Fifty years ago this month, A. Scott Crossfield became the
fastest man alive.
On Nov. 20, 1953,
shortly before the 50th anniversary of powered flight, Crossfield
piloted the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket research aircraft to Mach 2
- twice the speed of sound, or more than 1,290 mph.
Crossfield's milestone in aeronautical history came at a time
when the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy were pushing the
frontiers of flight, flying a stable of exotic experimental
research airplanes from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern
California's high desert.
Higher, faster, farther was the mantra as speed and altitude
records were being set - and broken - by a cadre of Air Force, Navy
and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) test
pilots. As an aeronautical research pilot at the NACA High-Speed
Flight Research Station (HSFRS) - now NASA's Dryden Flight Research
Center - Crossfield was in the right place at the right time,
flying such early X-planes as the X-1, X-4, X-5, XF-92A and the
D-558 I and II.
Although the NACA was primarily interested in obtaining data
from its flight experiments in the newly-opened regime of transonic
and supersonic flight to aid designers of future aircraft, the Air
Force and Navy had a different agenda, maintaining a friendly
inter-service rivalry over which service would reach the next major
milestone of flight. 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; that service as well as
the Navy and Marine Corps had an intense interest in being the
first to reach
"The 50th anniversary (of the Wright Brothers first powered
flight) was coming up," Crossfield remembered. "The Air Force
was...going to celebrate the 50th anniversary with another Mach
number. It just occurred to us that it would be kind of interesting
if the Air Force got nudged over a little bit. We were turned down
by headquarters because we didn't do that kind of thing at NACA.
...I got a Navy representative on the base to speak to the Navy,
and I also got (Marine Corps test pilot) Marion Carl to speak for
me in Washington. The next thing we knew, (NACA Director Hugh L.)
Dryden had sent (HSFRS chief Walter C.) Williams an authorization
to try for one Mach 2 flight."
"We thought it would be kind of cute if we beat Yeager and the
Air Force to Mach 2 in the Navy airplane," Crossfield recalled.
"It was a very friendly competition. This base was made up from
the top on down at that time, of fighter pilots, and they're
competitive." Although the Skyrocket was designed for a top speed
of about Mach 1.5, the addition of extensions on the four nozzles
of its rocket engine 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," Crossfield reflected.
"Herman Ankenbruck, one of the engineers that was on the
airplane, worked out analytically that we could go about (Mach)
2.01, (with) everything working perfectly and getting the advantage
of cold weather. Everybody on the base knew that we were going to
make the try, but very few people thought that we were going to
make it - and frankly we had our own doubts that we just were
asking the airplane to do more than it was ever designed to do," he
The NACA flight test team chilled the liquid alcohol fuel to
allow more of it to be poured into the Skyrocket's fuel tanks, and
laboriously waxed the rocket plane's skin to reduce aerodynamic
drag. Early in the morning of Nov. 20, 1953, the swept-wing
research aircraft was carried aloft by a Boeing P2BS1 (the Navy
designation of the B-29 Superfortress) "mother ship," which climbed
for more than 1 1/2 hours before reaching the launch altitude of
32,000 feet. After dropping clear of the converted bomber,
Crossfield ignited the Skyrocket's four-chamber rocket engine and
pointed the plane's nose skyward, reaching 72,000 feet before
pushing over into a shallow dive. The Mach meter gradually crept
upward as the fuel burned off, and the needle finally stopped at
2.005 - just a hair over twice the speed of sound before fuel was
"Fortunately, I lucked out that day and managed to fly what
Ankenbruck (predicted), and came out right on the money, within
half a percent," Crossfield added.
Crossfield's record flight was part of a carefully planned
program of flight research with the Skyrocket that featured
incremental increases in speed while NACA instrumentation recorded
the flight data at each increment. The three Skyrockets built by
Douglas Aircraft Co. flew 313 research flights, split roughly
evenly between contractor and NACA flights, from 1948 through
Skyrocket No. 144, the
craft that Crossfield flew to Mach 2, is currently enshrined in the
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
"The D-558-II, The Skyrocket...got very little notoriety, and
yet it was the one airplane of all the research airplane series
that really delivered for the design of the whole next several
generations of airplanes," Crossfield recalled. "The Skyrocket was
really the airplane that was paying its way with data."
Crossfield's Mach 2 speed record was short-lived. Less than a
month later, on Dec. 12, 1953, Yeager flew an improved model of the
X-1, the X-1A, to a speed of Mach 2.44, or about 1,612 mph.
"Yeager always claimed that he was first to exceed Mach 2,"
Crossfield said with a chuckle. "I'd (protest), and he would say to
me, 'Well, you were the first to get there, but I exceeded
After flying for NACA for five years, Crossfield went on to a
distinguished career as a test pilot, engineer and design
consultant for North American Aviation participating in the design
and development of numerous revolutionary aircraft such as the X-15
rocket plane, and serving in technical, administrative, and
government roles in the aerospace industry.
Fifty years later, Crossfield is still involved in experimental
aviation as the Centennial of Flight approaches. As Director of
Flight Operations for the Wright Experience, Crossfield is training
the pilots who will fly an exact replica of the original Wright
Flyer during a ceremonial re-enactment of the first powered flight
at Kill Devil Hills near Kittyhawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 2003. [ANN
Thanks NASA's Incomparable Alan Brown]