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From the Start:
NASA Researcher Involved in X-43A Flight Program Since its Beginning
Tall in stature and thin in build, Zane Pinckney resembles a former one-time basketball player or track and field star. Eager to share his knowledge with others, Pinckney's kind-hearted demeanor is that of a man molded by his experiences. X-43A researcher Zane Pinckney

Image right: X-43A researcher Zane Pinckney

Pinckney has been a researcher at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., for 47 years. He was first offered a job at Langley the summer between his junior and senior year at Florida State. He did not accept the position since he was busy working in his family's electrical contracting business. However, after graduation in 1957, he decided to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and joined the researchers at Langley. A year later, NACA became NASA, with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act.

While at Langley, Pinckney worked on many projects. However, the makings of X-43A have been with him since the beginning. "I started working with the Hyper-X Program (X-43A) at it's inception," said Pinckney. The X-43 is a scaled down version of a 200 ft. long Mach 10 cruise airplane. After helping the contractor design the vehicle, Pinckney's first assignment was to modify and optimize the engine design to operate efficiently at the small scale of the X-43A research vehicle.

Within the X-43A Propulsion Technology Team, Pinckney's specialty was designing the engine flowpath - the basic internal shape of the engine. Working with the fuel injector designers and lessons learned by the test engineers, Pinckney designed the initial flowpath for the X-43A in 1996. This engine design proved to be the most efficient engine that NASA ever tested at Mach 7. The best not being good enough, Pinckney continued to work with the test engineers to further improve the engine performance.

Pinckney has a special connection to the scramjet engine in the X-43A. He developed the SRGULL computer code, to provide a method to predict ramjet and scramjet engine performance. He had been working on the code since the 1960s.

A scramjet, short for supersonic combustion ramjet, is a promising alternative to a rocket for high-speed flight within the atmosphere. Ramjets and scramjets work by mixing fuel with air compressed by the forward speed of the aircraft or spacecraft itself, as opposed to a normal jet engine with fan blades that compress the air. This eliminates the need for rockets to carry bulky liquid oxygen tanks.

For his contributions to ramjet and scramjet engine performance, Pinckney won a NASA Space Act Award in May 2003, honoring his work with the SRGULL code. He received second place and a cash prize of $19,000, which he graciously shared with two X-43A task members who helped publish his work.

In March 2004, a week after the X-43A flight, Pinckney received the data gathered from the flight. He was pleased to discover that with his SRGULL code he had predicted the percent of the acceleration in flight within 2 percent of the actual acceleration. Pinckney remembers the X-43A flight as his most memorable moment at Langley. "When the X-43A went through Mach 1 and had separation, the operations room at Langley was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop," said Pinckney.

During his time at Langley, Pinckney has enjoyed the freedom given to him to research his interests. "When I came to Langley, I could work on anything I wanted as long as it was in the framework of what my branch did." said Pinckney. "Most of my career I have had that type of freedom. That is what has kept me working here."

Pinckney retired as a NASA employee after 32 years, but has continued contributing as a NASA contractor and presently works for Swales Aerospace, Hampton, Va.

Aside from pursuing his interests at NASA, Pinckney is actively involved in little league softball. He once coached a girl's softball team and currently serves as a district representative for the league. Pinckney and his family reside in Poquoson, Va.

Ashley Dow
NASA Langley Research Center