Scott Crossfield

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Scott Crossfield was the first pilot to fly the X-15. He was the first pilot to fly at Mach 2 and (unofficially) the first to fly at Mach 3 successfully. That was the ascent phase of a 60-year career that took him from general aviation through the Navy, Ike's military-industrial complex at NACA, the airline business at Eastern, manufacturing and research at North American and Hawker-Siddley, politics on the House Transportation committee, and back to general aviation as a Cessna 210 owner. With a list of awards and recognitions longer than a dry lake bed, Scott has been a lifelong advocate for aviation education, and just last week presented the 16th annual A. Scott Crossfield Aerospace Teacher of the Year Award. In this month's Profile AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Scott about aeronautics, space, and general aviation: where we are, where we're going, and where we should be.

Scott CrossfieldA. Scott Crossfield was born October 2, 1921, in Berkeley, Calif. He took his first flight at age six in an oil company airplane, a flight that hooked him on aviation for life. During World War II he was a fighter pilot and fighter gunnery instructor in the U.S. Navy. In 1950, he joined NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and was a research pilot for the next five years at the High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards, Calif. There he was the test pilot for numerous research aircraft, including the X-1, X-4, X-5, XF-92, the D-558-I, D-558-II, and on November 20, 1953 he became the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 2. He was also the first pilot to fly the X-15 and in 1960 became the first man to fly that aircraft (unofficially) at Mach 3.

Author's note: Here's the story on the adjective: Exceeding Mach 3 was Joe Walker's assignment, but Scott admits to bumping Mach 3 while flying his own assignment a few days before Walker did it. Technically that violated Scott's contract, and, although the statute of limitations for that transgression is long passed, he believes the official record properly belongs to Walker, which is why he adds "unofficially." —JG

While at Edwards, Crossfield helped design the first full-pressure flight suit, which evolved into the pressure suits used by military pilots and NASA astronauts. In 1955 Crossfield joined North American Aviation as a pilot and design consultant on the X-15. He also was the first pilot to fly the T-39, the military version of the Sabreliner jet. He left North American in 1967, moving first to Eastern Airlines, then to Hawker-Siddley Aviation, then served as a technical consultant to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology.

Scott retired in 1993, but still flies his 1961 Cessna 210A to EAA Airventure at Oshkosh, Sun 'n Fun, and other aviation celebrations around the country to give speeches that concentrate more on the future than on the past. Each year he presents the A. Scott Crossfield Aerospace Teacher of the Year Award. His biography, Always Another Dawn, was published in 1960. Among his awards are the Collier Trophy (presented by President Kennedy) from the National Aeronautics Association, The Harmon Trophy (also presented by President Kennedy) and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. In 1963, Crossfield was one of the charter inductees to the Aerospace Hall of Fame. In 1983, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and was presented with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime Achievement in November 2000.

Here's a full list of Scott's list of awards and recognitions

Author's note: Scott has been interviewed thousands of times and neither of us wanted to republish another litany of already well-archived stories. So if you're looking for the X-15 hard landing story, you won't find it here. What I hope you find is an insight into the personality of a man who has spent a lifetime immersed in virtually every aspect of aviation and aerospace, and whose ideas are as vibrant and relevant today as they were 50 years ago. —JG


Who taught you how to fly?

I started flying lessons in 1933, at age 12, at a small airport in Wilmington, Calif., operated by Vaughn McNulty. I delivered the Long Beach Press Telegram to him, and traded the paper delivery and washing airplanes for flight time. Then I got into Civilian Pilot Training when that came along in the late '30s. My instructor was a Wyoming cowboy who had taught himself how to fly. He was tired of riding fences on horseback so he bought an old Jenny so he could fly the fences. When he saw a fence down he would throw out a paper sack of flour, then the next day he'd sit on a hill and spot the white marks and go fix the fence. He taught me how to fly "needle-bubble-airspeed" (which is needle-ball-airspeed upside down).

Were you flying general aviation through your days at NACA?

