Space Cover #165: Bob White and the X-15
Well, in our ongoing bios of unsung X-15 pilots (SCOTW 80, 118 and 143), let's now focus on Air Force pilot Robert M. (Bob) White.
Fifty years ago next month, Bob White (not to be confused with Al White, who was Crossfield's NAA backup for the X-15) became the first X-15 pilot, and fourth American, to earn Astronaut Wings. He broke the (then) arbitrary 50-mile-high boundary of space on July 17, 1962 when he soared to 59 miles altitude in the X-15 as commemorated on the above cover. This cover carries the Boy Scout rubber-stamped X-15 cachet, with some custom rubber stamps for the flight, and an Edwards AFB postmark from the day of the flight.
One minute prior to being dropped from the B-52 mother plane on this flight, the X-15's primary flight control system dropped out. White calmly reset the circuit breaker for this essential function, and continued, something that would never have continued in today's risk-averse environment. After the drop he shut down the engine just a few seconds late, sending him 6+ miles higher than planned, but either way, an Astronaut Wings flight...
Bob White was a P-51 Mustang pilot in the European Theater during World War II. He was shot down over Germany and was held as a prisoner-of-war until February 1945. He first flew the X-15 on April 13, 1960. Flying the X-15, he went on to become the first pilot to break Mach 4, Mach 5, and Mach 6. His 16th and last X-15 flight was on December 14, 1962.
I could show you covers for all of White's X-15 flights mentioned in the previous paragraphs, and they'd all look a lot like the cover at the top of this article. So, instead, let's take a look at another Bob White cover that I've had in my Edwards AFB exhibit in the "Not Every Day Was a Record Setter" section:
On September 12, 1960, White made a test flight in an F-100 Super Sabre fighter (also known as a "Hun") and carried the above cover with him. He autographed it and mailed it back to the requester on September 15. I bought this cover back in 2000 and wrote to White about it. He didn't recall this exact flight, but mentioned that the test pilots had to do periodic spin recovery practice, often in Huns. One of my favorite covers...
After White's stint in the X-15 program, he went on to fly 70 combat missions in F-105 Thunderchief fighters (also known as "Thuds") in Viet Nam, came back to command the Air Force Flight Test Facility at Edwards in 1970, and ultimately retired from the Air Force as a Major General. Robert M. White died in 2010 and was fittingly buried in Arlington Cemetery.
His autobiography was published posthumously: Higher and Faster: Memoir of a Pioneering Air Force Test Pilot by Robert White and Jack L. Summers, 2010.
A true, unsung American hero...
(With many thanks to Al Hallonquist who contributed to this article)