May 20, 2009
In my last post on Neil Armstrong, I mistakenly repeated the fable that as a test pilot, Armstrong once looked out the window of his X-15 rocket plane just prior to landing, and saw the Rose Bowl instead of the Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. Makes for good bar talk. But here’s the truth, as reported in James Hansen’s biography First Man:
On Friday, April 20, 1962, Armstrong zoomed up to 207,500 feet in the X-15, as high as he’d go until his Gemini 8 mission would quadruple that four years later. Well outside the atmosphere, he used the reaction control system to maneuver. Another job on this flight was to check out the MH-96, a G limiting device designed to keep the rocket plane from exceeding 5 Gs. He kept the nose up as he plummeted from his peak altitude, which caused his flight path to “balloon,” or rise again, producing about 4 Gs. This ballooning continued as he waited to see the G limiter kick in, which it never did. It turned out that the real flight was not agreeing with simulations he’d done on the ground. All the while, he was cruising along at the rate of ten football fields a second toward Los Angeles, and still up around 140,000 feet. Soon he heard the main flight control center telling him as they watched his telemetry, “We show you ballooning, not turning. Hard left turn, Neil! Hard left turn!” By then, Armstrong had, in his own words, gone “sailing merrily by the field.”
With not enough atmosphere for his flight control surfaces to bite into, he couldn’t turn. Instead, he followed a ballistic path like an artillery shell over the San Gabriel Mountains and toward the populated areas of southern California. When he finally fell far enough that the wings began to respond, Armstrong pulled a U-turn and headed northeast in a steep glide toward the lake beds he had overshot. He was 45 miles south of them, not far enough to put him over the Rose Bowl. But he was still generally over Pasadena. Luckily, he was still above 100,000 feet, and cleared the San Gabriel Mountains by a wide margin, then performed a straight-in landing on Rosamond Dry Lake, south of Rogers. The transcript shows he used speed brakes on his way to touchdown, dispelling notions that he was about to fall short in the Joshua trees. Furthermore, in the heat of the overtasked moment, he failed to consider jettisoning the ventral, or underside, tail fin at the back of the X-15 earlier than normal, which would have reduced his drag and extended his time in the air.
Not quite the close shave many have claimed. Often a joke becomes the official story. Well, the joke afterward began with Joe Vensel, the head of the Flight Research Center’s flight operations, who asked pilot Forrest Petersen, “How far was Neil from the Joshua trees?” Petersen replied, “Oh, probably 150 feet or so.” To which Vensel inquired, “Were the trees to his right or left?”
Still, in 12.4 minutes, Armstrong had covered 350 miles ground track, the record for longest duration and distance of all 199 X-15 flights.
Nice to be able to laugh about it four decades later. But in fact, the fatality rate of pilots at Edwards was grim. Though astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White died in January 1967 in the Apollo 1 fire during a training session, no American astronaut was lost in a spaceflight until the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger perished in 1986. Meanwhile, throughout 1948 at Edwards, 13 test pilots were killed. And in 1952, 62 pilots died there during one nine-month stretch. That’s not a typo. Sixty-two. About seven unlucky pilots a month.
Liking the risk level of your desk job a little better?