Higher and Faster: Memoir of a Pioneering Air Force Test Pilot
by Robert M. White and Jack L. Summers, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 2010, $29.95
In July 1962 Robert M. White flew the X-15 to an altitude of 314,750 feet, becoming the original “winged astronaut”—the first to fly a winged vehicle into space (according to the U.S. Air Force’s definition)—and also the first man to fly at Mach 4, 5 and 6 (more than 4,000 mph). White’s autobiography, published shortly after his death in March 2010, takes us behind the scenes, to give readers a look at the preparation that went into his record-breaking flights (see related story on P. 36 of this issue).
Born in 1924, White grew up in Manhattan during the Depression and signed up for the Army’s Aviation Cadet program, earning his silver wings in February 1944. He would fly P-51s in World War II’s European Theater before he was shot down on his 52nd mission, becoming a POW.
White left active duty in December 1945, but was recalled for the Korean War in May 1951. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for leading F-105 attacks on vital targets during the Vietnam War.
In 1960 White was selected as one of the initial cadre of Air Force, Navy and North American Aviation pilots for the X-15 program. He would make 16 altitude and speed runs in the rocket-powered aircraft between April 1960 and December 1962. In Higher and Faster he describes those flights in great detail, particularly the July 1962 mission, which he chronicles from the launch from the wing of a B-52 to his dead-stick landing. “All X-15 flights are done on instruments,” he writes. “At these speeds, and climbing higher into the sky, all I can see out the window is blue or black. At this point thrust overpowers gravity and my senses lie to me. I’m positive the rotation never stopped, and I’m being pulled over backwards. I’ve gone past vertical, and missed my altitude mark because of it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I trusted the instruments on the rest of the flights.”
Subsequent assignments included stints at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with the FX Systems Program to develop an air superiority fighter that would become the F-15. After that aircraft won approval, White was awarded his first star and transferred to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB. He later became commandant of the Air Force ROTC headquarters, then commander of the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, gaining a second star.
White’s insightful account richly deserves a place beside the memoirs of Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield and other notable test pilots. His many accomplishments remain a lesson in themselves, and an inspiration to us all.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.