Scott Crossfield

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 bornOctober 2, 1921, in Berkeley, Calif. He took his first flight at age six in anoil company airplane, a flight that hooked him on aviation for life. DuringWorld 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 forAeronautics (NACA), and was a research pilot for the next five years at the HighSpeed Flight Research Station at Edwards, Calif. There he was the test pilot fornumerous 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 thanMach 2. He was also the first pilot to fly the X-15 and in 1960 became the firstman 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 flightsuit, which evolved into the pressure suits used by military pilots and NASAastronauts. In 1955 Crossfield joined North American Aviation as a pilot anddesign consultant on the X-15. He also was the first pilot to fly the T-39, themilitary version of the Sabreliner jet. He left North American in 1967, movingfirst to Eastern Airlines, then to Hawker-Siddley Aviation, then served as atechnical consultant to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Scienceand Technology.

Scott retired in 1993, but still flies his 1961 Cessna 210A to EAA Airventureat Oshkosh, Sun ‘n Fun, and other aviation celebrations around the country togive speeches that concentrate more on the future than on the past. Each year hepresents the A.Scott Crossfield Aerospace Teacher of the Year Award. His biography, AlwaysAnother Dawn, was published in 1960. Among his awards are the Collier Trophy(presented by President Kennedy) from the National Aeronautics Association, TheHarmon Trophy (also presented by President Kennedy) and the NASADistinguished Public Service Medal. In 1963, Crossfield was one of thecharter inductees to the AerospaceHall of Fame. In 1983, he was inducted into the NationalAviation Hall of Fame, and was presented with the Smithsonian NationalAir and Space Museum Trophy for Lifetime Achievement in November 2000.

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 inWilmington, Calif., operated by Vaughn McNulty. I delivered the Long Beach PressTelegram to him, and traded the paper delivery and washing airplanes for flighttime. 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. Hewas tired of riding fences on horseback so he bought an old Jenny so he couldfly the fences. When he saw a fence down he would throw out a paper sack offlour, then the next day he’d sit on a hill and spot the white marks and go fixthe fence. He taught me how to fly “needle-bubble-airspeed” (which isneedle-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 Iflew very little GA. I flew in the reserves in Seattle in the 13th NavalDistrict. I led the 13th Naval District Aerobatic Team in Corsairs. I had goneto the University of Washington before the war, and I went back after the war. Igraduated 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 aBonanza in 1956, and I flew that during the X-15 program days. I flew it allover the country and never got paid a nickel for it. North American’s lawyersdidn’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 theywouldn’t pay for the trip to Edwards and back in the Bonanza. So I flew at myown expense.

When I went to the Apollo program, I was so busy that I couldn’t keep theairplane. 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’tstart flying again now, you never will.” I asked a friend who owned aTaylorcraft if I could fly his airplane. I figured if I could still land ataildragger in a gusty quartering tailwind, I still had the motor skills. I flewit, enjoyed it, had no problems – even after 20 years of not doing much – andI bought the Cessna 210 I have now. I’ve flown it 2,000 hours in the last tenyears.

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

Well, it’s mine and it’s paid for. It rolled out in December of 1960 and wasthe third A-model produced. Of those 2,000 hours, probably 1,950 of them havebeen 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 thatseparate the LA basin from Edwards, and I had to deal with the cloud deck thatcame in every night, but I came and went as I pleased. The company lawyers, whowere already my enemies because they wouldn’t pay for my flights, went bananasbecause their chief engineering test pilot didn’t have an instrument ticket. Ihad taught instrument flight in WW II but I never had the piece of paper. Ifixed that in 1989 and got my instrument rating.

Let’s clear something up. You refused to fly the X-15 simulator. Is thatbecause 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 andthe layout of the cockpit because I didn’t want to learn incorrect dynamicresponse. We didn’t know what we had, and we were just guessing at theaerodynamic characteristics. It was very different from any airplane we had evermade in terms of mass distribution and control systems. So my refusal was basedon flight dynamics, but I did use the simulator to help design control systemsand to learn the layout.

