A Bell X-2 rocket plane sets the record for fastest speed by an aircraft, reaching Mach 2.87, or more than 1,900 mph, 60,000 feet above the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The X-2 Starbuster
, an experimental plane built by Bell Aircraft to test stability and control at supersonic speeds, made its debut in June 1952. Two were built, but only one became operational: The other was lost in a captive-flight explosion that killed its pilot in 1953.
Lt. Col. Frank "Pete" Everest
was at the controls for the record flight. Everest, who flew over 150 combat missions during World War II, became a test pilot after the war, setting several speed marks and establishing an unofficial altitude record of 73,000 feet in a Bell X-1.
The 1950s were the golden age for test pilots
, with numerous high-speed, experimental aircraft rolling out of Bell, Northrup and Douglas factories to test the limits of manned flight. Everest piloted almost every single aircraft type during his stint as a test pilot.
His July record-setter was the X-2's ninth powered flight, which began with the plane being carried to altitude and released from its mother ship, a B-50 bomber. Everest engaged the Curtiss-Wright XLR25 liquid-fueled rocket engine, and was off to the races. As he recalled in a 1998 interview with Aviation History
magazine: Once [the rocket is] going … you’re hanging on and trying to fly a prescribed flight path to give you the best performance. This isn’t easy to do, because you have to climb and try to get to about 60,000 feet, then level off and perhaps dive a little to try and get the maximum Mach number out of the airplane. You do this until your propellants are exhausted and then head home.
Simple as that.
Even as he set the speed mark, Everest was gathering data. He reported later that the X-2's flight controls were not completely reliable at top-end speeds, the aircraft becoming more difficult to handle. Pressure shifts were also a factor, and Everest's impression was that the plane would encounter significant stability problems as it approached Mach 3.
Everest's record was broken a little over two months later by Capt. Mel Apt, flying the same X-2. Apt reached Mach 3.2, becoming the first pilot ever to top Mach 3, but that flight ended tragically when he attempted to adjust his course and the aircraft spun out of control and crashed. Apt's death was the end of the X-2 program, and most supersonic research was suspended until the North American X-15
arrived three years later.
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