Remembering Scott Crossfield
a personal view

A day after Scott Crossfield died on April 19, 2006 the SierraFoot home page  added a photo and a line of text that simply described him as an aerospace pioneer, engineer, research pilot, and a true gentleman. Many people are well aware of his accomplishments, this note is more about his character than those achievements. Much of this follows from my one personal meeting with Crossfield, in late September, 2001 at the Hotel Bonaventure in L.A.

Starting in the 1950s all test pilots and research pilots were also engineers. From the X-15 program three people stand out at least as much for their engineering work as for their piloting:  Scott Crossfield, Neil Armstrong, and Milt Thompson. Crossfield was influential in starting the X-15 program, and left test flying duties to work on it for North American Aviation as an engineer with special insight from piloting experience in several X planes.

Crossfield resumed test flight activities as a North American employee, shepherding the new and exotic aircraft through its earliest qualification flights and several adventures. One was the explosion and fire in the rocket bay on the third powered flight, leading to an emergency landing on Rosamond Dry lake that buckled the fuselage. A radio call said that the X-15 had broken its back, but the flight surgeon heard this as a report that Crossfield himself had broken his back. Racing to the X-15, he tried urgently to open the canopy to reach Crossfield, giving the pilot cause for alarm because the ejection seat was still armed and raising the canopy could have triggered an actual ejection. A wrestling match to control the canopy ensued between the two men. Scott described this humorously, envisioning headlines in the next day's newspaper saying "Flight surgeon killed by blast as test pilot soars 200 feet over Mojave Desert, clutching parachute to his chest".

Moving from the role of pilot to that of engineer, Crossfield and another engineer soon diagnosed the main cause of the structural failure, finding that it occurred on the second compression of the nose gear strut, not on the first impact and rebound. The first compression caused the oleo's hydraulic fluid to foam, so that there was very little shock absorption when needed the second time. There was also a question of whether late gear extension had allowed the strut to extend fully before touchdown. The publicly given reason, an overweight landing, could be more easily understood by the public but it wasn't right:  Crossfield had been able to jettison as much unused alcohol and LOX as was physically possible, and the residual quantities in the tanks were small enough to keep the X-15 well below its landing weight limit.

When North American turned over the three X-15s to NASA and the Air Force for their flight research program it was not possible for Crossfield to rejoin NASA and to participate as a research pilot. Some people would have been frustrated that they could not engage in the major research objectives that they had already been working toward. Instead, Crossfield honestly expressed pleasure and satisfaction that he had been able to spend 9 years of his life with the X-15 and that this enabled others to press on with what proved to be the most successful and significant of all X-plane research programs.

Scott Crossfield showed exceptional kindness and respect for others. If he ever pushed the limits of honesty it was to give credit to someone else when in fact the credit might not always have been due. For example, he acknowledged respect for Chuck Yeager and credited him with probably being the only pilot at Edwards who could save the X-1A when it departed from controlled flight above Mach 2. Crossfield believed that Yeager saved it by deliberately applying full pro-spin controls, ultimately returning the aircraft from a wild tumble to an inverted spin. That allowed returning to normal flight by way of conventional spin recovery.

Three years later I asked Yeager about it. It was surprising to learn that he had not used the recovery technique that Crossfield credited him for and that entry to the inverted spin was purely by chance. It turned out to be Crossfield rather than Yeager whose thoughts engaged on this as an emergency recovery procedure for the X-1A's violent tumble.

Scott Crossfield was by nature an ambassador of good will, especially in aviation and space. Perhaps his greatest public visibility was at the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, where he appeared for many years. Long ago I observed to NASA Dryden's historian that it seemed as if whenever a good photo from the X-15 program turned up there was a really good chance that Scott Crossfield had already signed it. On the professional side, he was still active in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He was in fact one of SETP's 6 founders half a century ago.

At the end of our meeting in 2001 I asked if he could log some X-15 ground instruction time in my own glider logbook. He smiled, asked for the book, and instead logged something even better:  An aborted X-15 flight, with zero time of course because we were in L.A. and 66670, the #1 X-15, is still hanging in the Smithsonian NASM's Milestones of Flight Gallery.

My glider log, endorsed by Scott Crossfield\
My glider log, abort endorsed by Scott Crossfield

As my meeting with Crossfield ended, on a day only a couple weeks after 9/11,  he turned to another retired member of SETP member at the hotel and asked "How do we get back on combat duty?". I have no doubt that he was ready, willing and able to to exactly that, to defend our country, even then at age 81.

Scott Crossfield was not only a distinguished aviator, he was a true gentleman and a first-class human being.

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