Milton O. Thompson, one of only a dozen test pilots to fly the fabled X-15 rocket plane and the first to fly a lifting body, the wingless vehicle that led to the design of the space shuttle, has died. He was 67.
Thompson, who was to have been honored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration last Friday at a dinner in Lancaster, suddenly became ill and died that day of unknown causes, NASA announced.
NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin said the agency had planned to award Thompson a second Distinguished Service Medal, the agency's highest award, and its Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal. In an official statement, Goldin cited Thompson as "one of America's true aviation pioneers and a genuine national hero."
The dinner went forward as a memorial to Thompson, who was chief engineer of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.
With NASA since 1956, when it was known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Thompson previously earned the agency's Distinguished Service Medal for his work as a member of its Space Transportation System Technology Steering Committee. In 1990, NASA gave him its Elder Statesman of Aviation Award.
In 1966, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots awarded Thompson its Iven C. Kinchloe Award as outstanding test pilot of the year for his flight of the M-2 wingless lifting body. He had first flown the experimental craft in 1963, and helped develop the designs for the space shuttle.
"During his long and distinguished career, he . . . helped lead the way from our first faltering steps in space through the successful flights of the space shuttle," Goldin said Friday. "He significantly enhanced not only the nation's flight testing and research programs but also our capability to conduct flight research."
Thompson came into prominence when he flew the rocket-powered research aircraft X-15, which was flown between 1959 and 1968 by only 12 pilots from NASA, the Air Force and the Navy.
During his 14 flights in the X-15, he reached a top speed of 3,723 m.p.h. and a maximum altitude of 214,100 feet.
Thompson once said a scientist told him he was the world's only "mesonaut," flying in but not above the Earth's mesosphere, the portion of the atmosphere between 154,000 and 260,000 feet.
Born in Crookston, Minn., Thompson received his flight training during six years in the Navy, including service in World War II.
He earned an engineering degree from the University of Washington, retaining his pilot's license as a Naval Reserve pilot, crop duster and forest sprayer. He worked as a flight test engineer for the Boeing Aircraft Co. in Seattle for two years and joined NASA's Dryden Facility at Lancaster as an engineer in 1956.
After 10 years as a test pilot, he became research projects director at Dryden in 1968 and was promoted to chief engineer in 1975.
Thompson wrote more than 20 articles about flight research and recently co-wrote "The Edge of Space," a book about the X-15 program.
He is survived by five children.