Space Cover #143: Forrest Petersen
Well we focused on a little-known X-15 pilot, John McKay, in Space Cover of the Week 80. Almost 50 years ago, another lesser-known X-15 pilot, Forrest Petersen, performed his last X-15 flight.
Forrest Petersen graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1944, and immediately went to war in the South Pacific onboard the destroyer USS Caperton (DD-650). After WWII, Petersen graduated from flight school, from Purdue University with a Master's Degree in engineering, and then test pilot school where he remained as an instructor. The Navy assigned him to the X-15 program in 1958.
He flew his first X-15 mission on September 23, 1960 and carried the cover shown at top on this flight. There was a premature engine shutdown on this pilot-familiarization flight and Petersen only reached Mach 1.68 (slow by X-15 standards, but still pret-ty darned fast for us!). He flew four more X-15 missions, performing the first flight of X-15 #1 with the full-up XLR-99 engine, and reaching Mach 5.3 on another flight. On Petersen's final flight, January 10, 1962 (lower cover image - not flown), he experienced another premature engine shutdown and had to make an emergency landing at Mud Lake, uprange from Edwards.
With the Cold War heating up, the Navy recalled him to serve as a fighter squadron commander. Petersen went on to be the executive officer of the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CNA-65) on its first Viet Nam tour, command the USS Bexar (APA-237), and eventually retire as a Vice-Admiral and Commander of the Naval Air Systems Command. He died of natural causes in December, 1990.
I remember meeting Forrest Petersen at the X-15 First Flight 30th Anniversary at Edwards in 1989. Very much a character, he related a story of undergoing a prostate exam at Edwards on the day that one of the other pilots* dropped the X-15's ejectable ventral fin on a nearby power line during his landing approach. That caused the lights to go out during the exam, and... hoo-boy I can't repeat this in public... suffice it to say that the punchline was one that only a seasoned sailor would love!
Anyway, Forrest Petersen made a major contribution to the X-15 program despite his foreshortened tour there! Here's to an unsung hero...
*He jokingly accused Crossfield of dumping the ventral on the power line. But on that day, each pilot was trying to out-do the other with their stories about the flight surgeons, starting with Crossfield talking about how he wouldn't let the doctors take his um, "core" body temperature during flights. So who knows what the real story was!