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Scott Crossfield, 84; 1st Man to Fly at Twice the Speed of Sound Helped Craft X-15 Rocket Plane

April 21, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Scott Crossfield, a legendary test pilot who became the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound in 1953 and later flew and helped design the X-15 rocket-powered research aircraft, was found dead Thursday in the wreckage of his single-engine plane in mountains near Ranger, Ga. He was 84.

Crossfield's plane, a Cessna 210A, was found about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta a day after it dropped off radar screens during a flight from Alabama to Virginia, authorities said Thursday. There were thunderstorms in the area when radar contact was lost; the cause of the crash was under investigation.

Crossfield, who lived in Herndon, Va., was thought to be the only person aboard the plane.

"He was one of the greatest test pilots in the heroic days of test flying in the '50s and '60s at places like Edwards Air Force Base," said Peter Jakab, chairman of the aeronautics division at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

"But Crossfield wasn't just a great pilot," Jakab told The Times on Thursday. "He really was an enormous contributor to aerospace in many ways during the second half of the 20th century, as a technical advisor and policy advisor."

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said in a statement that Crossfield "was a true pioneer whose daring X-15 flights helped pave the way for the space shuttle."

As a civilian test pilot, Crossfield had what writer Tom Wolfe, in his famous history of early American rocket flight, called "the right stuff": "the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull back in the last yawning moment -- and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every day."

"Crossfield is the great man who nobody knows anymore," Wolfe told The Times on Thursday, adding that the original Mercury astronauts overshadowed test pilots such as Crossfield who helped make the manned space program possible.

"Here they were at the very leading edge of flight tests in these rocket airplanes, and when the astronauts were selected and it was determined that they just had to shoot somebody into space like a human cannonball, all the attention went to the astronauts.

"Otherwise, Crossfield would be on the Mount Rushmore for pilots."

A former Navy flight instructor during World War II, Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics -- the predecessor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- at its High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards Air Force Base as a research pilot in 1950.

Over the next five years, he flew most of the experimental aircraft being tested at Edwards.

It was on Nov. 20, 1953, that Crossfield became the first person to fly at twice the speed of sound -- in a the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket.

Crossfield, who was battling the flu, and the Skyrocket were carried aloft by a B-29 bomber and dropped clear of the bomber at 32,000 feet. After climbing to 72,000 feet, he dove to 62,000 feet, where he broke Mach 2 at a speed of 1,290 mph.

The Skyrocket was never designed to go Mach 2, Crossfield told the Washington Post in 2000, and test pilots like him were not supposed to set records.

Crossfield downplayed his aviation milestone, which came six years after Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947.

Mach 2 "wasn't a very big deal," Crossfield told the Post. "It was made more of by the media than we did. I'd been flying around Mach 1.9, 1.96, 1.97. We were running into all the typical problems that go with those speeds in airplanes that aren't designed [to go that fast.] We were way over designed speed on that airplane."

But 1953 was the 50th anniversary year of the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and, he recalled, "the Air Force was grooming Charlie Yeager to make Mach 2 and have that be the 50th anniversary celebration."

With a chuckle, he added, "I thought it would be kind of interesting to beat him."

In his book "Yeager: An Autobiography," Yeager said Crossfield "was a proficient pilot, but also among the most arrogant I've met.... None of us blue suiters [in the Air Force] was thrilled to see a NACA guy bust Mach 2."

After five years with the unit at Edwards, Crossfield went to work for North American Aviation as a pilot and design consultant for the revolutionary X-15 rocket-powered airplane.

In 1960, Crossfield reached Mach 2.97 in an X-15 rocket plane launched from a B-52 bomber.

"It was dream flying," he said in an interview last year with the Tulsa World. "Any good aviator would prefer to fly those X-planes. Not even Howard Hughes could afford to fly one of those."

Both the D-558-2 Skyrocket and the X-15 that Crossfield flew are on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

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