Hypersonic: the story of the X-15


Dennis Jenkins & Tony Landis


Specialty Press




Scott Van Aken

Notes: 276 pages, 10x10 inches, hardbound
ISBN: 1-580-07-068-x

One of the most fascinating aircraft ever developed was the North American X-15. It was built solely to explore the limits of manned flight, and this was more than just going high or going fast, though those were surely part of its appeal. The X-15 was also used to develop a number of processes and to test equipment that would eventually be used in a number of later projects, including the Space Shuttle. In fact, it was the X-15 that determined the basic method of returning to Earth; that of being a glider. Prior to that it was thought that it would power its way back, but the savings of not having to put in the extra engines for that enabled the vehicle to carry a greater payload. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There really were only three experimental aircraft developed prior to the X-15 whose purpose was to go high and go fast. Those were the X-1, X-2 and D.558-II Skyrocket. When a tender for proposal for a hypersonic (i.e. five times the speed of sound) aircraft was sent to the 12 aircraft companies, only 8 replied and only 4 turned in designs. Those four were Republic (who was working on the XF-103), Bell (who had designed the X-1 and X-2), Douglas (who had developed the Skyrocket) and North American (who was working on the XF-108). Lockheed's Kelly Johnson, who eventually designed the SR-71), thought that manned high speed flight was a waste of time and money, for so fast was aircraft design moving, that often an X plane's performance was equaled by 'production' planes shortly after they had flown. It would take something special to equal the X-15.

The book itself covers every aspect of the aircraft including a background history on the X-1, X-2 and D-558-II. In addition, it covers the development of hypersonic wind tunnels, the development of competing aircraft and the development of the X-15 itself. However, the book doesn't stop at that. It goes on to reveal the logistic problems the program had to overcome, which includes the use of multiple dry lakes in the area as emergency landing sites for the X-15 in case of failure. There was also the matter of setting up a suitable radar range so that the aircraft could be tracked during flight. Then there is the development of an aircraft to carry the X-15, not a small consideration and not one that was immediately apparent.

The book includes sections on crew training and the various chase, support and flight simulation aircraft used by NASA in the program. Included are explanations and descriptions of the various experiments carried aloft or attempted by the X-15 program. There is the use of ablative materials on the craft, attempts at development of the SCRAM-jet engine and much more.

Technical descriptions of the aircraft go into great detail on airframe design and system description. This also includes the XLR-11 and XLR-99 rocket engines that propelled the X-15. There are appendices on pilots and NACA/NASA personalities, an incredibly complete flight log of every flight that includes chase planes, mission parameters and other data, as well as a very detailed bibliography. Along with all of this are a huge number of photographs, some in color, and a profiles section on the various aircraft at different times in their lives.

If you get the impression that this is the most complete, most detailed, and most well-researched book ever written on the X-15 program, then you are correct. This is a book that every aviation enthusiast should have on their shelves. My highest recommendation.

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