Read It / Do It #01: North American X-15


Originally published at:

Take a ride in a marvel of aerospace engineering that helped pave the road to space with the hypersonic North American X-15 rocket powered research aircraft. It’s long been a desire of mine to dig up the old “Read It / Do It” format that I used to write articles many years ago at another…


Extremely nice write-up! And some fantastic screens and background info as well :slight_smile:

I think rocket-029.jpg was supposed to be an image :slight_smile:
The actual X-Plane pilots practiced the mission profiles many times in a ground simulator that featured…” I think that’s supposed to be the X-15 pilots :smiley:


You’ve been busy!
Great article!
I too have a thing for the X-15. We used to have a really good icecream with that name, and because of all the cool things I read about it (the aircraft, not the icecream) when I grew up.


Thanks…I think I fixed that image…!


What a great article! I expected it to wrap up after each section but it just kept on coming. Thanks a lot!


Me too… :rofl:


Really enjoyable read @BeachAV8R - thanks!


This really got my attention. “stall speed 177 mph”.


Excellent article @BeachAV8R - and it’s uncanny how you always manage to get your screens to look so good.

I do have one comment to make though:

“The well managed risks and thoughtful application of obtained data to expand the X-15 flight envelope and test engineering concepts would probably never fly in today’s risk averse society.”

This seems a little unfair. Today’s risk assessments factor in the ability to solve most design problems in risk free ways using computer simulation and / or robotic technologies. For the X programme the only way to collect data was to build something and try it out, and unmanned technologies were not up to the job. The choice was between doing it whilst minimising the risk to the extent possible or not doing it at all.

Today’s choice, however, would be between doing it manned with the associated risk to life, or doing it unmanned just as effectively (or maybe even more so) with technology taking the brunt of the risk. Not as gung ho I agree, but I know which method I would choose. Just ask Elon Musk.


Not sure if you came across this book in your research, @BeachAV8R, but NASA actually has a pretty detailed and modern review of the problems that culminated in Michael Adam’s demise.

^ See Chapter 4, Section 1 of the book (Screening Versus Design), Page 71 of the PDF. The rest of the book is good content too, if… a little dry. It is NASA after all. :slight_smile:

Yep! Add to that a lot of introspection and discussion on the psychology of the Cold War and how society worked at the time and you’ve got one complicated issue.

It used to be you had no hope of figuring out what a vehicle was going to do in certain flight regimes- the theory was there, but the numerical methods were limited by the computational power of a bunch of people sitting in a room cranking out the results with slide rules. If you wanted certainty you needed a good test plan, a whole lot of observers, and a handful of brave and razor-sharp pilots capable of executing it to the letter.

There’s more to this as well- pilot workload as a concept was frequently ignored or sneered away as the vocabulary of some lesser bugsmasher that needed to stand aside and let a legend show the world his Righteous Stuff.

In retrospect it’s a very sexy, hairy-chested vision of the past and there’s certainly something to be taken from their intrepid approach. You don’t learn a whole lot from trying out things you know are going to work. The brutal truth though is that this approach can and will kill a lot of pilots. Society has decided today that we want to keep our heroes around and not throw money away when we can predict results with a lot more certainty, and I’m okay with that.

(Oh gosh that was more than I intended to write)

ANYWAY, excellent read Beach. The X-15’s one of my favorite programs too and it’s encouraging the sim world’s keeping them alive in some virtual sense. Hopping into the cockpit and taking it for a spin is one thing, but you truly did your homework! Fingers crossed for an article like this on the NF-104 next? :slight_smile:


I agree it is partially unfair. I do think society (in general) has a much more CYA attitude that can sometimes overshoot the target of safety. I’ve had a long enough career in aviation already (25 years) to have seen and experienced this. Risk Assessments and briefings that eat up valuable time that could be better used doing the real meat of preflight actions that actually DO have an effect on flight safety. But if there is a record of all of the things that could go wrong with one of my flights, the lawyers and corporate entities will have something to trot out to pin me to the wall.

