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Sat, Apr 22, 2006

Gone West: Scott Crossfield, 84... Part Two Of Two

Legendary Test Pilot, Engineer Lost In GA Accident

Scott Crossfield was a name that every boy in the fifties and sixties knew. He was one of several legendary test pilots who regularly swapped positions as the fastest men alive during that period of technological upheaval. But while obituaries and encomiums will polish the legend of "Scott Crossfield, Test Pilot," he wasn't just a test pilot. As an engineer and engineering manager, he was standing in the back rank of the technical revolution at the same time he was strapped into its hurtling nose cone.

But some lucky aviators saw another side to Crossfield's multifaceted life: he loved to fly and to share his enthusiasm for flying. He was a regular at Oshkosh and other large airshows; he was always willing to lend his famous name to a worth cause. He even signed autographs and posed for pictures, a side of celebrity that gets old quickly, with good grace for over forty years.

Crossfield was a man whose skill, accomplishments, and stories cannot be told in short phrases... which is why we've split this retrospective into two parts.

Friday, we told of Crossfield's days as a test pilot at NACA's High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards AFB, flying a new breed of experimental jets and rocketplanes... as well as of the controversy surrounding his claim of being the first pilot to fly at Mach 3.

  • Read Part One Of ANN's Tribute To Scott Crossfield Here

In today's conclusion, we tell of some of the explosive situations Crossfield faced as a test pilot, as well as his later endeavours... including his time with North American as the company worked on several projects, including the doomed Apollo 1 capsule, and his later involvement in the business aviation community. We also explore Crossfield's love of general aviation... as well as the many honors he received.

Close Calls

Test flight was a dangerous business. Only 12 men flew the X-15; all military-trained with engineering or physics degrees, eight of them combat veterans, most of them test-pilot-school standouts. Three of the X-15 pilots died, Mike Adams in the #3 X-15, and Iven Kincheloe (who was named an X-15 pilot, but died before he could fly it) and Joe Walker in separate F-104 accidents. Crossfield himself had had hairy experiences in the XF-92, D-558-2, and X-1.

So it's not surprising that Crossfield had a couple of close calls in the X-15, relating to the high-energy, high-risk world of rocket propulsion.

On November 5, 1959, he was conducting the fourth demonstration flight when one of the four LR-11 rocket chambers blew up. Aborting the test card, he dove for the Rosamond Lake dry lakebed, dumping propellant as he went. In the end, he landed a bit hard with a lot of propellant still on board (the X-15, or course, was designed to land empty). The weight broke the back of the research plane, which slid to a stop on four points -- two skids, a nose gear, and the belly.

And then a madman (or so it seemed to Crossfield) began pulling up on the canopy from outside. Crossfield, intimately involved in every phase of the aircraft's design, knew that would arm the ejection seat, and he didn't appreciate the irony of surviving the crash just to be ejected to a fatal bounce on the dry lake surface. So he grabbed the canopy frame and pulled down. A tug-of-war ensued -- the man on the outside was the flight surgeon, who on hearing the words "broken back," heroically rushed to free Crossfield from the plane. Suddenly it dawned on him that if it were Crossfield's back that were broken, he probably wouldn't be engaging in tugs-of-war with anybody. The doc relaxed, and in due course Crossfield was able to emerge safely and walk away under his own power; the unused backboard went back onto the rescue chopper. Crossfield never tired of telling that story.

The broken back of the X-15 was repaired in due course, and the #2 X-15 became the X-15A-2.

Crossfield's other close call came in a simple ground, captive fire test of the XLR-99 engine in the #3 X-15, on June 8, 1960. Crossfield was in the cockpit when an engine malfunction caused an enormous explosion. Onlookers assumed that he was dead, as the X-15 was completely destroyed -- the rear section engulfed in flames, and the cockpit, with Crossfield strapped in, shot some distance away. "Scott was not injured, due to the rugged steel construction of the aircraft, but it sure got his attention," Milt Thompson wrote. "It was the biggest bang I'd ever heard," Crossfield remembered, according to NASA's Merlin.

The aircraft and rejoined the flight program on December 20, 1961, after a year and a half of repairs.

Most Expensive Hangar Rash?

Scott Crossfield was perfectly capable of making light of his own experiences; he often retold the story of the XF-92 runway excursion that ended miraculously on a dirt road: "Crossfield Pike," as other pilots ribbed him. But his recounting of an embarrassing F-100 incident has fortunately been recorded for posterity. He dead-sticked the fighter onto the lakebed -- after all, dead-stick onto the lakebed was pretty normal for a hot-rock rocket pilot. Then, rather than roll to a stop there, he thought he'd manage the energy so that he'd roll to a stop right in front of the NASA hangar.

That'd show 'em! But as he arrived at the hangar and needed just... one... tap... of the brakes, he discovered a fun F-100 fact: the brake hydraulic system was pressurized by the engine.

The one that wasn't running.

Crossfield did manage to steer the happily rolling jet into the hangar and between the ridiculously-expensive X-Planes parked there, banging into -- and partially through -- the hangar's side. The wags had a field day: "Yeager broke the sonic wall, but it took Crossfield to break the hangar wall."

