Captain Robert White-the first person to exceed Mach 4


Major General Robert Michael "Bob" White

Major General Robert Michael "Bob" White (6 July 1924 - 17 March 2010) entered active military service in November 1942 as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Forces. White received his pilot wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant in February 1944.

During World War II he flew P-51 Mustangs from July 1944 until February 1945 when he was shot down over Germany on his 52nd combat mission. He was captured and remained a prisoner of war until his release in April 1945.

White attended the U.S. Air Force's Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and became a test pilot, flying advanced models such as the F-86 Sabre, F-89 Scorpion, the new F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-104 Starfighter and the F-105 Thunderchief. He was promoted to Deputy Chief of the Flight Test Operations Division, later becoming Assistant Chief of the Manned Spacecraft Operations Branch.


X-15. Photo © NASA/commons.wikimedia.org

The North American X-15 was operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft. The X-15 was a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft based on a concept study by Walter Dornberger for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) for a hypersonic research aircraft. Designed to be carried aloft and drop launched at an altitude of about 8.5 miles (13.7 km) and a speed of about 500 miles per hour (805 km/h) from under the wing of a NASA B-52 mother ship. The X-15 was built by two manufacturers: North American Aviation was contracted for the airframe in November 1955 and Reaction Motors was contracted for building the engines in 1956.


X-15 cockpit Photo
© commons.wikimedia.org

During the X-15 program, thirteen flights by eight pilots met the Air Force spaceflight criterion by exceeding the altitude of 50 miles (80 km), thus qualifying these pilots as being astronauts. The Air Force pilots qualified for astronaut wings immediately, while the civilian pilots were eventually awarded NASA astronaut wings in 2005, 35 years after the last X-15 flight.

White was designated the Air Force's primary pilot for the North American X-15 program in 1958. While the new plane was undergoing its initial tests, he attended the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, graduating in 1959. He made his first test flight of the X-15 on 15 April 1960, when the aircraft was fitted with two interim, 16,000 lbf (71 kN) thrust rocket engines. Four months later he flew to an altitude of 136,000 ft (41.5 km), above Rogers Dry Lake.


X-15 launched. Photo
© NASA

In February 1961, White unofficially set a new air speed record when he flew the X-15 at a speed of 2,275 mph (3,660 km/h), following the installation of a 57,000 lbf (254 kN) thrust XLR-99 engine. White was the first human to fly an aircraft at Mach 4 and later Mach 5 over the next eight months.

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