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

Very much so. The charter for NACA was very short – to study the problems ofaeronautics with a view to their practical solutions. The NACA was the source ofthe fundamental technology that the manufacturers used to design airplanes. Theresearch airplane program was established to study all the variousconfigurations that could go transsonic and supersonic. Airplanes were financedby the military services, managed by the NACA, and each service branch procuredthem. 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 gotranssonic, then supersonic, and gradually increase the speed until we were onour way to space. The X-15 was the last aerodynamic attempt to do that. In 1958I 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 theblunt body route. I don’t mean “knee-jerk” in a deprecatory way, butwe were reacting to what the Russians were doing. In the meantime, we made whatI consider a terrible mistake. When we created NASA, we legislated theseparation of aeronautics and space – and we concentrated on space, whileaeronautics were benched. Space, by forfeit, went to the Germans and themissile-eers, and they knew nothing about reliability. While they were stilltrying to get a missile off the ground, we had about 300 manned rocket flightsin the X-1 and the D-558-II without a fatality. The Redstone in 1953 was thefirst thing made at Tullahoma that worked. So I’d say dropping aeronautics fromthe space effort set us back quite a bit, and it wasn’t until the Apollo thatNorth American brought manned-airplane discipline back to the space program, andthat gave us some measure of reliability again.

One of our attempts to resurrect aeronautics was the National AerospacePlane, and we almost got it pushed over the hill. But I was instrumental incanceling that program because it was becoming a money tree for industry and abargaining chip for the Pentagon, and it started to contain every idiosyncraticidea that NASA had had on its shelves for years. They were arguing more aboutwhether it should have one pilot or two than whether it could handle the heattransfers and the science. It would have been tough to do, but if we had done itwe’d be 50 years ahead of where we are now. What we’re seeing come out of earthorbit is fantastic, but we haven’t seen yet what’s going to happen when we putreal computers up there – the human brain.

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

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

Scott Crossfield

What happened is NASA got into the business of procuring large systems and hadno experience with that. They wound up creating a procurement process, whichduplicated the military procurement process that took 200 years to evolve. Ithink a cooperative effort with the technological lead being NASA, theprocurement lead being the military (who know how to procure large programs),and the engineering lead being industry is a pretty good combination. That’s themilitary/industrial complex, which has proven to be a very powerful weaponagainst the world.

The research airplane program was pretty economical when you consider what wegot for it. The entire program from the X-1 through the X-15 – 33 years withabout 30 different configurations of about 13 different airplanes – all thatexplosion of technology and engineering, cost less than $500 million. Apollocost about $40 billion.

Programs that don’t make major milestones in five years are pretty muchdoomed to extinction. When you have the commitment to a dream – like Kennedy’sdream to go to the moon – it worked. Apollo was the only program that wasadequately funded to meet every need, but we can’t afford to assassinate apresident every time we want to unite the nation.

Is NASA on the right track with the Space Station and the Space LaunchInitiative?

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

The second element is and a way to get there and back without the tremendousexpense that we incur now for a trip, and we would have had that with theNational Aerospace Plane derivatives. Our ideas reduced the pound-to-orbit costby a factor of 100 by using an air-breathing vehicle, so you don’t have to lift78% of the payload as oxygen every time you get airborne. That oxygen isavailable for free from the atmosphere.

And because you would have visibility of the earth, I think it would also letus prevent any worldwide conflict for another century. You wouldn’t need aweapon in space, just the ability to observe and respond. You would also havethe 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 wentto our foreign allies and nothing came back. We paid for all of it. Bringing theRussians in may be smart because their engineering capability is easily equal toours. 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 andtest capability at Tshagi that NASA would love to have. They have a wind tunnelthere that can test at Mach 20, and the best we ever did of any size was aboutMach 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 himwell. For a Democrat, he seemed to be a real smart guy. He did a lot of thingshis party didn’t agree with. His party wanted the money he spent on Apollo to gofor social programs.

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

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

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

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

Hawker Siddeley
Hawker-Siddeley HS-146

Eastern hated to admit it, but they were the largest short-haul airline in theworld. By “short-haul” I mean flights under an hour – which is aboutthe cutoff point for cabin services – to feed the major system. For those kindof flights we needed something better than a DC-9. So I was looking for a way tomove all of those people into already crowded hubs, without adding traffic tothe existing concrete, and we explored STOL (short takeoff and landing) andnon-standard traffic patterns. The skies aren’t that crowded. You can fly allday long and never see another airplane. And many airports aren’t busy at sometimes of the day. Where the system bogs down is when they try to fly into thesame airports at the same time.

