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North American X-15 (autographed by Scott Crossfield) ~ 35% Off ~ Free Shipping

  • First Day Cover autographed by Scott Crossfield. Also a Shadow Box with a Model of the X-15
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Frame Size: 13" x 24" ~ Autographed by Scott Crossfield

Scott Crossfield

Aeronautical designer and test pilot who was the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound

 On November 20 1953, Scott Crossfield won the press billing of the "Fastest Man Alive" when he became the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound, taking his Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket to 1,291mph (Mach 2.005). Carried to 32,000 ft by a United States Navy B-29 Superfortress bomber, Crossfield climbed the rocket-powered aircraft to 72,000 ft, before diving to 62,000 ft.

Six years later he became the first man to fly the fabled X-15 rocket plane, piloting it in an unpowered glide from 37,550 ft. Having been involved in the X-15's design, he then completed its first powered flight that year, and later, after launching from a B52 Stratofortress, it reached 1,960 mph - approaching Mach 3 and an altitude of 81,000 ft. In other hands the aircraft would eventually fly at 4,520 mph (Mach 6.72) and climb 354,200 ft (67 miles), to the frontiers of space.

Crossfield, who has died aged 84 after his Cessna light plane crashed during a thunderstorm, was a former US navy flier. In 1950 he joined the high-speed flight research station of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) - the predecessor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) - as a test pilot. The location was Muroc Field in California, which that year became the Edwards air force base. Thus did he become one of a small group of elite flyers made famous as "the right stuff" by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 bestseller of the same name, later a Hollywood film.

Another of that group was the more famous, and popular, Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, in the rocket-propelled Bell X-1 in 1947. Crossfield insisted on calling Chuck "Charlie" and Yeager returned the lack of enthusiasm, describing Crossfield in his autobiography as "a proficient pilot, but also among the most arrogant I've met. None of us blue suiters [air force pilots] was thrilled to see a NACA guy bust Mach 2."

Yeager's irritation was increased because Crossfield deliberately stole his second chance at glory by breaking the double sound barrier during the 50th anniversary year of the Wright brothers' historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Crossfield recalled that the air force "was grooming Charlie Yeager to make Mach 2 and have that be the anniversary celebration. I thought it would be kind of interesting to beat him". On December 12 1953, in a greatly modified Bell X-1A, Yeager hit 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44) in level flight at 76,000 ft.

Although the courage Wolfe described was abundantly displayed by Crossfield - he narrowly missed death on two occasions - he did not necessarily subscribe to the legend. The 1983 film portrayed pilots enduring a violently shaking cockpit before approaching Mach 2 but Crossfield denied that this was the case in a 2003 television interview: "I will not endorse anything that was in The Right Stuff," he said.

Crossfield was born and raised in Berkeley, California. He became besotted with flying at the age of six when he first went aloft near his home. At the age of 12 he took his first flying lesson, in Wilmington, California, soloed at 13 and qualified at 15. "It was my generation's thing to do," he recalled. Having enrolled at the University of Washington he broke off his degree course to join the US navy in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

A navy flight instructor during the Second World War, he piloted various aircraft but did not fly any combat missions. After the war, he resumed his studies at Washington, worked on the universities wind-tunnel program, received a bachelor's degree and, in 1950, a master's in aeronautical engineering. This specialty was perhaps what separated him from adventure-loving fliers such as Yeager. It also meant he was involved in the design of the first full-pressure flight suit.

Crossfield left the NACA in 1955 and joined North American Aviation, and the X-15 program, as a test pilot and consultant. As a preparation for manned space flight - but from rockets not, like the X-15, a rocket plane - the aircraft played a vital role. As for Crossfield, he had brushed the brim of space but never became an astronaut. But it was during the X-15 era - on April 12 1961 - that the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok 1 space capsule made the first manned space flight, to an altitude of 187.75 miles.

For Crossfield, planes remained his favorite. He flew the X-15 more than 20 times, despite his two narrow escapes. On his third flight, one of the two rocket engines exploded and the aircraft broke in half just behind the cockpit during the emergency landing. Months later, an engine exploded during a ground test while he was in the cockpit. Both times he was unhurt.

From 1967 to 1973, he was an executive for Eastern Air Lines in Miami. In 1974 and 1975 he worked in Washington for the British company Hawker Siddeley Aviation on its HS 146 (now BAE 146) short haul airliner. From 1977 until retirement in 1993, he consulted for the congressional committee on science and technology.

It was an irony that, after surviving planes that probed the frontiers of technology, he should have died at the controls of his small civil aircraft in the mountains of Georgia. "But if he'd been given a choice," said his friend, retired US Marine Corps General John "Jack" Dailey, "he probably wouldn't have had it any other way. He would not have wanted it to happen on a front porch in a rocker."

His wife, Alice, two daughters, four sons and three grandchildren survive him.

· Albert Scott Crossfield, aeronautical engineer and test pilot, born October 2 1921; died April 19 2006

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