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X-15: The World’s Fastest Rocket Plane and the Pilots Who Ushered in the Space Age

by John Anderson and Richard Passman, Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2014, $30

Like the X-15 itself, this book is spectacular. John Anderson and Richard Passman, who have aeronautical engineering backgrounds and hands-on experience developing high-speed platforms, treat readers to an insightful and accessible description of the famous rocket plane from its inception. Fabulous photographs punctuate the text, showcasing the sleek research vehicle from many angles, including classic color shots on the parched buckskin lake beds at Ed wards Air Force Base.

The authors delve into the program’s origins and explain how the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s precursor) decided to pursue a winged hypersonic plane just seven years after the first manned supersonic flight. A chapter is devoted to the X-15’s design, with ample discussion of its constituent parts, including the engines. The three airframes built by prime contractor North American Aviation flew a total of 199 times from June 1959 through October 1968.

Enthusiasts will greatly appreciate the inclusion of short but penetrating biographies of the 12 pilots privileged to fly the X-15. Legendary test pilot Scott Crossfield, first to thunder skyward in the powerful rocket plane, is covered, as is future moonwalker Neil Armstrong. Flights are analyzed with emphasis on the record-setting speed of Mach 6.7 and the vault to an altitude of 354,200 feet, the edge of space.

The X-15 paved the way for manned space vehicles to fly back through the atmosphere, thereby setting the stage for the space shuttle. This handsome volume excels in telling the story from start to finish. Anyone interested in the glory years of research flight will want a copy.


Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.