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Born in Berkeley, California, Crossfield grew up in California and Washington. He served with the U.S. Navy as a flight instructor and fighter pilot during World War II. From 1946-1950, he worked in the University of Washington's Kirsten Wind Tunnel while earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautical engineering. In 1950, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' High-Speed Flight Station (now the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as an aeronautical research pilot. In those early days, it was called Muroc Field, reverse spelling of the wealthy California Corum family who donated the land to the Army Air Corps. Crossfield joined the Navy because he could enter flight training two weeks earlier than a date offered by the Army Air Corps.
Over the next five years, he flew nearly all of the experimental aircraft under test at Edwards, including the X-1, XF-92, X-4, X-5, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.
On November 20, 1953, he became the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound as he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of 1,291 mph -Mach 2.005). The Skyrocket D-558-II surpassed its intended design speed by 25 percent on that day. With 99 flights in the rocket-powered X-1 and D-558-II, he had — by a wide margin — more experience with rocketplanes than any other pilot in the world by the time he left Edwards to join North American Aviation in 1955. As North American's chief engineering test pilot, he played a major role in the design and development of the X-15 and its systems.
Once it was ready to fly, it was his job to demonstrate its airworthiness at speeds ranging up to Mach 3. Because the X-15 and its systems were unproven, these tests were considered extremely hazardous. Scott Crossfield not only designed the X-15 from the beginning, but introduced many innovations, to include putting engine controls of the rocket plane into the cockpit. Previously, all engine adjustments resulted from technicians making adjustments on the ground based upon results of flight profiles.
In a 2000 public lecture, 'Scotty' (as he was known to friends) described how the X-15 aeronautical calculations and design required computing power that filled four 10x12 rooms. He went on to say that these very same calculations could be performed today on a notebook computer. He also hinted that Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composite company were performing pioneering work for a private aircraft to take-off from an airport, fly into outer space, and return to that airport. In 2004, White Knight carried Space Ship One to its successful launch and winning of the Ansari X-Prize, the first attempt since the X-15 cancellation.
It was during this time that Crossfield was part of the Air Force's Man In Space Soonest project.
On June 8, 1959, he completed the airplane's first flight, an unpowered glide from 37,550 feet. On September 17, 1959, he completed the first powered flight. Because of delays in the development of the X-15's mammoth 57,000 pounds force (254 kN) thrust XLR-99 engine, the early flights were completed with a pair of interim XLR-11 rocket engines.
Shortly after launch on his third flight, one of these engines exploded. Unable to jettison his propellants, Crossfield was forced to make an emergency landing during which the excessive load on the aircraft broke its back just behind the cockpit. He was uninjured and the airplane was repaired. During descent, the cockpit windows completely frosted and Crossfield was literally flying blind. Ever resourceful, he removed a flight boot, took off his sock, and created a peep hole to reference his chase plane wingman all the way to landing.
On June 8, 1960, he had another close call during ground tests with the XLR-99 engine. He was seated in the cockpit of the No. 3 X-15 when a malfunctioning valve caused a catastrophic explosion. Remarkably, he was once again uninjured and the airplane was completely rebuilt. On November 15 of the same year, he completed the X-15's first powered flight with the XLR-99 engine. Two flights later, on December 6, he brought North American's demonstration program to a successful conclusion as he completed his final flight in the X-15. Although it had been his hope to eventually pilot one of the craft into space, the USAF would not allow it, and gave strict orders which basically amounted to "stay in the sky, stay out of space."
Altogether, he completed 16 captive carry (mated to the B-52 launch aircraft), one glide and 13 powered flights in the X-15. The surprise X-15 retirement after its record setting Mach 6.72 flight because of funding cutbacks led pilot Joe Engle to remark that if he knew it was the last flight, he would have pushed it to even faster speeds. Crossfield in his remarks to a number of aviation groups cited this as one of few aircraft programs in which grown men cried when it was cancelled.
He remained at North American as systems director of test and quality assurance in the company's Space and Information Systems Division where he oversaw quality, reliability engineering and systems test activities for such programs as the Apollo command and service modules and the Saturn II booster.
In 1966, he became the division's technical director for research engineering and test. In 1967, he joined Eastern Air Lines where he served as a division vice president for research and development and, subsequently, as a staff vice president working with U.S. military and civilian agencies on air traffic control technologies.
In 1974-1975, he worked for Hawker-Siddeley as a senior vice president supporting HS 146 activities in the United States. In 1977, he joined the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology where he served, until his retirement in 1993, as a technical adviser on all aspects of civil aviation research and development and became one of the nation's leading advocates for a reinvigorated research airplane program.
Crossfield was played by Scott Wilson in the 1983 film The Right Stuff.
From 2001-2003, Crossfield trained pilots Terry Queijo, Kevin Kochersberger, Chris Johnson and Ken Hyde for The Wright Experience, which prepared to fly a reproduction Wright Flyer on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight on December 17, 1903. The training was successful, but the recreation of the flight on December 17, 2003 was ultimately not successful due to low engine power and the flyer's rain-soaked fabric covering which added considerably to its takeoff weight. The Wright replica did fly successfully at Kitty Hawk after the Centennial jubilee but without media coverage.
