Press Release

“Fastest Man Alive” Recalls 50th Anniversary of Historic Flight

By SpaceRef Editor
November 19, 2003
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“Fastest Man Alive” Recalls 50th Anniversary of Historic Flight
d558

On Nov. 20, 1953, shortly before the 50th anniversary of
powered flight, A. Scott Crossfield piloted the Douglas D-558-
II Skyrocket research aircraft to Mach 2, twice the speed of
sound, and became the “fastest man alive.”

As an aeronautical research pilot at the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Research
Station (HSFRS), now NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center,
Crossfield was in the right place at the right time 50 years
ago.

The U.S. Air Force and Navy were pushing the frontiers of
flight, flying experimental research airplanes from Edwards
Air Force Base, Calif. Higher, faster and farther was the
mantra as speed and altitude records were being set and broken
by a cadre of Air Force, Navy and NACA test pilots.

Although NACA was primarily interested in obtaining data from
flight experiments, the Air Force and Navy had a different
agenda. They maintained a friendly interservice rivalry over
reaching the next major flight milestone. The Air Force had a
major coup with the first supersonic flight by Capt. Charles
E. “Chuck” Yeager in the Bell X-1 rocket plane just six years
earlier. The military services had an intense interest in
being the first to reach Mach 2.

“The Air Force was going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of
the Wright brothers’ first powered flight with another Mach
number. It just occurred to us that it would be kind of
interesting if we beat Yeager and the Air Force to Mach 2 in
the Navy airplane,” Crossfield recalled. “We were turned down
by headquarters, because we didn’t do that kind of thing at
NACA. The next thing we knew, NACA director Hugh L. Dryden
sent HSFRS chief Walter C. Williams authorization to try for
one Mach 2 flight,” he said. “It was a very friendly
competition. The base was made up of fighter pilots from the
top on down, and they’re competitive,” Crossfield said.

The Skyrocket was designed for a top speed of about Mach 1.5,
but extensions on the four nozzles of its rocket engine had
enabled Crossfield to reach Mach 1.96 in shallow dives in
previous flights. “It was very close, but it was all the
airplane had in it,” he said.

The swept-wing research aircraft was carried aloft to the
launch altitude of 32,000 feet by a Boeing P2B-S1 (the Navy
designation of the B-29 Superfortress) “mother ship” early on
Nov. 20, 1953. Dropping clear of the converted bomber,
Crossfield ignited the Skyrocket’s rocket engine. He reached
72,000 feet before pushing over into a shallow dive. The Mach
meter gradually crept upward. The needle finally stopped at
Mach 2.005 (1,290 mph), just over twice the speed of sound.

Crossfield’s speed record was short-lived. Less than a month
later, on Dec. 12, 1953, Yeager flew the improved X-1A at Mach
2.44 (1,612 mph). Crossfield’s record flight was part of a
carefully planned program of flight research with the
Skyrocket. The program featured incremental increases in
speed, while NACA instrumentation recorded flight data for
each segment. Skyrocket No. 144, the craft Crossfield flew to
Mach 2, is enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum in
Washington.

As the Centennial of Flight approaches, Crossfield is still
involved in experimental aviation. As Director of Flight
Operations for the Wright Experience, he is training the
pilots who will fly a replica of the original Wright Flyer
during the ceremonial re-enactment of the first powered flight
at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, N.C. The replica will fly
on Dec. 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright
brothers’ historic flight.

Photos of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket and Scott Crossfield,
including several taken the day of the first Mach 2 flight,
are available for downloading on the Internet at:

www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Photo/D-558-2/index.html.

Video footage, including historic flight footage of the
Douglas Skyrocket and portions of a recent interview with
Crossfield, are available by contacting the NASA Dryden public
affairs office at: 661/276-3449.

SpaceRef staff editor.