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Gander and Area Chamber of Commerce Aviation Dollars
2009 Aviation DollarNorth American Aviation X-15

The North American Aviation X-15, a rocket-powered research aircraft, bridged the gap between manned flight in the atmosphere and space flight. After its initial test flights in 1959, the X-15 became the first winged aircraft to attain hypersonic velocities of Mach 4, 5 and 6 (four to six times the speed of sound) and to operate at altitudes well above 30,500 metres (100,000 feet).

The North American X-15 rocket-powered aircraft was part of the X-series of experimental aircraft, beginning with the Bell X-1, that were made for the USAF, NASA and the USN. The Bell X-1 was the first manned aircraft to break the speed of sound, piloted by Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager on October 14, 1947. The first X-15 flight was an unpowered test flight by Scott Crossfield on June 8, 1959; he also piloted the first powered flight, on September 17, 1959.

The X-15 set speed and altitude records in the early 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and returning with valuable data used in aircraft and spacecraft design. It currently holds the world record for the fastest speed ever reached by a manned aircraft.

Three X-15s were built, flying 199 test flights, the last on October 24, 1968. Twelve test pilots flew the X-15, among them Neil Armstrong (first man on the moon) and Joe Engle (later a space shuttle commander). During the X-15 program, 13 flights by eight pilots met the USAF space flight criteria by exceeding the altitude of 50 miles (80.47 km/264,000 ft), thus qualifying the pilots for astronaut status; some pilots also qualified for NASA astronaut wings.

In addition, two of those flights qualified as space flights under the international FAI definition by exceeding a 100 kilometre (62.137 mile/328,084 ft) altitude. In July and August of 1963, pilot Joe Walker crossed the 100 km altitude mark twice, thus joining the NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts as the only men to have crossed the barrier into outer space. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space on April 12, 1961, while Alan B. Shepard, Jr., became the first American in space on May 5, 1961.

The altitudes attained by the X-15 aircraft do not match that of Alan Shepard's 1961 NASA space capsule flight (116 miles), nor subsequent NASA space capsules and space shuttle flights. However, the X-15 flights did reign supreme among rocket-powered aircraft until the third space flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne in 2004.