog home to the family from Sacramento in the back seat of a Lockheed F-104.

Retired NASA engineer and research pilot Bill Dana, who made 16 flights of his own in the X-15, attended the dedication and offered a few words about Adams.

"I'm just glad Mike is finally getting the recognition he deserves," Dana said.

Several other retired X-15 program personnel who currently reside in Lancaster also were present, including Jim Duffield, Byron Gibbs and Frank Fedor. During the X-15 program, Duffield installed scientific instrumentation in the rocket planes. Gibbs served as a life support technician and worked on the pilots' pressure suits and the vehicles' escape systems. Fedor, who flew the first support helicopter to the impact site immediately following the crash, had the grim task of discovering Adams' remains. This was his first visit to the crash site since 1967.

"I think this [monument] is beautiful," said Fedor, "a really worthwhile project."

Other attendees included several retired and current NASA employees and several aviation archeologists and historians.

The crash site memorial is not the first tribute to Adams. Shortly after the X-15 accident, the Air Force Flight Test Center dedicated Adams Way, a street providing access to the Edwards Rod and Gun Club. On May 8, 1992, Adams' name was added to the Astronauts Memorial at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

The tragic accident that took Adams' life occurred during the 191st flight of the X-15 program. It was Adams' first suborbital mission. He already had completed six atmospheric flights in the famed rocket plane. Adams was flying the third of three X-15s built by North American Aviation in Inglewood, Calif. It was the same airplane in which eight of the 12 X-15 project pilots earned their astronaut qualifications. Adams' accident was the only fatal mishap during a program that encompassed 199 flights over nearly a decade.

Adams' last mission began with a climb to around 40,000 feet beneath the wing of a modified B-52 launch aircraft. Following release over Delamar Lake, Nev., the X-15 began its rocket-powered ascent. Within minutes Adams had breached the edge of space, climbing to a peak altitude of 266,000 feet (50.38 miles).

During the climb-out, an electrical disturbance from an onboard experiment caused a transient motion in three control system servo-actuators, deactivating the normal reaction controls that kept the vehicle in its proper attitude while flying above the atmosphere. It also affected the inertial system and boost-guidance computers, causing erroneous data to be displayed on the instruments. An investigation later concluded that Adams was probably also suffering from vertigo. Coupled with the distraction of the malfunctioning systems, this was a deadly combination.

Unnoticed, the airplane's heading began to deviate from the direction of flight as the reaction controls functioned only intermittently. Perhaps disoriented by vertigo, Adams made control inputs that increased the heading error. Soon the aircraft was flying sideways. As he became aware of his predicament, Adams reported to ground control that the aircraft seemed "squirrelly."

The heading drift increased while the X-15 was traveling at a speed of Mach 5 (approximately 3,400 mph) and an altitude of 230,000 feet. Finally recognizing his situation, Adams reported to ground personnel that "I'm   in a spin." No pilot had ever experienced a hypersonic spin and ground control was powerless to offer advice.

Through some combination of piloting skills and the airplane's inherent stability characteristics, Adams managed to recover from the spin at 120,000 feet. He found himself in an inverted dive and the X-15 soon developed a self-sustaining pitch oscillation that saturated the flight control system. By now the X-15 was descending at a rate of about 160,000 feet per minute.

As the X-15 plunged through increasingly dense atmosphere the air loads began taking their toll on the vehicle's structure. Dynamic pressure was increasing at nearly 100 pounds per square foot each second, accompanied by rapidly increasing g-forces, and structural limitations were soon exceeded. The vehicle broke into several large pieces at an altitude of 62,000 feet while traveling nearly 4,000 mph. Adams, possibly incapacitated, did not eject. He was killed when the forward section of the rocket plane impacted the desert. Adams was the 27th American to fly more than 50 miles above the Earth's surface and was awarded astronaut wings posthumously.

A stellar career

Michael J. Adams was born in Sacramento, Calif., on May 5, 1930, to Michael and Georgia Adams. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1950 following graduation from Sacramento Junior College, where he was a varsity javelin thrower and baseball outfielder. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, he served with the 3501st Pilot Training as a link trainer instructor until he was selected as an aviation cadet. Adams underwent primary training at Spence Field, Ga., in October 1951. From Spence he went to Webb Air Force Base, Texas, for advanced training, where he earned his pilot wings and commission on Oct. 25, 1952.

Adams then transferred to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., for gunnery school, where he flew the F-80 and F-86. Upon completion in April 1953, Adams was assigned to the 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron at Suwon, South Korea. There he flew 49 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal "for meritorious achievements accomplished with distinction above and beyond that expected of professional airmen while participating in aerial flight operations."

Returning from Korea in February 1954, Adams spent the next two and a half years with the 813th Fighter-Bomber Squadron at England Air Force Base, La., plus six months rotational duty at Chaumont Air Base in France.

