A brief history of Michael Adams and the X-15 program

By Willie Bodenstein


Photo © NASA / commons.wikimedia.org
Michael J. Adams was born on 5 May 1930 in Sacramento, California. He graduated from Sacramento Junior College and in 1950, enlisted in the United States Air Force and in 1952 he earned his pilot wings and commission at Webb Air Force Base, Texas

In November 1965, he was selected to be an astronaut in the United States Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. In July 1966, Major Adams came to the North American X-15 program, a joint USAF/NASA project. He made his first X-15 flight on 6 October 1966.

Adams' seventh X-15 flight, Flight 3-65-97, took place on 15 November 1967. He reached a peak altitude of 266,000 feet (81 km); the nose of the aircraft was off heading by 15 degrees to the right. While descending, at 230,000 feet (70 km) the aircraft encountered rapidly increasing aerodynamic pressure, which impinged on the airframe, causing the X-15 to enter a violent Mach 5 spin. As the X-15 neared 65,000 feet (20 km), it was diving at Mach 3.93 and experiencing more than 15 g vertically (positive and negative), and 8 g laterally, which inevitably exceeded the design limits of the aircraft. The aircraft broke up 10 minutes and 35 seconds after launch, killing Adams. The United States Air Force posthumously awarded him Astronaut Wings for his last flight.

Photo © NASA / commons.wikimedia.org

Most puzzling was Adams' complete lack of awareness of major heading deviations in spite of accurately functioning cockpit instrumentation. The accident board concluded that he had allowed the aircraft to deviate as the result of a combination of distraction, misinterpretation of his instrumentation display and possible vertigo. An electrical disturbance early in the flight degraded the overall effectiveness of the aircraft's control system and further added to pilot workload.

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