Proceedings of the X-15 First Flight 30th Anniversary Celebration


Photo of Theodore G. Ayers
Theodore G. Ayers
Dryden Deputy Director

Good afternoon! I know that Ken Hodge and Dr. Compton have already welcomed you here, but I would like to extend my own welcome to this symposium on behalf of all our staff here. I usually start these out for people who have never been here before by saying, "Welcome to the greatest place in the world." We like to think that we have a lot of fun here. But we also like to think we get a lot of work done (fig. 1), so we're very pleased to have you here.

Figure 1 - mural of aircrafts displayed at Dryden
Figure 1. X-15 is prominent in historical mural of Dryden accomplishments.

It is indeed an honor and a privilege for me to make the introductory remarks for this symposium this afternoon, which recognizes the first flight of the X-15 rrsearch airplane 30 years ago today on June 8. Now you may be wondering why a young, handsome person like me is up here to address a gathering which includes those people who actually conceived and carried out this project. It is obvious that there really isn't much that I can tell you about the X- 15. You already know most of it. On the other hand, I do have some ties that go back to the X- 15 days. I know several of you and have read about others and, over the years that I have been at Dryden, have developed a factual knowledge of the rest of you from three accurate sources of information: Milt Thompson, whose memory is questionable; Bill Dana, whose sight and hearing are unquestionable, and Ed Saltzman whose memory, hearing, and sight have allowed him to become the Dryden archives. In fact, when Ed saw that I was going to do this introduction, he appeared in my office like he usually does and whipped out a lot of material and said, "You got to mention all of these things because this is about Dryden." So I spent the next two days trying to figure how I could boil it down. And I'm sure you'll agree that these three individuals are beyond reproach. In fact, I had an opportunity to meet Admiral Petersen just a few minutes ago for the first time and had a short chat with him. And I think that what I learned is true-I'll leave that up to you to think about. There's not time here to go into a lot of stories. I'm sure you will hear some this evening and probably some later this afternoon.

I just happened to be employed at North American Aviation working on the X- and YB-70 programs during the days of the X-15, and my first exposure to the airplane was at an airshow here at Edwards long before there was a 405 freeway and you could actually drive out here without being in traffic jams. My second memory is a vivid one (and I think it is safe to say this because Scotty is not here), and that was observing X-15 No. 3 after it was brought back to the plant following somebody hitting a switch and blowing the back end off.

I made a decision to leave North American Aviation when I and hundreds of others arrived at work one Monday morning and found the infamous pink slip on our drafting tables. My last mental picture of the old plant was that of President Kennedy standing over a toilet bowl pushing the B-70 down with a plumber's friend. As a result of the cancellation I moved on to NASA's Langley Research Center, which is where I really wanted to be anyway, and it was there that I first met Charlie Donlan.

Now he probably doesn't remember me from that time period 'cause I was just a young engineer at the 8-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel Branch working with Dr. Richard Whitcomb from Transonic Aerodynamics. In fact, I hadn't even earned the right yet to call Dr. Whitcomb "Dick." In those days at Langley you didn't talk to your boss unless he addressed you first, which is quite different from today. Anyway, Dick said he was going to introduce me to Charlie Donlan, who at the time was the Langley Deputy Director. I remember distinctly Dick telling me when we got ready to go there not to be afraid if Charlie seemed a little bit gruff. He said he really was a very nice man-he was just businesslike. Well, I met Charlie and he did seem gruff and I was intimidated.

Charlie left Langley in 1968 to become the Deputy AA at the Office of Manned Space Flight, and our paths didn't cross again until I was at Dryden and he became a member of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. I must say he really isn't as intimidating as I remember him in those days, and I'm sure you'll find that out when he speaks later.

In the early days at Langley, I also had several occasions to be associated with the X-15 program. I followed it not only as an ardent fan of aviation, but also kept in touch with many of the ongoing and new X-15 wind tunnel tests, and had an opportunity to be involved in some of the mated tests with the B-52 when they were looking at the large tanks on the airplane. In addition to that, we carried out a number of tests at the 8-Foot Transonic Pressure Tunnel and were involved in the development of the A-2 configuration in the 2-foot hypersonic tunnel. There are a number of little incidents that could be related there if we had the time; perhaps later this afternoon or this evening we could discuss those.

I did not have an opportunity or the privilege to meet Harrison Storms when I was at North American or later, although I have heard much about him, and I did have an opportunity to meet him a short time ago. After moving from Langley to Dryden in 1975, I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know not only Walt Williams and his lovely wife Helen who is here today, but also Dick Hallion, who was at the time the Air Force Flight Test Center historian. And Dick, I have plagiarized your books terribly in gathering material here today. I also had the opportunity to work indirectly with Bob Hoey when he was at the Flight Test Center prior to his retirement.

During my time here I have been able to meet and to know Paul Bikle, Scott Crossfield, Pete Knight, Joe Engle, and of course Milt Thompson and Bill Dana, all of whom will be on the panel tonight. Two other individuals who are notable by their absence and known by many of us are Hartley Soul6 and Johnny Becker. Hartley SouI6, who chaired the NACA Inter-Laboratory Research Airplane Panel and was instrumental in the X-15 conception, passed away last year. Johnny Becker, who is widely recognized as Mr. Hypersonics, had a previous commitment during this time. I did speak with him personally, and he sends his best wishes to all of you and apologizes for being unable to participate in this symposium.