No. I went into the Navy right after the war started. Then after the Navy I flew very little GA. I flew in the reserves in Seattle in the 13th Naval District. I led the 13th Naval District Aerobatic Team in Corsairs. I had gone to the University of Washington before the war, and I went back after the war. I graduated in '49, stayed and got my masters in 1950, then I went to NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). I didn't fly GA until I bought a Bonanza in 1956, and I flew that during the X-15 program days. I flew it all over the country and never got paid a nickel for it. North American's lawyers didn't think it was safe for me to fly a Bonanza up to Edwards to fly the X-15. I could go by dog cart or automobile or horseback or walk and get paid, but they wouldn't pay for the trip to Edwards and back in the Bonanza. So I flew at my own expense.

When I went to the Apollo program, I was so busy that I couldn't keep the airplane. So I sold it, and did very little flying until the late '80s. My wife, who has always been a godsend as the wife of a pilot, said "If you don't start flying again now, you never will." I asked a friend who owned a Taylorcraft if I could fly his airplane. I figured if I could still land a taildragger in a gusty quartering tailwind, I still had the motor skills. I flew it, enjoyed it, had no problems — even after 20 years of not doing much — and I bought the Cessna 210 I have now. I've flown it 2,000 hours in the last ten years.

With P-51s and L-39s and Lancair 4s to pick from, there must be something special about your 1961 Cessna 210A.

Well, it's mine and it's paid for. It rolled out in December of 1960 and was the third A-model produced. Of those 2,000 hours, probably 1,950 of them have been by myself. I have no autopilot and I love to hand-fly it.

When I was at North American I flew over the San Gabriel mountains that separate the LA basin from Edwards, and I had to deal with the cloud deck that came in every night, but I came and went as I pleased. The company lawyers, who were already my enemies because they wouldn't pay for my flights, went bananas because their chief engineering test pilot didn't have an instrument ticket. I had taught instrument flight in WW II but I never had the piece of paper. I fixed that in 1989 and got my instrument rating.

Let's clear something up. You refused to fly the X-15 simulator. Is that because you're opposed to simulators in flight training?

  Scott Crossfield
I didn't want to fly the X-15 simulator other than for learning procedures and the layout of the cockpit because I didn't want to learn incorrect dynamic response. We didn't know what we had, and we were just guessing at the aerodynamic characteristics. It was very different from any airplane we had ever made in terms of mass distribution and control systems. So my refusal was based on flight dynamics, but I did use the simulator to help design control systems and to learn the layout.

Our reaction to Sputnik was to start a race for the moon. Did that divert us from what we should have been doing?

Very much so. The charter for NACA was very short — to study the problems of aeronautics with a view to their practical solutions. The NACA was the source of the fundamental technology that the manufacturers used to design airplanes. The research airplane program was established to study all the various configurations that could go transsonic and supersonic. Airplanes were financed by the military services, managed by the NACA, and each service branch procured them. The X airplanes were procured by the Air Corps — later the Air Force — and the Navy chose to leave the manufacturer's designation on the airplane, which is why we had the D-558 family. The plan was to use these planes to go transsonic, then supersonic, and gradually increase the speed until we were on our way to space. The X-15 was the last aerodynamic attempt to do that. In 1958 I was at North American, and we proposed an orbital X-15 for $58 million, contract price.

But in a knee-jerk reaction to Sputnik and Laika (the space dog), we went the blunt body route. I don't mean "knee-jerk" in a deprecatory way, but we were reacting to what the Russians were doing. In the meantime, we made what I consider a terrible mistake. When we created NASA, we legislated the separation of aeronautics and space — and we concentrated on space, while aeronautics were benched. Space, by forfeit, went to the Germans and the missile-eers, and they knew nothing about reliability. While they were still trying to get a missile off the ground, we had about 300 manned rocket flights in the X-1 and the D-558-II without a fatality. The Redstone in 1953 was the first thing made at Tullahoma that worked. So I'd say dropping aeronautics from the space effort set us back quite a bit, and it wasn't until the Apollo that North American brought manned-airplane discipline back to the space program, and that gave us some measure of reliability again.

