: Photo: U.S. Air ForceThe 1950s was the decade of the test pilot and the experimental aircraft, as aviation technology turned to the jet engine and pushed its limits in both speed and endurance. With the world divided in Cold War, the stakes were high. Jet aircraft dominated both U.S. and Soviet arsenals and the data returned by subsonic and supersonic test flights had implications for the coming space race as well.
A number of aviation companies turned out experimental aircraft, primarily for the armed forces. The pilots who flew them measured success in ways their predecessors could only dream of. They set records for speed and altitude that were unimaginable only a few years earlier, piloting aircraft that were volatile, unpredictable and often flat-out dangerous. When the time came to select astronauts for the nascent U.S. space program, it's not surprising that NASA recruiters turned to their ranks seeking the guys with the right stuff.
The X-18 was an experimental cargo-transport aircraft designed to be the first testbed for tilt-wing and STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing) technology. The Hiller Aircraft Corporation began design work in 1955 and received a manufacturing contract and funding from the Air Force, resulting in the only X-18 ever produced.
: Photo: NASAThe Bell X-2 Starbuster
was built to investigate flight characteristics in the Mach 2-3 range. This 1952 photograph shows an X-2 with a collapsed nose landing gear after a rough landing on its first glide flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The aircraft pitched and slid along its main skid, causing the right wingtip bumper to hit the ground and break off. The nose wheel collapsed upon making contact with the ground.
: Photo: NASAA composite photograph showing the Bell X-5's variable-sweep wing.
The Bell X-5 was the first aircraft capable of changing the sweep of its wings in flight. It was inspired by the untested wartime P.1101 design of Germany's Messerschmitt Company. The German design, however, could only be adjusted on the ground. Bell engineers devised a system of electric motors to adjust the sweep in flight.
: Photo: NASAThe Bell X-14 was an experimental aircraft flown during the 1950s. It was built to demonstrate unorthodox maneuverability, including vertical takeoff, hovering ability, transition to forward flight and vertical landing.
: Photo: NASAThe Douglas X-3 Stiletto was a 1950s experimental jet aircraft with a slender fuselage and a long, tapered nose, manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Its primary mission was to investigate the design features of an aircraft suitable for sustained supersonic speeds, which included the first use of titanium in major airframe components. It was, however, seriously underpowered for its purpose and could not even exceed Mach 1 in level flight.
: Photo: U.S. ArmyThe Goodyear Inflatoplane was an experimental aircraft made by the Goodyear Aircraft Company, a subsidiary of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. The Inflatoplane was roughly equivalent to the commercial Piper Cub. Although a capable enough aircraft, the Inflatoplane project was discontinued after the Army was unable to find a valid military use and remarked, unkindly perhaps, that it "could be brought down by a well-aimed bow and arrow."
: Photo: U.S. Air ForceThe Ryan X-13A-RY Vertijet, Ryan Model 69, was another vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. This one was used by the Air Force.
: Photo: NASAThe Vertol (later Boeing Vertol) VZ-2 (or Model 76) was designed in 1957 to investigate the tilt-wing approach to vertical takeoff and landing. The aircraft had a fuselage of tubular framework (originally uncovered) and accommodation for its pilot in a helicopter-like bubble canopy. The T-tail incorporated small ducted fans to act as thrusters for greater control at low speeds.
: Photo: U.S. ArmyThe Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee was a unique, direct-lift rotor aircraft, using a counter-rotating ducted fan inside a platform carrying a single pilot. The craft, which first appeared in 1953, was maneuvered by the pilot shifting his body weight to tilt the platform in the desired direction.
: Photo: U.S. Air ForceThe North American X-15 rocket-powered aircraft was part of the USAF/NASA/USN X-series of experimental aircraft, begun with the Bell X-1. The X-15 set numerous speed and altitude records in the early 1960s, reaching the edge of space and bringing back valuable data that was used in the designs of aircraft and spacecraft. The altitudes reached by the X-15 remained unsurpassed by any piloted aircraft (except the space shuttle) until the third space flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004.
: Photo: U.S. Air ForceThe Lockheed X-7 (dubbed the "Flying Stove Pipe") was an unmanned testbed for ramjet engines and missile-guidance technology. It was carried aloft by a B-29 or B-50 Superfortress carrier aircraft. The booster ignited after launch and propelled the vehicle to a speed of 1,000 mph (1,625 km/h). The booster was then jettisoned, and the underslung ramjet took over from that point. The X-7 eventually returned to Earth, its descent slowed by parachute. A maximum speed of 2,881 mph (4,640 km/h, or Mach 4.31) was attained, setting a record for fastest air-breathing aircraft. A total of 130 X-7 flights were conducted between April 1951 and July 1960.
: Photo: NASAA Convair XF-92A in flight over Edwards Air Force Base around 1953. Powered by an Allison J33-A turbojet engine, with an afterburner, the XF-92 was America's first delta-wing aircraft. The delta wing's large area, thin airfoil cross-section, low weight and structural strength gave this design a great potential for a supersonic airplane.
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