December 12, 2015

Rocket Planes Part Two - Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager

Neil Armstrong, then a Test Pilot, next to his X-15 edge of space rocket plane around 1962. That was  7 years before his captaining the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. (Photo courtesy Uncover California).

Prior to Apollo 11 Armstrong had a dangerous career:

-  He cheated death as a fighter pilot in Korea (flew back having lost much of a wing). 

-  As a test pilot he intentionally pushed his X-15 beyond the limits of controllable flight (see below). 

-  As an astronaut in Gemini 8 as his spacecraft was in a freak spin at a revolution per second - near unconscious he analysed the problem and gained control of his craft.  

-  In May 1968 he was within 0.2 seconds of being killed in an uncontrollable Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) crash. 

All these events contributed to Armstrong being chosen to be first on the Moon. He had proven he was cool under pressure - and lucky


The X-15 rocket plane was also almost all fuel tank. Its loaded weight was twice its empty weight and as is carried no weapons all the extra weight was fuel (with the small addition of the pilot). It began it’s flight at about 30,000 feet when dropped from a converted B-52. An X-15 pilot would fire the rocket engine and shoot upwards faster than the speed of sound until he ran out of fuel after maybe 2 minutes. Momentum carried the X-15  over the top of an arcing flight path where, in the thin upper atmosphere, rockets in the aircraft’s nose gave some directional control. 

The X-15 would then glide-plummet with no engine. The X-15 became a "glider" but as its wingspan was shorter than its body it was like a stone with stubby wings. Falling to Earth, the pilot traced out large circles above the runway to slow his speed to a manageable 370 km per hour at landing. He had only one shot to land - no go-arounds

April 20, 1962 Neil Armstrong's X-15 separated from the B-52 and accelerated past Mach 5 with ease and in control of the aircraft. An unexpected problem developed when he tried to aim the aircraft back towards the runway at Edwards Air Force Base

He was in the thin upper atmosphere, and with the X-15 nose angled upwards, he bounced off the atmosphere instead of being able to aim the nose down to control his flight. The tail of the X-15 skipped off the atmosphere like a stone on water, carrying him further from Edwards. Gravity eventually took over and he was able to set himself back on track for landing. The only problem was that he was 50 miles south of where he wanted to be, and he didn’t have an engine to light to get him any closer. 

Making his situation worse, there weren’t any safe lakebeds for an emergency landing between him and Edwards. The X-15 had metal skids instead of wheels for landing gear as skids when landing on dry mud acted as brakes. So Armstrong needed to land on the dry lakebed surrounding Edwards or crash. One of the pilots following him in an F-104 chase plane saw Armstrong in the X-15 flying level with the treetops he was so low coming in to land. But he managed a safe landing.

The near tragic flight, which lasted 12 and a half minutes, was jokingly referred to as Armstrong’s cross country flight.


Short bio details on the late Neil Armstrong who passed away August 25, 2012..


One more Right Stuff scene. In December 1963 test pilot Chuck Yeager attempted a height record in a F-104 Starfighter (promoted as the "missile with a man in it" instead of the less upbeat "Widow Maker"). The standard F-104 is only jet powered, but Yeager was using a NF-104A

The NF-104A was a hybrid rocket (fired 3:15 in above youtube) and jet powered craft. Note (1:40 into the youtube) the Roar of Acceleration as the rocket-jet plane shifts to Afterburner. Turn up loud!

The firing of the ejector seat ignited the pure oxygen in Yeager's face mask. Being a a test pilot in a rocket plane is a risky business.

Please connect with Submarine Matters Mother Ships and Rocket Planes - Part One, December 8, 2015. 


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