Up-Close and Personal With the Fastest and Scariest Airplane That Ever Flew

X-15 21 photos
Photo: Natational Museum of the United States Air Force
It's not often the average mortal person is allowed to get even within eyeshot of a machine that once flew at nearly six times the speed of sound. Or the machine helped train Neil Armstrong to land on the surface of the Moon as a test pilot. But that's the privilege the patrons of the National Museum of the United States Air Force have access to free of charge.
The research and development section of the world's largest military aviation museum is home to a collection of the wildest, most advanced (for their time), and unique aircraft that have ever taken to the skies. But in terms of top trumps, there's nothing that quite compares the raw, awesome power of the North American Aviation X-15. A rocket plane so powerful and so fast, nobody's bothered even to attempt to build a manned aircraft even remotely that fast today. Granted, any speed beyond what the X-15 could muster essentially qualifies you for astronaut wings.

As breathtaking as the X-15's capabilities may have been, it can't be argued that it didn't sit on the backs of giants. The rocket came from an established lineage of American experimental aircraft, having its genesis in the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to verifiably break the sound barrier. The X-1, too, was a rocket aircraft. Between it and the X-15, they make up the most famous rocket planes ever to fly.

When visiting the X-15 at any of the museums where they find homes today, there's a particular charisma that emanates from every fiber of its construction. There's a sense that every man who entered the cockpit strapped the underside of a B-52 Stratofortress Strategic Bomber was scared half to death, even if they never showed it. The Reaction Motors XLR 99 rocket engine was indeed something to be feared. The rocket engine in the German Me 163 Komet interceptor was known for spontaneously exploding less than 15 years earlier. The men who flew in the X-15 very likely were aware of this, as many of the men who worked on the project, including the project director, Walter Dornberger, were former employees of the Wermacht.

Just seeing the quality of the composite nickel alloys and high-strength steel in the X-15's construction tells a story of a plane so advanced, it still hasn't been matched. Each of its flush rivets was designed to withstand enough speed and pressure to make the plane's nose glow red hot like a meteor at the upper limits of its maximum speed. It's said that approaching speeds that neared an eye-watering mach-seven nearly generated enough heat to melt through the fuselage. This actually happened during a flight controlled by top-notch test pilot William J. "Pete" Knight.

Photo: National Museum of the USAF
Inside the cockpit, the remarkably aircraft-like instrument panel reminds you that even a plane with a rocket engine in the back, this machine is still flying using the same principles as a Cessna. In the days before LCD multifunctional displays, it was the pilot's job to interpret all the data the vast array of instruments were relaying and to wrestle with the flight stick like mad to keep the rocket plane in the sky. By mastering this beast of an airplane, Neil Armstrong gained the skills he needed to one day lead the first human-crewed mission to the Moon.

Decked out in its iconic black paint job with contrasting NASA emblem on the tail fin, the X-15 looks every bit the world-beating speed demon it looks like it is. Just looking at the plane on the ground in a hangar is enough to intimidate some people. Imagine what it must have felt like to have to strap yourself in and hit the rocket engine ignition switch, people back then really must have been made of sterner stuff. The streamlined cockpit canopy is angled in just the right way to be at peak aerodynamic efficiency and evil looking. Considering the barely controlled demon of an engine that sits behind the pilot who's forced to look through thin slits of glass that more or less made a windscreen, the look is more than appropriate.

The X-15 on display in Dayton, Ohio, was delivered there in 1969. If you ask us, it's probably for the best it never flies again. If the tragic death of test pilot Michael J Adams told anything to the Air Force and NASA, it's that one of these days, the heat and pressure of mach-five-plus speeds was going to eventually rip the aircraft apart, given enough time. It's a miracle far more of these didn't end up melting under the heat. It managed to survive long enough to be drooled over by awestruck museum-goers for the foreseeable future. Check out the awesome slideshow above if you want to see more
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Editor's note: Article contains self taken photos alongside official photos used with the permission of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.


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