Scott Crossfield

Record-breaking test pilot
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The Independent Online

Scott Crossfield was fighting off the flu on 20 November 1953 when he climbed into his Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Shortly afterwards the experimental plane was dropped from a modified B-29 bomber. Crossfield climbed to 72,000 feet and then dived to 62,000 feet. During the descent his speed exceeded 1,320mph - making him the first man in history to fly at twice the speed of sound.

In later life, he was nonchalant about his feat. Mach 2 "wasn't a very big deal", Crossfield said in 2000. "The media made more of it than we did." But the milestone secured Crossfield a pre-eminent place in the second heroic age of flight, in the two decades after the Second World War. As Tom Wolfe put it in The Right Stuff, the "righteous brethren judged each other by who got the first flight. Those who didn't were left behind."

The period began in 1947, when the US Air Force pilot and wartime fighter ace Charles "Chuck" Yeager broke the speed of sound in the Bell X-1. By the era's end America and the Soviet Union had led the world into the space age. And one of the most intriguing human subplots was the competition between Yeager and Crossfield, who was then working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later to become Nasa).

Crossfield liked to needle Yeager by calling him "Charlie", not "Chuck". In his 1985 autobiography, the latter saluted his rival as a highly proficient pilot, "but also among the most arrogant I've met". And he added, "None of us blue-suiters [members of the air force] was thrilled to see a Naca guy bust Mach 2."

Hardly surprisingly, Crossfield's record lasted barely a month. Yeager and his colleagues arranged a series of flights they called "Operation Naca Weep", and duly wrested back the crown in time to spoil the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, in which Naca was planning to fête its star pilot as "the fastest man alive".

Scott Crossfield's passion for flying began at six years old, when he was taken up for the first time from an airfield in Wilmington, California, where his father was an executive of an oil company. At the age of 17 he made his first solo flight. He paid for his flying lessons by washing planes on the ground.

After serving as a navy pilot and flight instructor in the Second World War, he took a degree in aeronautical engineering and in 1950 joined Naca as a test pilot at Edwards. There he logged more hours in the Sky-Rocket and other rocket-powered aircraft over the next five years than any other pilot - Yeager included.

In 1955 Crossfield left Naca for North American Aviation, which was then developing the X-15, ultimately capable of over 4,000mph, and the most sophisticated of the new generation of rocket planes that were forerunners of the space shuttle.

He flew the X-15 for the first time in June 1959, and was at the controls for its first eight flights, and for over two dozen in all. In one of them, at an altitude of over 88,000 feet (16 miles), he took the plane to 1,960mph, making him the first man to brush the Mach 3 mark.

Crossfield's experiences with the X-15 also included two very close shaves. In the first, on just his third flight, one of the craft's two rocket engines blew up. Somehow Crossfield brought it down, but on landing the X-15 broke in two, just behind the cockpit. The pilot was unscathed, however - just as he was in a later incident, when an engine blew up during a ground test while he was in the cockpit.

Crossfield left North American in 1967, and became an executive for the now defunct Eastern Airlines, and then a senior vice-president at Hawker Siddeley Aviation. Until the end of his life he made regular public appearances, frequently at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, where both the SkyRocket and an X-15 he flew are on display.

It was while returning three days ago from a lecture at Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama, that the single-engine Cessna 210A he was piloting crashed in a thunderstorm in the mountains of north- eastern Georgia.

Rupert Cornwell