Earlier this month we discussed how newcomer AF-X intended to kick off its new line of high-flying aircraft with a 1:72 scale rendition of the X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft (AFXP001). Due out shortly, we decided to delve a little deeper into this project by shedding some light on the history of this particular aircraft.
X-15 Flight 3-65-97, also known as X-15 Flight 191, was a test flight of the North American X-15 experimental aircraft. It took place on November 15th, 1967, and was piloted by Michael J. Adams. It ended in tragedy when the aircraft broke apart minutes after launch due to technical difficulties, killing the pilot and destroying the plane.
Adams’ seventh X-15 flight took place on November 15, 1967, in the number three aircraft. At 10:30 in the morning on November 15, the X-15-3 dropped away from underneath the wing of NB-52B mothership at 45,000 ft (14,000 m) over Delamar Dry Lake.
While in powered flight, an electrical disturbance distracted Adams and slightly degraded the control of the aircraft; having adequate backup controls, Adams continued. At 10:33 he reached a peak altitude of 266,000 ft (81,000 m). In the NASA 1 control room, mission controller Pete Knight monitored the mission with a team of engineers.
As the X-15 climbed, Adams began a planned wing-rocking (rolling) maneuver so an on-board camera could scan the horizon. At the conclusion of the wing-rocking portion of the climb, the X-15 had begun a slow drift in heading; 40 seconds later, when the aircraft had reached its maximum altitude, it was off heading by 15 degrees to the left. As Adams came over the top, the drift briefly halted as the aircraft’s nose yawed 15 degrees back to the correct attitude. Then the drift to the left began again; within 30 seconds, Adams’ descending flight path was at right angles to the attitude of the aircraft. At 230,000 ft (70,000 m), while descending into the rapidly increasing density of the atmosphere, the X-15 entered a Mach 5 spin.
In the NASA 1 control room, there was no way to monitor the heading of the aircraft, so the situation was unknown to the engineers monitoring the flight. Normal conversation continued between Knight and Adams, with Knight advising Adams that he was “a little bit high,” but in “real good shape.” Adams radioed that the aircraft “[seemed] squirrelly,” and moments later repeatedly told Knight that he had entered a spin. The ground controllers sought to get the X-15 straightened out, but there was no recommended spin recovery technique for the X-15, and engineers knew nothing about the aircraft’s supersonic spin tendencies. The chase pilots, realizing that the X-15 would never make Rogers Dry Lake, headed for the emergency lakes, Ballarat and Cuddeback, in case Adams attempted an emergency landing.
Adams held the X-15’s controls against the spin, using both the flight controls and the reaction control jets in the nose and wings. He managed to recover from the spin at 118,000 feet and went into an inverted Mach 4.7 dive at an angle between 40 and 45 degrees. In theory, Adams was in a good position to roll upright, pull out of the dive and set up a landing. However, due to high gain in the adaptive control system, the X-15 went into a limit-cycle with rapid pitching motion of increasing severity, still in a dive at 160,000 feet per minute. As the X-15 neared 65,000 ft (20,000 m), it was diving at Mach 3.93 and experiencing more than 15 g vertically, and 8g laterally.
The aircraft broke up northeast of the town of Johannesburg 10 minutes and 35 seconds after launch. An Air Force pilot, who was filling in for another chase pilot, spotted the main wreckage northwest of Cuddeback Lake. The aircraft was destroyed, and Adams was killed.