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North American X-15

The North American X-15 is a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft.

It was operated by the United States Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as part of the X-plane series of experimental aircraft.

The X-15 set speed and altitude records in the 1960s, reaching the edge of outer space and returning with valuable data used in aircraft and spacecraft design.

The X-15’s highest speed, 4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h; 2,021 m/s), was achieved on 3 October 1967, when William J. Knight flew at Mach 6.7 at an altitude of 102,100 feet (31,120 m), or 19.34 miles.

This set the official world record for the highest speed ever recorded by a crewed, powered aircraft, which remains unbroken.

During the X-15 program, 12 pilots flew a combined 199 flights. 

Of these, 8 pilots flew a combined 13 flights which met the Air Force spaceflight criterion by exceeding the altitude of 50 miles (80 km), thus qualifying these pilots as being astronauts.

The Air Force pilots qualified for military astronaut wings immediately, while the civilian pilots were eventually awarded NASA astronaut wings in 2005, 35 years after the last X-15 flight.

The X-15 was based on a concept study from Walter Dornberger for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) for a hypersonic research aircraft.

The requests for proposal (RFPs) were published on 30 December 1954 for the airframe and on 4 February 1955 for the rocket engine.

The X-15 was built by two manufacturers: North American Aviation was contracted for the airframe in November 1955, and Reaction Motors was contracted for building the engines in 1956.

Like many X-series aircraft, the X-15 was designed to be carried aloft and drop launched from under the wing of a B-52 mother ship.

Air Force NB-52A, “The High and Mighty One” (serial 52-0003), and NB-52B, “The Challenger” (serial 52-0008, a.k.a. Balls 8) served as carrier planes for all X-15 flights.

Release of the X-15 from NB-52A took place at an altitude of about 8.5 miles (13.7 km) and a speed of about 500 miles per hour (805 km/h).

The X-15 fuselage was long and cylindrical, with rear fairings that flattened its appearance, and thick, dorsal and ventral wedge-fin stabilizers.

Parts of the fuselage (the outer skin) were heat-resistant nickel alloy (Inconel-X 750). 

The retractable landing gear comprised a nose-wheel carriage and two rear skids.

The skids did not extend beyond the ventral fin, which required the pilot to jettison the lower fin just before landing.

The lower fin was recovered by parachute.


Only three airframes were built.


56-6670, 81 free flights

X-15-2 (later X-15A-2)


31 free flights as X-15-2, 22 free flights as X-15A-2; 53 in total


56-6672, 65 free flights, including the Flight 191 disaster


52-003 nicknamed The High and Mighty One (retired in October 1969)


52-008 nicknamed The Challenger, later Balls 8 (retired in November 2004)





50 ft 9 in (15.47 m)


22 ft 4 in (6.81 m)


13 ft 3 in (4.04 m)

Wing area

200 sq ft (19 m2)

Empty weight

14,600 lb (6,622 kg)

Gross weight

34,000 lb (15,422 kg)


1 × Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-2 liquid-fuelled rocket engine,

70,400 lbf (313 kN) thrust


Maximum speed

4,520 mph (7,270 km/h, 3,930 kn)


280 mi (450 km, 240 nmi)

Service ceiling

354,330 ft (108,000 m)

Rate of climb

60,000 ft/min (300 m/s)





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