Orbital Proposal

One of the most interesting sidelights to the X-15 project came as the nation was focusing on manned spaceflight, and Scott Crossfield was the face of this proposal to NASA. He was convinced that with appropriate modifications, the X-15 could fly in outer space -- even orbital missions -- and safely re-enter and land. (The X-15 could have flown to much higher altitudes than it ever did, but as configured could not have re-entered safely -- that was the limiting factor). The proposal never did take off, but Jack Allavie, a NASA B-52 drop-plane pilot, suggested an alternative:

"I'll take Crossfield up and count down to drop, but I won't drop him. He'll think I did and light that engine. It'll start the B-52 spinning like a top and it'll climb to 100,000 feet. Then I'll drop him and Crossfield will go into orbit hollering 'Bonus, Bonus, Bonus!'"

Life After X-15

The X-15 program ended in 1968 at 199 flights (a scheduled 200th weathered out). But North American had learned something about Crossfield after he hung up his rocketplane helmet in 1960 -- he was not only a heck of an engineer, he was a good manager, as well. In 1961 he became system director, responsible for systems test, reliability engineering, and quality assurance for North American Aviation on various defense and space projects: the Hound Dog air-to-surface missile, Paraglider, Apollo Command and Service Module, and the Saturn V second stage.

In 1966 he was promoted to the position of technical director for research engineering and test at North American Aviation. He might have served even longer than the 12 years he did at NAA, but on January 27, 1967 disaster struck, most literally: a flash fire swept through an Apollo command module during an on-pad test at Cape Canaveral, taking the lives of space veterans Gus Grissom and Ed White and promising newcomer Roger Chafee.

The NASA investigation was quite critical of the company. While design problems helped the fire burn and made egress impossible, some wiring was substandard and, in an extremely embarrassing, if irrelevant to the fire, manufacturing error, a socket wrench misplaced by a careless worker and overlooked by inspectors turned up in the ashes.  The nation mourned, but politicians also cried for blood -- and North American bled. The company underwent a shotgun merger with Rockwell Corporation. Hundreds of workers and scores of executives hit the bricks, Scott Crossfield among them.

Having served as a Naval pilot, NACA test pilot, manufacturer's engineering test pilot, and engineering manager, Crossfield still had more careers left in him. He worked for Eastern Airlines from 1967 to 1973, in a variety of executive positions involving technology, research or development.

After Eastern, he worked for Hawker Siddley Aviation, as an executive VP managing the American interests of the HS-146 transport (the BAe Regional Jet is descended from this machine). After this, he served as technical consultant to the House Committee on Science and Technology, advising committee members on matters relating to civil aviation, from 1977 until 1993.

Crossfield's entry into general aviation came in 1956 when he purchased a Beechcraft Bonanza to commute to Edwards during the X-15 program. He earned single- and multi-engine type ratings and an instrument rating for single-engine aircraft. In the late 1980s, after 20 years without much flying time, he bought a 1960 Cessna 210A in which he eventually logged over 2,000 hours.

General Aviation And Ratings

While a government pilot, Crossfield often had a hack to fly (NASA-Dryden's workhorse was a C-47). But North American didn't have that same perquisite, so he bought an airplane, a Beech Bonanza, in 1956, and had to get FAA ratings for the first time in his career. (In those days, the X-15s didn't have N-Numbers). He used the Bonanza for commuting from LA to Edwards in those pre-Interstate Highway days. Crossfield held a commercial pilot license for Airplane, Single and Multi-Engine land, and an instrument rating. His FAA records bear the now-archaic limiting notation. "Airplane Multi-Engine VFR Only."

In the late 1980s, he bought an early, wing-strutted, chin-jutting Cessna 210A, built in 1960, N6579X, and after working a little rust off, began flying again for transportation. He and 79X flew over 2000 hours together.

In 2003, he was named instructor for the EAA/Ken Hyde 1903 Wright Flyer replica in the "Countdown to Kitty Hawk," he flew a replica of the Wrights' 1902 glider in order to be able to instruct the two line pilots selected to fly the powered replica on Dec. 17, 2003. "Crossfield said he did not want to let anyone do anything he would not do himself first." the EAA reported.


In his eventful life, Scott Crossfield earned a vast array of trophies, honors and awards -- more, perhaps, than any airman since Lindbergh.

It may be impossible to make a complete list of the honors bestowed on him, but some of the highest include the Lawrence Sperry Award, Octave Chanute Award, Iven C. Kincheloe Award, Harmon International Trophy, and the Collier Trophy.

Upon his retirement from the staff of the House Committee on Science and Technology in 1993, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin awarded him the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal for his contributions to aeronautics and aviation over a period spanning half a century.

He has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1983), the International Space Hall of Fame (1988), and the Aerospace Walk of Honor (1990). He was one of the founders, and a Fellow, of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

His many achievements were recognized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional association of air and space engineers, with its highest designation, "Honorary Fellow," in 1999.

He also had an elementary school named in his honor near his last residence, in Herndon, Virginia.

Despite all the honors, Crossfield was very accessible to fans, other aviators, and especially other engineers and test pilots.

Scott Crossfield lived a long and eventful life. He was found dead in the wreckage of his beloved 79X on Thursday. The accident remains under investigation.

A great pilot, a great enthusiast for air and space flight, and a great gentleman is gone. We who remain raise our glasses in salute. Let us fly together, in the world to come.

FMI: www.nasa.gov, www.dfrc.nasa.gov


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