One of our attempts to resurrect aeronautics was the National Aerospace Plane, and we almost got it pushed over the hill. But I was instrumental in canceling that program because it was becoming a money tree for industry and a bargaining chip for the Pentagon, and it started to contain every idiosyncratic idea that NASA had had on its shelves for years. They were arguing more about whether it should have one pilot or two than whether it could handle the heat transfers and the science. It would have been tough to do, but if we had done it we'd be 50 years ahead of where we are now. What we're seeing come out of earth orbit is fantastic, but we haven't seen yet what's going to happen when we put real computers up there — the human brain.

Should NASA define the goals and leave research and production to the private sector?

That's a very complex question. NASA's primary role is to develop the technology that is not within the capability of industry. Industry's primary role is to use that technology to create jobs and prosperity and advance our social lives.

  Scott Crossfield
What happened is NASA got into the business of procuring large systems and had no experience with that. They wound up creating a procurement process, which duplicated the military procurement process that took 200 years to evolve. I think a cooperative effort with the technological lead being NASA, the procurement lead being the military (who know how to procure large programs), and the engineering lead being industry is a pretty good combination. That's the military/industrial complex, which has proven to be a very powerful weapon against the world.

The research airplane program was pretty economical when you consider what we got for it. The entire program from the X-1 through the X-15 — 33 years with about 30 different configurations of about 13 different airplanes — all that explosion of technology and engineering, cost less than $500 million. Apollo cost about $40 billion.

Programs that don't make major milestones in five years are pretty much doomed to extinction. When you have the commitment to a dream — like Kennedy's dream to go to the moon — it worked. Apollo was the only program that was adequately funded to meet every need, but we can't afford to assassinate a president every time we want to unite the nation.

Is NASA on the right track with the Space Station and the Space Launch Initiative?

Yes and no. I have always maintained that our space policy should have two elements. One is a permanent U.S. manned presence in earth orbit for many military, scientific, political and social reasons, and we have that in the space station.

The second element is and a way to get there and back without the tremendous expense that we incur now for a trip, and we would have had that with the National Aerospace Plane derivatives. Our ideas reduced the pound-to-orbit cost by a factor of 100 by using an air-breathing vehicle, so you don't have to lift 78% of the payload as oxygen every time you get airborne. That oxygen is available for free from the atmosphere.

And because you would have visibility of the earth, I think it would also let us prevent any worldwide conflict for another century. You wouldn't need a weapon in space, just the ability to observe and respond. You would also have the capability of discovering underground water and minerals.

What I don't support is an international space station. I'm not a one-worlder, and I saw with AGARD (NATO's Advisory Group for Aerospace Research & Development) that it was a one-way street. All of our information went to our foreign allies and nothing came back. We paid for all of it. Bringing the Russians in may be smart because their engineering capability is easily equal to ours. We've had a disdain for their crude systems, which is a lot of baloney. They've had a space station up there for 15 years. They have aerodynamic and test capability at Tshagi that NASA would love to have. They have a wind tunnel there that can test at Mach 20, and the best we ever did of any size was about Mach 3. So even though they don't have money, they can contribute ideas.

President Kennedy gave you a couple of your awards. Did you know him well?

He gave me two awards, the Collier and the Harmon, but I didn't know him well. For a Democrat, he seemed to be a real smart guy. He did a lot of things his party didn't agree with. His party wanted the money he spent on Apollo to go for social programs.

Speaking of politics, did you ever consider running for office, or running one of the agencies?

I tried hard to get into the FAA at one time, but didn't get very far. I have a bad reputation for doing my own thing. That's the reason I never became an astronaut. I would turn off the radio if I didn't like the help I was getting from the ground, and the medicine men that were running the program thought that was too independent. They wanted medical subjects, not pilots.

We got the pilots we got because I was one of the three people on the selection team that chose the criteria. I insisted that they be fighter pilots or test pilots and engineers. The other two people on the board were General Flickenger and Randy Loveless, and they were both medical men. They were both wonderful, smart, men, but they had different axes to grind.

Tell us about the ideas you developed at Eastern Airlines to increase capacity.