We developed RNAV and on-board glideslope for a STOL airplane, so you couldfly off-airways and fly steeper approaches than the high-speed transports, andcut the flight time substantially. By using short concrete and a steeperapproach cone, we proved that we could come and go without affecting the trafficthat was already flying between Washington and LaGuardia. The HS-146specifications 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 controllersfought it like hell because they thought it threatened their job security. Theolder 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 equationis a problem because everybody wants good air transportation but nobody wantsnew 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 altitudecontrol 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 wefollow 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 ourposition using RTCA – the sideband of thecompany’s dispatcher frequency. Then we had a screen in the dispatch office thatshowed where every one of Eastern’s airplanes were. Our plan was to eventuallyput that display in the cockpit. We anticipated that it would give Eastern atremendous competitive capability.

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

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

General Yeager says the best time to be a pilot was after WW II. Do youagree 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, forinstance, was a great time to be a pilot. I’d agree with Yeager that for anaviator of our vintage, the post-war time was fantastic. I don’t know if we’llever match the blend of man and machine, and the sheer enjoyment of progressthat 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-yearold airplanes. Like the cowboy gave way to the train and the train gave way tothe automobile, airplanes have done their thing and it’s probably pretty muchdead until the era of the small jet engine catches hold. An engine like SamWilliams’ engines that weighs under 100 pounds that puts out 700 pounds ofthrust 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 businessaviation. Airliners haven’t changed much. General aviation is the wellspring ofthe nation’s aeronautical and aerospace capability, and bureaucracy andlitigation has killed that wellspring. Nobody wants to take risk – physicalrisk 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 tradinglies, but I have more fun at Oshkosh and Sun ‘n Fun because that’s where the funis. There are some great kit airplanes out there as a result of the legislationon certified airplanes.

I’m not sure what you mean by that.

All of the liability problems of general aviation manufacturers were broughton by their own lawyers. They maintained that they couldn’t afford to fightthese cases, when in truth they couldn’t afford not to. Ford fought their Pintocase to the Supreme Court and had a $125 million judgment against them thrownout 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 wantednothing to do with it and I’m almost convinced they were in cahoots with thetrial lawyers. The Kassebaum/Glickman liability legislation – and their intentwas pure but they were being used – let the manufacturing industry ignore 80%of the AOPA fleet. Once responsibility went away, support went away, and thatlaw basically legalized their obsolescence. The only good thing to come out ofthat 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 theSouth 48 each year. It is administered by the Civil Air Patrol with support fromNASA and FAA. It is attended by teachers from all over the U.S. and many foreigncountries. About a thousand teachers show up, from grades K to 12, all on theirown time and expense, dedicated to adding aerospace education to theiravocational love of teaching. They are the cream of the country, the wellspringof our future. I have attended for nearly 30 years and used to receive anhonorarium. It dawned on me that teachers are not particularly well-paid. Icouldn’t take their money. I put the amount that I had received over the yearsinto escrow and created an award for classroom teacher achievers to encouragefurther achievement. It has been a glorious success.

The 16 winners have raised their colors and have become major contributors intheir state, and some nationally, to aerospace education. They call themselvesthe 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 Congressinto perpetuity, and initiation into the Crown Circle, an aerospace educationhonorary society. One year Chuck Yeager, Adolf Galland, George Gay, GabbyGabreski, Mary Feik, and Paul Garber all contributed their honorariums to thefund. 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 TheNational 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 lastbook. Can we expect another one?

No. I haven’t found much positive to write about. We’ve seen the overburdeninggrowth of bureaucracy and litigation strangling aviation, and I don’t want towrite about it and people don’t want to read about it. I was a research pilotand there’s really no flight research going on today. I went Mach 2 in 1953 andthe only airplanes that ever significantly exceeded Mach 2 – the SR-71, theXB-70 and the X-15 – are all in museums. I’m worried about that because we’renot attracting young people into aviation. We shouldn’t have to drive them intoaviation – 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 andthe GI bill mature before our time. That led to the most powerful explosion oftechnology that the world has ever seen. But, being old before our time, thatgeneration had a very low tolerance for the navet of youth, and we shut themout, and they became the dropout generation and the flower children. They didn’tfollow our explosion, they created their own with electronics and computers.

And electronics and computers are leading the way to unmanned spacevehicles. 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 inthe benign center of the envelope, we were always out on the edge to see whatthe problems were. We were always facing structural breakups, except we went toaltitude where the aerodynamic load would be lower. You can’t do that kind ofresearch with an unmanned vehicle. The X-15 taught us how to go high, and taughtus about heat transfer. We didn’t learn anything from HIMAT.

The brain can process nine billion binary units with instant response, whichis beyond any silicon chip. That’s what the Wright brothers used to build theirairplane. My attitude is that flight is a human endeavor – so if it isn’tmanned, 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.