So you see my ties do go back to the X-15 and many of the people involved in it. All of the names that I have mentioned up to now were intimately involved with the X-15 project. They and others were the persons behind its conception and its success. They had vision, something that is in my opinion tragically lacking in today's world of bureaucracy and international politics. I'd like now to take just a few minutes to briefly discuss the project and then close with some comments about the future as I see it. Interestingly enough, Dale's comments are very parallel to mine in some ways.

The X-15 genesis goes back to Germany, as much of our early airplane research did, and the work of SdDger and Brett and their concept for a hypersonic rocket-powered airplane to be boosted into orbit and then glide back to Earth much like today's space shuttle. A member of the NACA Committee on Aerodynamics, Bob Woods of Bell Aircraft, had been pushing for the definition of a Mach 5+ research airplane. Here at Edwards, Jake Drake and Bob Carman, two of Walt Williams' planners, were looking into this, and in 1953 submitted a proposal for a hypersonic program leading to a winged vehicle. Their concept, shown in figure 2, was turned down as being too futuristic. So there is a clue for you young folks out there who think we turn you down a lot; keep trying and eventually you'll get there.

Figure 2 - Drake-Carman winged-vehicle concept
Figure 2. Drake-Carman winged-vehicle concept.

Even so, the work of Drake and Carman influenced the X- 15 as well as other vehicles such as Dyna-Soar. Fol lowing further studies by the three Centers, a concept developed under the guidance of Johnny Becker was selected. Instrumentation requirements developed here at Edwards by Walt Williams' staff were incorporated in a memo randum of understanding between the NACA and the Air Force. In 1954, the X-15 project was born. From the first unpowered flight on June 8, 1959 (fig. 3), the three X- 15 airplanes went on to complete 199 research missions, achieving altitudes in excess of 354,000 ft and speeds in excess of 4520 mph or Mach 6.7. The X-15 program has been recognized as one of the most productive and successful activities in aeronautical flight research. Approxi mately 800 technical research reports were produced.

Figure 3 - unpowered X-15 in flight
Figure 3. The first unpowered X-15 flight, June 8, 1959.

Some of the significant X-15 accomplishments enumerated by Johnny Becker and included in Dick HaHion's book On the Frontier include development of the first large, restartable, man-rated, throttleable rocket engine, the XLR-99; the first application of hypersonic theory and wind tunnel work to an actual flight vehicle; first use of reac tion controls for attitude control in space; first reusable superalloy structure capable of withstanding the temperature and thermal gradients of hypersonic reentry; development of new techniques for machining, forming, welding, and heat treating of Inconel-X and titanium; and many, many others including the discovery that hypersonic boundary airflow is turbulent and not larninar.

Aerospace technology has come a long way in these important aspects of this nation's technological leadership in aviation. A few examples. The historic supersonic flight of the X- I spawned generations of new aircraft. Routine supersonic flight by today's airplanes was made possible by research conducted with the YF- 102 and the 102A. Flight research of the Century Series airplanes provided new insight into aircraft dynamics and handling qualities such as roll coupling. The X-15 and the lifting body flight research were critical to the development and operation of the space shuttle. Flight research with advanced propulsion concepts and fly-by-wire systems have allowed dramatic im provements in aircraft efficiency and safety. And the phenomenal breakthroughs in low-power, lightweight, reliable electronics during the Apollo era have allowed for unprecedented levels of systems integration in both spacecraft and aircraft. So what's left, what does the future hold?

There are many people in this country who believe that aeronautics is a mature field. It is now evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. Therefore, there are no more major breakthroughs such as area rule, jet engines, can tilevered structures, composite materials, etc., awaiting the challenge of inquisitive minds. Some people believe we have the computer power available to adequately calculate complete aircraft characteristics. I submit to you that the next frontier-which is routine, economical, supersonic, and hypersonic flight-has areas where signifi cant breakthroughs can and must occur. This is particularly true of hypersonics. If we are to continue as a world leader in technology, we must develop a hypersonic vehicle (fig. 4). I do not believe we can do this without flight research. The requirements are far too stringent, and the margins of error far too small, to rely on computational and ground-based tests alone. An operational vehicle will also have high levels of integration never before attempted.

Figure 4 - an artist's hypersonic vehicle concept
Figure 4. A hypersonic vehicle concept.

So what has this all got to do with this symposium? Well, I hope that all of you, but in particular the younger people who are and will be our future, think about challenges and opportunities as they hear today's speakers and the subject matter they discuss. This is a fantastic opportunity to look at a very successful leading-edge technology project in retrospect. The speakers are the engineers, the pilots, and the managers who lived with the X-15 from its initiation to its completion. You may never have such an opportunity again. The X- 15 might well be the model from which this country's hypersonic research and/or operational airplanes are developed, so listen closely and learn.

Finally, I want to thank Milt Thompson for spearheading this event. When he came to me with the idea I said, "Let's do it." Little did I know at that time that he would break the bank and it would be this large and this significant. So I say, "Thank you, Milt," and again "Welcome" to all of you. So now let's enjoy today and tonight. Thank you very much.

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