  Hawker Siddeley
  Hawker-Siddeley HS-146
Eastern hated to admit it, but they were the largest short-haul airline in the world. By "short-haul" I mean flights under an hour — which is about the cutoff point for cabin services — to feed the major system. For those kind of flights we needed something better than a DC-9. So I was looking for a way to move all of those people into already crowded hubs, without adding traffic to the existing concrete, and we explored STOL (short takeoff and landing) and non-standard traffic patterns. The skies aren't that crowded. You can fly all day long and never see another airplane. And many airports aren't busy at some times of the day. Where the system bogs down is when they try to fly into the same airports at the same time.

We developed RNAV and on-board glideslope for a STOL airplane, so you could fly off-airways and fly steeper approaches than the high-speed transports, and cut the flight time substantially. By using short concrete and a steeper approach cone, we proved that we could come and go without affecting the traffic that was already flying between Washington and LaGuardia. The HS-146 specifications came out of that short-haul work.

Why didn't that concept catch on?

The young pilots and controllers thought it was great. The older controllers fought it like hell because they thought it threatened their job security. The older pilots didn't care if they could cut the flight time in half.

Congestion is much worse now than when you tackled it. What's your remedy?

The air side of the equation is not the problem. The ground side of the equation is a problem because everybody wants good air transportation but nobody wants new concrete.

You had an early form of ADS-B at Eastern, too. Tell us about that.

We did a lot of experimentation at Atlantic City combining RNAV with altitude control so you could fly by using a cockpit display of the traffic around you. Then you could follow the airplane ahead of you — same as we do in GA when we follow a Bonanza. The idea was to take some of the load off of the controllers, but again they fought it tooth and nail.

We also experimented using the DECCA navigation system and broadcasting our position using RTCA — the sideband of the company's dispatcher frequency. Then we had a screen in the dispatch office that showed where every one of Eastern's airplanes were. Our plan was to eventually put that display in the cockpit. We anticipated that it would give Eastern a tremendous competitive capability.

Besides your Cessna do you fly other general aviation, like balloons or gliders or seaplanes?

All I have is a single- and multiengine land, with an instrument rating for single-engine. I've flown in balloons and they're fun, but I get my enjoyment in the flexibility that my old airplane gives me.

General Yeager says the best time to be a pilot was after WW II. Do you agree with that?

I have always tried to encourage students to go into engineering, because the progress of civilization is based on our engineering work, from Roman aqueducts to roadways to washing machines.

Washington, Jefferson and Franklin were engineers, and they designed the country using the engineering method.

  • Concept = Freedom

  • Criteria = Declaration of Independence

  • Requirements = The Constitution

  • Performance Specifications = The Law of the Land

  • Detailed Specifications = The Legal Code

  • Operations and Manufacturing = The Administration

  • Quality Control = The Justice Department


Scott Crossfield on how the founding fathers used the engineering method to design the United States
The best time to be a pilot is anytime. The time of the Wright brothers, for instance, was a great time to be a pilot. I'd agree with Yeager that for an aviator of our vintage, the post-war time was fantastic. I don't know if we'll ever match the blend of man and machine, and the sheer enjoyment of progress that we made during that time.

That was the flying era, and the flying era has given way to other things. We're flying 30- and 40-year-old airplanes that are copies of 60- and 70-year old airplanes. Like the cowboy gave way to the train and the train gave way to the automobile, airplanes have done their thing and it's probably pretty much dead until the era of the small jet engine catches hold. An engine like Sam Williams' engines that weighs under 100 pounds that puts out 700 pounds of thrust is enough to get any aerodynamic designer drooling.

There has been very little aeronautical progress in the last 30 or 40 years, and there has been very little interest in progress except for business aviation. Airliners haven't changed much. General aviation is the wellspring of the nation's aeronautical and aerospace capability, and bureaucracy and litigation has killed that wellspring. Nobody wants to take risk — physical risk or economic risk.

Who are you in touch with from your days at Edwards?

Of course a lot of them are dead. I go to the SETP (Society of Experimental Test Pilots) symposium every year, and enjoy trading lies, but I have more fun at Oshkosh and Sun 'n Fun because that's where the fun is. There are some great kit airplanes out there as a result of the legislation on certified airplanes.

I'm not sure what you mean by that.