In one sense, it was only fitting that Crossfield conduct this experimental flight training because all pilots in this project had to unlearn their considerable flying experience and learn forgotten Wright brothers techniques.
Years earlier, Crossfield demonstrated his flight test skills on his very first student solo. His instructor was not available on the designated early morning, so Crossfield, on his own, took off and went through manuevers he had practiced with his instructor, to include spin entry and spin recovery. During the first spin, Crossfield experienced vibrations, banging, and noise in the aircraft that he had never encountered with his instructor. He recovered, climbed to a higher altitude, and repeated his spin entry and spin recovery, getting the same vibration, banging and noice. On his third spin entry, at yet an even higher altitude, he looked over his shoulder as he was spinning and observed the instructor's door disengaged and flapping in the spin. He reached back, pulled the door close, and discovered all the vibrations, banging and noise stopped. Satisfied, he recovered from the spin, landed (actually, did several landings), and fueled the airplane. He also realized his instructor had been holding the door during their practice spin entries and recoveries, and never mentioned this door quirk. In later years, Crossfield often cited his curiosity about this solo spin anomaly and his desire to analyze what was going on and why it happened, as the start of his test pilot career.
When asked to name his favorite airplane, Crossfield replied, "the one I was flying at the time," because he thoroughly enjoyed them all and their specialness. To young teens, he would compare airplanes to different girls or boys they would date: each one was special and a learning experience.
Fatal Crash and Reactions
On April 19, 2006, a Cessna 210 piloted by Crossfield was reported missing while flying from Prattville, Alabama, toward Herndon, Virginia. On April 20, authorities confirmed his body was found in the wreckage of his plane in a remote area of Gordon County, Georgia. There were severe thunderstorms in the area when air traffic monitors lost radio and radar contact with Crossfield's plane.
While lightning itself poses a relatively minor risk to all-metal aircraft like Crossfield's, thunderstorms often contain turbulence severe enough to break an aircraft into pieces, as well as strong downdrafts, heavy rain, severe icing, and heavy hail. The Gordon County Sheriff's department reported that debris from Crossfield's aircraft was found in three different locations within a quarter mile, suggesting that the plane broke up while it was still in the air.
Scott was returning from Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, where he had given a talk. He was survived by his wife of sixty years, Alice Crossfield; six children; and two grandchildren.
Chuck Yeager, a colleague and rival of Crossfield at the High-Speed Flight Station during the 1950s, blamed the crash on Crossfield's "complacency". In an interview after the crash,Yeager stated that he was "sure sorry to hear" about the fatal accident, but that Crossfield had a habit of flying in bad weather and, at times, "exceeded his capability and got in trouble." Crossfield had not commented on Yeager's own, non-fatal accident in 2003.
Crossfield and Yeager often kidded and ribbed each other in the media, with Crossfield playing the straight man. However, on weather matters, Crossfield got thorough weather briefings, whether it was performing the primary test flight on the Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet transport, flying his Beech Bonanza, or before his fatal flight on a Cessna 210 that was not weather-radar equipped. Aircraft Owner and Pilot Association President Phil Boyer said, "No one loved flying more than Scott Crossfield. I've known him since I first came to Washington. I can't think of anyone with more varied aviation experience. And while we don't know yet what caused the accident, it certainly gives us all pause to remember that weather is no respecter of experience or fame."
Scott Crossfield received the Lawrence Sperry Award, Octave Chanute Award,Iven C. Kincheloe Award, Harmon International Trophy, the Collier Trophy, and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal (1993), and was named Honorary Fellow by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (1999). He has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1983), the International Space Hall of Fame (1988), and the Aerospace Walk of Honor (1990). He also had an elementary school named in his honor near his last residence, in Herndon, Virginia. A ribbon named after him is one of the Aerospace Education Awards in the Civil Air Patrol Senior Members program. While he was celebrated as a daring test pilot, he claimed that his actual profession was an engineer. "I am an aeronautical engineer, an aerodynamicist and a designer. My flying was only primarily because I felt that it was essential to designing and building better airplanes for pilots to fly." . Even so, Crossfield often performed much of the dangerous initial test flight profiles with a small cadre of other test pilots before active duty Air Force and Navy test pilots were turned loose in the experimental aircraft. Crossfield opined his military, NACA, and NASA flight test job was to prepare military test pilots to earn recognition for aeronautical firsts by giving them solid flight data.
To friends and protegees, Crossfield was incredibly generous with his time and his insights. A morning meet for a cup of coffee could easily turn into a three-hour chat about almost anything. One such chat was his first meeting with Vice President Nixon about test flight; Nixon remarked about the danger of flying. Crossfield replied, "I think you are in a much more precarious position, sir, as an elected official," then wryly remarked he predicted Watergate fallout well before any other person. To an even smaller group of those who were close, Crossfield discussed distinguishing capabilities of test pilots and who could be counted upon to get recurring reliable data on profile flights and those who were assigned to the chase planes.