Adams then entered the University of Oklahoma at Norman, as part of an Air Force career development program for promising officers. He earned his aeronautical engineering degree in 1958 and later conducted graduate work in astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge. After completing these studies, Adams went to work as an instructor for the maintenance officer course at Chanute Air Force Base, Ill.

During this time he was selected as a student for the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards. Adams graduated in 1962 and, as the outstanding pilot and scholar in his class, was awarded the Honts Trophy. He was then selected to attend the Aerospace Research Pilot School, also at Edwards, under the command of then-Col. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager.

While attending the ARPS, Adams survived a landing accident in a two-seat F-104 by making a critical split-second decision. Adams was riding in the back seat of the airplane, which was piloted by fellow student Dave Scott, who would later become a Gemini and Apollo astronaut and director of Dryden Flight Research Center. As Scott was making a simulated X-15 approach for training and evaluation purposes, the F-104 suddenly lost power and began to drop rapidly. Both pilots realized that the jet would hit hard, and each made opposite decisions that saved their lives. Scott elected to stay with the airplane while Adams chose to eject. Adams pulled the ejection handle just as the F-104 slammed into the runway, breaking off its landing gear. His timing was perfect. Had he ejected before impact, his parachute would not have had time to deploy due to the rapid rate of descent. If he had delayed ejecting for even a fraction of a second, he would have been crushed when the airplane's jet engine slammed forward into the rear cockpit. Adams' parachute opened just seconds before he hit the ground. He waved to Scott, who was climbing safely from the burning wreck. Scott's ejection seat had partially sequenced during the initial impact, locking his feet into the stirrups. If Scott had ejected, he would have been killed.

Adams graduated with honors from the ARPS in 1963 and was subsequently assigned to conduct stability and control tests in the Northrop F-5A jet fighter. He later served as the Air Force project pilot on the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory variable stability T-33 program at Buffalo, N.Y. Adams was also one of four aerospace research pilots from Edwards to participate in a five-month series of NASA moon landing practice tests, beginning in January 1964, at the Martin Co. in Baltimore, Md. The tests involved simulated lunar landing missions in a full-scale command module and lunar excursion module crew compartment mock-up. Four seven-day simulated lunar landing missions were conducted, each with a three-man crew.

In October 1965, Adams was selected as an astronaut candidate for the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory. An early space station design, the MOL (also known as KH-10) was designed to serve as a space-based reconnaissance platform. With the advent of the Corona (KH-4) unmanned reconnaissance satellite program, Adams realized there was little chance of a MOL flight in his future, and he requested transfer to the X-15 program. In July 1966 he was accepted as the 12th and final X-15 pilot.

During his first X-15 flight on October 6, 1966, Adams achieved a speed of Mach 3, but a ruptured fuel tank caused premature engine shutdown 90 seconds after launch from beneath the wing of the B-52. Adams was forced to make an emergency landing at Cuddeback Dry Lake, about 40 miles northwest of Edwards. While on final approach to the lakebed, Adams remarked, "This thing is sort of fun to fly!"

Ironically, Adams had a second emergency that day. During a routine proficiency flight in a T-38, he suffered an engine failure and had to make an emergency landing at Edwards.

Adams made his second X-15 flight with only minor technical difficulties and exceeded Mach 4, achieving a speed of 3,120 mph.

During his third flight, on March 2, 1967, he lost cabin pressure while climbing through 77,000 feet, causing his pressure suit to inflate. While this made it more difficult for Adams to fly the airplane, it was only the beginning of his troubles. As Adams arced the X-15 through a peak altitude of 133,000 feet and a maximum speed of Mach 5.59 (3,822 mph) his inertial computer failed, causing a loss of all velocity, altitude and climb-rate readouts. Even without this data Adams made a successful reentry and return to Edwards. On approach he radioed ground controller and fellow X-15 pilot Maj. William J. "Pete" Knight, saying, "I thought you said every once in a while something goes wrong, Pete." In a post-flight debriefing Adams revealed that he had suffered vertigo during the climb-out. This problem would return to haunt him again.

During his fourth and fifth flights, Adams encountered minor glitches but nothing unusual. On his sixth flight, the engine failed to ignite. Adams went through the restart procedure twice, finally igniting the rocket 16 seconds after launch. The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful. His seventh and final flight ended in tragedy, cutting short a stellar career. At the time of his death, Adams had logged 4,574 flight hours. He had flown a wide variety of airplanes that included the T-6, F-80, F-84F, F-86, F-101, F-104, F-106, F-5, YAT-28, T-33 and T-38.

F-86 Photo Gallery

F-101 Photo Gallery

F-104 Photo Gallery | F-104 Movie Gallery

F-106 Photo Gallery

F-5 Photo Gallery

T-33 Photo Gallery

T-38 Photo Gallery

X-15 Photo Gallery | X-15 Movie Gallery