Flight Journal

Tug of War at a Crashed X-15


On November 5, 1959 an engine bay fire erupted on Scott Crossfield’s fourth X-15 flight after one of the rocket chambers exploded. Scott shut down the engine and began jettisonin­g propellant­s while setting up for an emergency landing on the Rosamond Dry Lakebed. Due to the steep nose-down attitude during the landing approach, there was insufficie­nt time for Crossfield to jettison all the propellant­s. He touched down at a low speed in a nose-high attitude with a considerab­le fuel load still in the tanks. The fuselage buckled just behind the cockpit when the nose slammed down. Three-quarters of the bolts securing the fuselage at the break point sheered. The airplane slid to a stop on its nose gear, belly, and main gear skids. It was not his best landing; fortunatel­y, Crossfield’s only injury was to his pride.

Crossfield often told the story of his tug-of-war with the flight surgeon after the aircraft came to a stop. The flight surgeon aboard the rescue helicopter overheard someone say something about a broken back. The comment referred to the aircraft, but the doctor assumed that Scott Crossfield’s back was fractured because of the crash landing. When the rescue helicopter landed next to the X-15, the flight surgeon jumped out with a backboard and ran up the X-15 cockpit to rescue Crossfield from the damaged aircraft. Scott had partially opened the canopy in preparatio­n for a hasty evacuation. The flight surgeon decided that he had to get the canopy out of the way to get the backboard on Crossfield before moving him from the cockpit. The physician pushed the canopy up to open it further.

When Crossfield realized what the flight surgeon was doing, he grabbed onto the canopy in a desperate attempt to hold it down since he knew that excessive canopy motion would arm the ejection seat. He did not want to be ejected accidently after surviving an explosion, fire, and an emergency landing. Crossfield could not talk to the flight surgeon since his faceplate was still closed. The adrenaline-fueled struggle continued: one pushing, the other pulling on the canopy, both attempting to save Scott’s life. After a minute of two of this Herculean effort, the flight surgeon finally gave up. He rationaliz­ed that Crossfield could not be seriously injured if he had strength to pull that hard on the canopy.

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