North American X-15 — The 4000 MPH Rocket Plane

Discover the North American X-15, a rocket-powered aircraft that set speed and altitude records in the 1960s, reaching speeds of up to 4000 MPH. Explore its fascinating history on PlaneHistoria.

North American X-15 is a hypersonic rocket aircraft designed and built by North American for NACA (later NASA) testing. It set speed records in the 1960s that remain unbroken some 60 years later. An unbelievably ambitious project that actually paid off. A lot of valuable data was gained and implemented into future aircraft design.

North American X-15

North American (NA) was given the contract for the North American X-15’s airframe in 1955, whilst Reaction Motors was to build the engines and only four years later, in June 1959 the first flight was made.

Unlike traditional aircraft design, the North American X-15 was never intended to take off under its own steam. Similarly to other experimental aircraft, such as the M2-F3 Lifting Body, the X-15 was designed to be carried by a “mothership”.

NACA/NASA used an older model B-52A that was retired in 1969 and a B-52B. Both were modified with a pylon on the righthand wing to carry test vehicles.

Designated NB-52A “The High and Mighty One” and NB-52B “Balls 8”.

“Balls 8” first flew in June 1955 and was not retired until December 2004 making it the oldest flying B-52 and the only B model in service at the time.

A consideration required in the design phase was that the North American X-15 would need to fit under the wing of a B-52 meaning NA had to make it fairly compact. It was only ever designed to accommodate a single crew member and had an overall length of 50 feet 9 inches and a wingspan of only 22 feet 4 inches.

Achievements

In 1967 the North American X-15 managed to reach a dizzying height of 102,000 feet, 19.34 miles, and a top speed of 4,520 mph. To put this in perspective, 1967 was when the first ever Super Bowl game was played!

Speed was not only the impressive thing about the North American X-15, the altitudes it could reach also broke and set many records. The highest known flight was in 1963 when test pilot Joseph Walker hit an altitude of 67 miles, over 353,000 feet, at a speed of 3,794 mph (Mach 4.98). Any flights above 264,000 feet actually qualified the pilots to become Astronauts.

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Pub: 05 Jun 2023 06:16 UTC
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