In my last post about the X-15 we looked at the sad end of Major Michael Adams. This time we are going to look at one of the happier stories from the X-15, Neil Armstrong.
Before he signed onto the Apollo program, Neil Armstrong was both a Naval aviator (serving in Korea), and a NACA/NASA test pilot. As a test pilot at Edwards he flew a wide variety of aircraft, from the B-29 Superfortress carrier aircraft (dropping the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket) through to the X-15. Along the way he was involved in his fair share of memorable events.
For example, on April 20, 1962, he piloted the X-15 to 207,000ft to perform a maneuver designed to test a new g limiting system. As he descended he found the g limiting system didn’t respond as expected, aerodynamic force built up under the wings, and he bounced off the Earth’s atmosphere. So, instead of beginning a descent to Edwards, Armstrong saw the base pass under him as he flew on at mach 3.
He struggled to get the aircraft to respond until he dropped into thicker air, where he began a hard banked turn. By then he was over Pasadena, having over shot his planed landing zone by forty miles. Fortunately, he was still at 100,000ft and had enough energy (speed) to perform a glide to a straight in landing at Rosamond Dry Lake. With the pressure of making rapid decisions and the concentration required to fly the X-15, he almost forgot to jettison the rear fin, which would have prevented the rear skids reaching the ground and would certainly have resulted in a serious, if not fatal, accident. This unplanned extension of the flightpath resulted in the longest of all X-15 flights at 12.4 minutes and 350 miles (ground track).
The pace of work at work at Edwards didn’t allow time for basking in glory. A few days later he was piloting a T-33 Shooting Star looking for emergency landing zones for the next X-15 flight (they did this before all flights). In the rear seat was veteran dry lake landing specialist, Chuck Yeager.
There is a joke that says “two pilot, three opinions” and so in this case there are two stories. In “Yeager: An Autobiography,” Chuck describes warning Armstrong that the surface at Smith Ranch Dry Lake would be unsuitable because of recent rain. Armstrong however, recalls they made one successful landing before Chuck suggested another landing closer to the center of the “dry” lakebed.
Either way, when Armstrong touched down the muddy surface slowed the T-33 and even on maximum power he was unable to get airborne again. Both pilots agree than once stuck, Yeager was in fits of laughter.
He didn’t know it, of course, but it’s funny to think that the man who would first step onto the Moon, couldn’t get free of the earth that day.
Armstrong wasn’t done inspecting lakes and in May 1962 he took an F-104 Starfighter to inspect Delamar Lake, but failed to notice that his landing gear wasn’t fully extended. As he touched down the gear retracted and the ventral fin touched the ground and was ripped away, incapacitating his radio. Armstrong diverted to the closest landing zone, Nellis AFB. Unknown to him, the damage to his aircraft had also released the tail-hook. On landing the tail-hook caught the arrester wire and dragged the chain and it’s anchor along the runway.
The runway had to be closed while Nellis crews cleared the debris.
Armstrong called Edwards to request someone to pick him up. Milton Thompson was sent in an F-104, but was unfamiliar with the aircraft and suffered a hard landing, blowing out the tires because of heavy crosswinds.
Once again, the runway had to be closed while Nellis crews cleared the debris.
Finally, Bill Dana was sent in a T-33 Shooting Star, but almost landed long and had to be towed. In desperation, the Nellis base operations office decided it would be safer to find the NASA pilots ground transportation back to Edwards rather than risk another airplane.
It wasn’t one of Armstrong finer moments, but sometimes any publicity is good publicity. A month later, when his Apollo astronaut application arrived a week beyond the deadline, a colleague of his, Dick Day, remembered him well and slipped it into the interview pile before anyone noticed.
So fate would have its way; the man who would one day first set foot on the Moon almost missed the entire Apollo program. I like to think his reputation saved the day, what about you?