Space Cover #226: Bob Rushworth and the X-15
Well, in our ongoing bios of unsung X-15 pilots (SCOTW's 80, 143, 165, 196, and 207) let's now focus on Air Force pilot Robert A. (Bob) Rushworth.
Bob Rushworth flew cargo planes in Southeast Asia in World War II, including the legendary flights "over the hump" of the Himalaya Mountains. After the war he earned bachelors and masters degrees in engineering, was reactivated into the Air Force, and began flying jet fighter planes. He attended the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1956, and was named as a pilot for the X-15 in 1958. His first X-15 flight on November 4, 1960 is shown on the Edwards AFB machine cancelled Boy Scout Cachet cover above. He reached Mach 1.95 and 48,900 feet altitude on this checkout flight.
On June 27, 1963, Rushworth reached 54 miles in altitude (Edwards AFB machine cancelled, Boy Scout Cachet, autographed cover above) earning him a set of US Air Force astronaut wings.
Following McKay's crash landing in 1962, X-15 #2 was rebuilt, the fuselage stretched to carry more fuel, and it was equipped to carry drop tanks for even more fuel. Rushworth piloted the first flight of this "X-15-A2" on June 25, 1964 as commemorated on the Edwards, Ca. hand cancelled and autographed Boy Scout Cachet above. On three subsequent test flights of the X-15-A2, different parts of the landing gear suddenly deployed while Rushworth was travelling in excess of Mach 4, causing life-threatening situations and emergency landings. He was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for his performance on those flights.
On Rushworth's last X-15 flight, July 1, 1966 (above), he flew the X-15-A2 with the drop tanks full of propellant for the first time (hence the "First Flight" notation on the cover). However, a faulty indicator forced him to shut the engine down prematurely and perform yet another emergency landing for his finale. Bob Rushworth ended his nearly-six-year X-15 career having flown 34 missions – the most of any of the X-15 pilots.
Michelle Evans' excellent new book, The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings Into Space describes Rushworth's X-15 career the best:
"In all my interviews with other pilots for this book, I never heard of a man more highly regarded by them all than Robert Rushworth. He took on assignments and made them the best. His longevity with the X-15 helped prove his devotion to the art of flight test and to the X-15 research program itself." And Ms. Evans goes on to quote X-15 pilot Bill Dana: "Rushworth was always my personal hero of the whole bunch. Before I was even flying, I knew Bob. I watched him through all thirty-four flights, [and] participated, at least in some way, on all of them. The guy was never out for glory, and he never was out on the speaking circuit saying 'Hey, look at me!' He just was here doing great work. I think that trait followed him through his whole career. Bob probably did more work and got less glory out of both the X-15, and out of his Air Force career, of anyone that's ever lived. He was a real bona fide good guy."
As a follow-on to his X-15 career, Rushworth went on to fly 189 combat missions in F-4 Phantom II fighters in Viet Nam (and no, that's not a typo; one-hundred-eighty-nine is correct), came back to command the Air Force Flight Test Facility at Edwards in 1975, and ultimately retired from the Air Force as a Major General. Robert A. Rushworth died in 1993.
Yet another true, unsung American hero...