NASA research pilot Bill Dana is shown in front of X-15 in 1967, credit NASA. Steve Durst SU 4379
The Carl Swanson cachet cover shown is the X-15 astronaut wings flight of NASA research pilot Bill Dana, more appropriately termed, astronaut badge flight. Dana flew a total of 16 X-15 experimental rocket plane test flights, two of which would later qualify him for his astronaut wings. Dana also achieved another significant X-15 milestone; he flew the final X-15 rocket plane flight, October 24, 1968, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, concluding this experimental test flight program.
NASA research pilot Bill Dana piloted the first experimental flight of the M2-F3 lifting body a lifting body glide flight test, on June 2, 1970, over South Edwards Air Force Base, California. He has signed the flown cover carried on this flight as William H. (Harvey) Dana, a signature he would later shorten to just Bill Dana. Bill also was a giant in the space cover collecting community. After the M2-F3 test flight, he mailed the cover to space cover collector Barbara Baker a correspondent with whom he would continue to write over a period of years.
A second flown M2-F3 cover by NASA research pilot Bill Dana is pictured for the first supersonic test flight of the M2-F3 lifting body vehicle, August 25, 1971, over Lancaster, California. The flown lifting body test cover has been signed by NASA research pilot Bill Dana on this Barbara Baker cachet cover. Dana was a generous, considerate, and affable friend of Space Unit members, X-15 cover collectors, and the space cover collecting community.
Space Cover #264, Bill Dana, Rest in Peace
On May 6, 2014, this last week, astronaut badge qualified X-15 pilot and exceptional NASA research pilot Bill Dana quietly passed away in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 83. Bill wasn't in the mainstream of elite astronauts, many with far less hypersonic test experience than his, whom we later would see in the limelight of the national media and then appearing in the pages of "Life" magazine.
But make no mistake, Bill was a giant among NASA research pilots who flew experimental aircraft including the X-15 rocket plane putting his life on the line to test this high performance aircraft at the edge of space. The X-15 test flights were not expected to go into orbit. They were conducting tests that later would place astronauts in space. As one of the research pilots flying the X-15 rocket plane, Bill Dana flew 16 X-15 flights. His greatest achievement was to fly the X-15 to a maximum flight altitude of nearly 59 miles and to push his X-15 test vehicle to a top speed of Mach 5.53, 3,897 miles per hour. His flight would achieve the X-15 experimental aircraft's design capability.
In 2005, Bill Dana was awarded his astronaut wings for two of his X-15 flights into space. His award had been delayed for over 40 years because NASA as a matter of policy did not award astronaut wings to its experimental test pilots such as those flying the X-15. Another legendary astronaut, Neil Armstrong, a second NASA X-15 pilot with Bill Dana in this period, had not been awarded his astronaut wings either. Armstrong later received them aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, CVN-69, March 10, 2010.
In a 1997 interview with Smithsonian "Air and Space" magazine staff, Bill Dana commented that the X-15 flights were the high point of his career because of the plane's extraordinary performance. He continued, "The plane had a great big engine and lots of acceleration and things happening very, very fast, and I really didn't catch up with the airplane until I was back down to about Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), where I had been before in fighter airplanes."
His work with lifting bodies shown on the two covers pictured above was exceptional and cleared the way for other experimental aircraft with little in the way of aircraft wings to fly. The aircraft became known as "wingless." The M2-F3 test vehicle's aerodynamics depended on the lift generated by the airframe to give the test vehicle capability to fly. The test vehicles were called lifting bodies. The design of this lifting body aircraft would lead to the design, test, and qualification of the Space Transportation Vehicle, a test vehicle in the press and national media more commonly known as the Space Shuttle. The lifting body experimental vehicles including the M2-F3 test vehicle were Bill's area of expertise and an area in which he innately excelled.
Bill Dana retired from his long, distinguished career as a research pilot and later as a government civil service employee in 1998. Looking back over his many years of service as a test pilot, he made this sanguine comment, "There's a whole staff of engineers in the control room watching every move you make and my fear was that I would do something that would embarrass myself in the eyes of my peers, and that was the fear." He added, "I don't ever remember being afraid I was going to die."
A heart attack forced him to give up his beloved flying and in 1993 Dana became the Dryden Flight Research Center's Chief Engineer. Retiring in 1998, he later worked as a contract employee writing histories of some of the Flight Research Center's experimental test programs. During budget cut periods he even gave up his salary to continue his volunteer work in the Flight Research Center's history office.
Bill, rest in peace; we will miss you!