All of the liability problems of general aviation manufacturers were brought on by their own lawyers. They maintained that they couldn't afford to fight these cases, when in truth they couldn't afford not to. Ford fought their Pinto case to the Supreme Court and had a $125 million judgment against them thrown out of court. Nobody sues Ford capriciously anymore.

We wanted to bring that kind of a philosophy to GAMA (General Aviation Manufacturers Association) in the '70s, but they wanted nothing to do with it and I'm almost convinced they were in cahoots with the trial lawyers. The Kassebaum/Glickman liability legislation — and their intent was pure but they were being used — let the manufacturing industry ignore 80% of the AOPA fleet. Once responsibility went away, support went away, and that law basically legalized their obsolescence. The only good thing to come out of that is the kit business is designing some fine airplanes.

Tell us about the Scott Crossfield Aerospace Teacher of the Year Award.

Scott Crossfield
The National Congress on Aviation and Space Education meets somewhere in the South 48 each year. It is administered by the Civil Air Patrol with support from NASA and FAA. It is attended by teachers from all over the U.S. and many foreign countries. About a thousand teachers show up, from grades K to 12, all on their own time and expense, dedicated to adding aerospace education to their avocational love of teaching. They are the cream of the country, the wellspring of our future. I have attended for nearly 30 years and used to receive an honorarium. It dawned on me that teachers are not particularly well-paid. I couldn't take their money. I put the amount that I had received over the years into escrow and created an award for classroom teacher achievers to encourage further achievement. It has been a glorious success.

The 16 winners have raised their colors and have become major contributors in their state, and some nationally, to aerospace education. They call themselves the Crossfield Kids and support and share with each other across the country. The award is a $1,000 honorarium, their expenses paid to the annual Congress into perpetuity, and initiation into the Crown Circle, an aerospace education honorary society. One year Chuck Yeager, Adolf Galland, George Gay, Gabby Gabreski, Mary Feik, and Paul Garber all contributed their honorariums to the fund. Good folks, good idea.

Who won this year's award?

A retired Marine Colonel. Jack D. Howell, a mentor in the Jacksonville, Fla., Magnet Schools, was the winner this year and was presented with his award at The National Congress for Aviation and Space Education in Minneapolis on March 16, 2001.

You're giving speeches all the time but it's 40 years since your last book. Can we expect another one?

No. I haven't found much positive to write about. We've seen the overburdening growth of bureaucracy and litigation strangling aviation, and I don't want to write about it and people don't want to read about it. I was a research pilot and there's really no flight research going on today. I went Mach 2 in 1953 and the only airplanes that ever significantly exceeded Mach 2 — the SR-71, the XB-70 and the X-15 — are all in museums. I'm worried about that because we're not attracting young people into aviation. We shouldn't have to drive them into aviation — I never met a pilot worth his salt that needed to be driven into it — once they got the spark you couldn't keep them out!

That's the fault of my generation. We came out of the Depression, WW II and the GI bill mature before our time. That led to the most powerful explosion of technology that the world has ever seen. But, being old before our time, that generation had a very low tolerance for the naοvetι of youth, and we shut them out, and they became the dropout generation and the flower children. They didn't follow our explosion, they created their own with electronics and computers.

And electronics and computers are leading the way to unmanned space vehicles. Is that where research is headed?

We had a project called HIMAT, which they never dared fly outside the benign center of its flight envelope, because it couldn't handle it. We never flew the research airplanes in the benign center of the envelope, we were always out on the edge to see what the problems were. We were always facing structural breakups, except we went to altitude where the aerodynamic load would be lower. You can't do that kind of research with an unmanned vehicle. The X-15 taught us how to go high, and taught us about heat transfer. We didn't learn anything from HIMAT.

The brain can process nine billion binary units with instant response, which is beyond any silicon chip. That's what the Wright brothers used to build their airplane. My attitude is that flight is a human endeavor — so if it isn't manned, the hell with it.


Limited edition prints of William J. Reynolds' On The Way To The Stars are available. The painting celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the X-15, and the prints are signed and personalized by Scott Crossfield.

Scott books live engagements through the Aviation Speakers Bureau or 1-800-AIR-121.5.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.