Imagine sitting in the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane at six times the speed of sound—one mile per second—and have this happen. Just a day at work in 1961 for test pilot Bob White.

White was a World War 2 and Korean War fighter ace who became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base after his combat career, and was the Air Force’s chief pilot for the X–15 program. That black rocket plane which has held the speed record for manned airplanes since 1967 at Mach 6.7.

The day was November 9, 1961. The X–15 was mid-engined, just like the Ferrari Sharknose which won the Formula One world championship that year, but instead of a 190 HP 1.5-liter V6, the engine was an XLR99 rocket, developing 70,000 pounds of thrust at altitude, just a hair less than the Redstone rocket which delivered the first two Mercury spacecraft to sub-orbit. Just imagine. You’re sitting there, right in front of this giant rocket engine at full throttle, covering a mile every second, when pop, there goes your windshield, er, canopy. And then you get lucky because the pieces don’t blow out.


White landed the plane and became the first man to pilot his way beyond Mach 6. Next summer, he flew the X–15 into space—the first man to do so in a piloted craft. And unlike the many, many test pilots who did not survive their jobs in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, White lived on to a ripe old age. He passed away last Wednesday at 85.

Photo Credit: NASA (1, 2), U.S. Air Force