I think I mention at the end of the article that it isn’t really a good idea to over-romanticize the projects in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but it’s hard not to. I feel that my statement about risk aversion is legit and doesn’t have much to do with engineering or how much we value life, but is rather just the result of a slow evolution over the decades into a more litigious (and safety conscious I would think) society.

My example of Neil Armstrong fashioning his own side-stick controller is a good example. He would have been brought up on charges by a union for using their tools, circumventing OSHA requirements, and not providing an environmental impact survey for what he was doing… :wink:

I hadn’t - I’ll check that out. The whole Michael Adams thing could be the subject of an entire article in itself. The short gist I got from the Jenkins book was that engineers realized they should (generally) not provide multiple modes to critical instrumentation that could be switched and misinterpreted. The reality of that is probably not workable in a lot of cases, but I’m sure a lot of thought goes into how to display and annunciate what modes things are in to avoid confusing and “red flag” when something is not set right.

Yes. I think there is a lot of that that makes the 40s and 50s different from today.

I think Milton Thompson and some of the other books I’ve read pretty much give high praise to the pilots that were also engineers, or that had mechanical thinking minds. I know I wouldn’t qualify as one of those types if I were magically transported back to that era.

Agreed - it is a different mindset, and the “kick the tires, light the fires” attitude died an appropriate death. That said, there are still vestiges of it around when you look at things like Scaled Composites and the Space Ship One project. Tragically…you can only simulate so much and even still we see things like what happened with Space Ship Two, and how human factors always find a way around safeguards, or people just do things you don’t expect them to do. I think @fearlessfrog can attest that somehow @beachav8r always manages to find a way to break something on the site despite specific instructions on how to do things. :rofl:

Thanks - your kind words mean a lot and I’m glad people are enjoying the article. And I’ve already got my idea for the next article. In doing the research for the X-15, there was a lot of crossover of project knowledge and now I have a new target of fascination - The Lifting Bodies…


Great read, Beach. I was a pup back in the X-15 days, and remember pictures and toys of the aircraft.

Fun X-15 trivia -
Launch platform NB-52B “Balls 8” only retired in 2004, is located at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, Denver, CO

Here she is, from my recent visit -


That seems to be a recurring theme among fans of the X-15. Many of the people I’ve talked to about it that are fans had a toy X-15 they carried around…LOL…

Oh dear…I can see what I’ll be scouring eBay for this weekend…


And I really encourage people to read that book/PDF I linked to in the article. Much of the fun stuff to read about is things like how they measured the lakebeds for landings, how they used other aircraft to simulate the X-15, and a lot of the interwoven research that was occurring at the same time at Edwards. By all accounts, Paul Bikle (Directory of NASA Dryden from 1959 to 1971) was THE man.


View It / Do It:


Really interesting write up Chris, thanks for the excellent article and the link to the 644 page PDF.

I flew over Edwards today as I was climbing to FL450 where we cruise speed of M0.85. I always feel like I’m nothing more than a kid holding out his arms making airplane making airplane noises when I fly past this place.


What are we but dwarfs, standing on the shoulders of giants.


You’ve been pretty coy about what you’ve been up to! The result was a Masterpiece. Yeah, I said it! You didn’t just have an experience and then write about it. You sculpted that experince to match your research.


That’s SO typical @BeachAV8R!
All about having fun, and then tell us about it… :wink:


:blush: Like I said, it was VERY self-indulgent. And the more I got into it, the more I got into it. Putting the LR11 engine that JetManHuss provided on the X-15 was the highlight…it was really cool to get to fly that version. And of course, flying it in VR…

I really wish the XTreme Prototypes X-1A and X-15s were available for X-Plane, because they look like real masterpieces. And while FSX/P3D do some things really well…X-Plane really just feels good for dynamic aircraft like those X aircraft planes.

I’ll dive into the lifting bodies in a couple weeks. I have lots of good content for that…