Return from Mach 6



Today we almost routinely venture into near orbit in the space shuttle. This accomplishment owes much to the men we today know as “the Rocket Pilots,” and to the first transatmospheric aircraft-the X-15. The X-15 research program proved that a manned aircraft could travel to near-earth orbit, then re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and be flown to a pre-determined landing place. On November 9, 1961, Air Force Major Robert M White flew X-15 ship No. 2 to 4,093 mph-the first flight to Mach 6. The North American X-15 was a rocket-powered aircraft operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft. The X-15 set speed and altitude records in the 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and returning with valuable data used in aircraft and spacecraft design. As of 2014, the X-15 holds the official world record for the highest speed ever reached by a manned, powered aircraft. Its maximum speed was 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h). Robert Michael "Bob" White (July 6, 1924 – March 17, 2010) was an American military aircraft test pilot and a major general in the United States Air Force.White broke a number of records with the North American X-15 experimental aircraft during the 1960s, and supervised the design and development of several modern military aircraft. White attended the U.S. Air Force's Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and became a test pilot, flying advanced models such as the F-86 Sabre, F-89 Scorpion, the new F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-104 Starfighter and the F-105 Thunderchief. He was promoted to deputy chief of the Flight Test Operations Division, later becoming assistant chief of the Manned Spacecraft Operations Branch. White was designated the Air Force's primary pilot for the North American X-15 program in 1958. While the new plane was undergoing its initial tests, he attended the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, graduating in 1959. He made his first test flight of the X-15 on April 15, 1960, when the aircraft was fitted with two interim, 16,000 lbf (71 kN) thrust rocket engines. Four months later he flew to an altitude of 136,000 ft (41.5 km, above Rogers Dry Lake. White would have participated in the Air Force's Man In Space Soonest program, had it come to fruition. In February, 1961, White unofficially set a new air speed record when he flew the X-15 at a speed of 2,275 mph (3,660 km/h), following the installation of a 57,000 lbf (254 kN) thrust XLR-99 engine. White was the first human to fly an aircraft at Mach 4 and later Mach 5 over the next eight months. On 9 November 1961, White flew the X-15 at 4,093 mph (6,590 km/h), making him the first pilot to fly a winged craft at six times the speed of sound (Mach 6). President John F. Kennedy used the occasion to confer the most prestigious award in American aviation, the Robert J. Collier Trophy, jointly to White and three of his fellow X-15 pilots; NASA's Joseph A. Walker, Commander Forrest S. Petersen of the U.S. Navy, and North American Aviation test pilot Scott Crossfield. A day later, Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis E. LeMay awarded White his new rating as a Command Pilot Astronaut. On 17 July 1962, Major White flew the X-15 to an altitude of 314,750 feet (59 miles, 96 km). This qualified him for an Astronaut Badge, becoming the first "Winged Astronaut", and one of a few who have flown into space without a conventional spacecraft. Major Bob White was featured with a cover story in the August 3d, 1962 issue of LIFE magazine, detailing his July 17, 1962 flight. Pilot Robert White commented on his high altitude X-15 flights, "My flights to 217,000 feet [66 km] and 314,750 feet [96 km] were very dramatic in revealing the Earth's curvature ... at my highest altitude I could turn my head through a 180-degree arc and wow! — the Earth is really round. At my peak altitude I was roughly over the Arizona/California border in the area of Las Vegas, and this was how I described it: Looking to my left I felt I could spit into the Gulf of California; looking to my right I felt I could toss a dime into San Francisco Bay." EDITION: 1000 signed/numbered by Mike Machat and Robert White

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