Restoration crews at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, moved a North American X-15A-2 into the museum’s new fourth building on Oct. 2. The expanded Space Gallery will open to the public in June 2016.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted a joint research program with the Air Force, the Navy, and North American Aviation Inc., using three rocket-powered X-15s to investigate all aspects of piloted hypersonic flight.
Retired Maj. Gen. Joe Engle, one of two test pilots to fly the X-15, was on hand as crews maneuvered the research rocket into its new home. In 1965 Engle flew the X-15 to an altitude of 280,600 feet, and he became the youngest pilot ever to qualify as an astronaut. Three of his 16 flights in the X-15 exceeded the 50-mile altitude required for an astronaut rating.
Other X-15 pilots included A. Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong. Engle is the only living X-15 pilot.
Engle later commanded one of two crews that flew the initial space shuttle Enterprise approach and landing test flights, and he commanded the second orbit test flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981.
Engle said he’s still flying “whenever I can.” Asked to name his favorite airplane, he gestured to the X-15: “This one right here.”
“We’re very excited about all this,” said Retired Lt. Gen. John Hudson, director of the museum. Restoration crews will move additional airplanes into the fourth hangar throughout the fall and spring, and they will suspend smaller aircraft from the ceiling, he said.
Hudson said his wish list for the museum includes a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, a Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, and one of the Boeing 747 presidential transports that are still in service. “We have room, and that’s a good thing,” he said. The fourth building is 224,000 square feet; the entire museum is 1 million square feet, housing a massive collection of aircraft that includes the B-17F Memphis Belle, currently under restoration, a B-2 stealth bomber, and the B-29 Bockscar that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in World War II.
One thing the museum doesn’t have is one of the retired space shuttles, which reside in California, Florida, New York, and Virginia. But it does have an exhibit that includes a shuttle crew compartment trainer—a shuttle mockup that was used to train astronauts. The full-size flight deck includes non-functional instruments, panels, lights, seats, and switches found in an actual orbiter. Museum visitors can go inside the trainer—something they can’t do if they visit a retired space shuttle elsewhere. The shuttle exhibit will be moved into the fourth building sometime before the 2016 opening; check the website for more information.