November 1, 2003
By Phil Scott
Compared to Scott Crossfield the laconic seem positively chatty. The impassive are overemotional. Compared to Crossfield the irascible are patient. Abrupt and crusty, with a voice as clipped as a maple switch, Crossfield remains a legend in test-pilot lore. But for him it's just the facts, ma'am — except on those subjects that irritate him. And there are a couple of those.
Born in Berkeley, California, in 1921, Crossfield took his first flying lesson near his home in Wilmington, California. He was 12, the instructor was Vaughn McNulty, and the airplane was an Inland Sportster. What's that? (Just trying to draw him out.) "A parasol airplane with a 125-horsepower Warner engine in it," he says. Matter-of-fact. He didn't say it was fun or that he enjoyed it, but something must have clicked. A few years later Crossfield enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program started by the government to crank up the number of pilots for the upcoming war, and he got his certificate in 1941. A year earlier he had started on his engineering degree at the University of Washington, but joined the Navy and spent the war as a fighter and gunnery instructor. After peace broke out, Crossfield returned to the University of Washington and got his bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering in 1949 and his master's in aeronautical science a year later. "During the X-1 era I was in the University of Washington wind tunnel," he says. "I went to Edwards Air Force Base in 1950."
Despite that, the movie The Right Stuff had him testing the Bell X-1 just before Chuck Yeager took over and broke the sound barrier. "The movie was dead wrong. I never saw the movie. It was a violation of the facts of reality," he says. "I saw the script, and they wanted me to help with it, but I refused because they trashed the president, they trashed Virgil Grissom, they trashed Mrs. Annie Glenn."
At Edwards, Crossfield tested the D-558-I and the YP-84, two jets, in contrast to the rocket-powered Bell X-1. He did fly the X-1, X-4, X-5, XF-92, D-558-II — in which he became the first man to fly faster than Mach 2 — and most of the Century-series fighters. And then the X-15 arrived.
North American designed the X-15 to be the fastest, highest-flying thing with wings. The company hired Crossfield to test it in the mid-1950s, and test it he did. He says he stuck with the program for nine years. He never took it over Mach 3, and never flew it higher than 100,000 feet. "That was in my contract," he says. "I demonstrated it would fly and then NASA took over." Other pilots flew it as fast as Mach 6.7 and reached an altitude of 354,000 feet. Ten won astronaut wings. That didn't matter one whit to Crossfield.
"Astronaut wings aren't worth the paper they're written on," he says. "I don't know what astronaut wings are. A list of astronauts and cosmonauts came out of Congress four different times, and I was listed in that, and I didn't even care about that. I had one of the best flying jobs in the world and I didn't care what kind of tags they put on it."
Crossfield logged most of his time in the second X-15, which blew in half on the test stand. With him sitting in the cockpit. What did that feel like? "Everybody wants to know what it felt like," he laughs. "It got your attention."
In the late 1950s, when it came time for the United States to launch real-live astronauts, Crossfield didn't even apply. For a couple of reasons, he says. At that time he worked with Dr. Randy Loveless and Gen. Donald Flickinger, the space program's medical men, to set up the astronaut-training program. "I thought I might apply but they asked me not to because they said I was too independent," he says. "And the other thing, the orbital version of the X-15 was supposed to be coming and I was holding out for that. I'd rather [have] been in a winged airplane than the capsule." So what about watching Glenn orbit the Earth for the first time or Armstrong step out on the lunar surface? "I never thought I'd taken the wrong path," he says. "The criteria I set up was what got us to the moon."
After the X-15 program Crossfield hung up his headset, although he spent 17 years as congressional advisor for science and technology. Unlike a few other aviation celebrities, he didn't participate in the Challenger investigation. "It was too much of a newspaper show," he says.
Today he's training the pilots who plan to fly a replica Wright 1903 machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December. To prepare they've made more than 200 flights in a 1902 glider replica — just like Orville and Wilbur. "Our intent is to fly like the Wright brothers and we're training to fly just what they trained in," he says. Like the other experimental projects he's been a part of, he's going to save the spotlight for someone else. "I've had all the glory I need," he says. Spoken like a true test pilot.
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