Higher & Faster: Memorial Fund Established for X-15 pilot Joseph A. Walker

A loud"Yippee" was heard over the radio, as Joe Walker landed the X-15. It was August4, 1960, and he had just flown the experimental aircraft nearly 2,200 mph. Thiswas only Walker's fourth flight in the rocketplane. His previous flight markedthe first time anyone had broken Mach 3 and survived, yet this flight wasspecial for him in that it had taken four attempts to fly. Three airborne abortsand nearly two months of weather delays had gotten Joe anxious to completeanother successful flight.

He hadnothing to worry about on this program, as he would be considered the mostsuccessful of the twelve pilots that flew this rocket research aircraft atspeeds and altitudes no one had ever flown before. Walker went on to fly theX-15 to an unofficial speed record of 4,104 mph on June 27, 1962, and on August22, 1963, reached an unofficial altitude record of 354,200 feet, proving onceagain that a winged-aircraft could be flown into space and landedsafely. This flight also marked Walker as the first ever civilian to flyinto space. He had twice before flown past the 50-mile altitude, recognized atthat time as a the demarcation to outer space; however, this one flight, takinghim 67 miles above the Earth, was the only time in the X-15 program a pilotflew above 100 kilometers, now the internationally-recognized limit forastronaut status.

Joe Walkerwas born February 20, 1921, and raised on a farm in Washington, Pennsylvania. He learned at an early age to work hard to achieve goals, and developeda thirst for knowledge. He began elementary school where several gradesshared one room in the schoolhouse. The teacher would instruct one agegroup while the others would work on their assignments. It wasn't unusualfor Walker to complete his assignments and join in on the discussions of ahigher grade. Joe was mechanically inclined, too. As an early teen,he took an old farm motor and an old buggy and built a scooter. He got thething to run, but, he forgot to incorporate brakes!

Hegraduated high school fourth in his class, and won a scholarship to Washington and Jefferson College in the fall of 1938. While in college, Joe taughtphysics, worked as a lab assistant and, of course, worked on thefarm. During his senior year, he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot TrainingProgram. The instructor told him he'd never be a pilot because he was toocautious. But Joe toughed it out, and when he took the aviation cadetexamination, he made the highest score of any aviation cadet in the Pittsburgh area. Joe graduated from Washington and Jefferson with a B.A. in physics andwent on to join the Army Air Force in 1942. He flew 58 missions between1943 and 1944 as a photo reconnaissance pilot in a modified P-38 Lightningfighter. Recon pilots had to depend heavily on their flying skills, asthey weren't equipped with much armament. This was great training for his nextprofession as a test pilot.

After thewar, Joe began working as a physicist with the National Advisory Committee onAeronautics (NACA, the precursor organization to present day NASA) in Cleveland, Ohio. However, when he heard a familiar sound--a P-38 firing up--it didn'ttake long for him to be back flying again. His research flights dealtmainly with aircraft icing both in the wind tunnel as well as in flight. In1951, Joe had a chance to transfer to NACA's High Speed Flight Station atEdwards AFB, California--and he took it. Just four years earlier, the X-1had broken the sound barrier, and Edwards was a hotbed of aeronauticalresearch. He began flying the B-29 mothership and then went on to fly someof the hottest X-planes available in the NACA hangars. Among them were theD-558-I, D-558-II, X-1A, X-3, X-4, and X-5. He was also involved inresearch projects with the F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, and B-47.

On a flightin the X-3 Stiletto, when Walker made an abrupt roll to the left, the aircraftsuddenly began to pitch and yaw. He had just experienced his first encounterwith inertial coupling. He managed to get the X-3 under control and triedthe maneuver again, this time in a dive. The X-3 suddenly pitched downwardand then abruptly pitched upward. Walker was able to regain control of theaircraft and landed promptly. The X-3 was instrumental in unlocking someof the mysteries of the phenomena known as roll coupling.

Joe Walkeris remembered most for his work with the X-15. The X-15 was the mostsuccessful X-plane ever built, paving the way for the space shuttle, as well asgathering valuable information for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apolloprojects. It flew higher and faster than any other winged aircraft, andduring the early 1960s, Walker was NASA's Chief Test Pilot for theX-15. It wasn't records that interested him, but the information thatcould be gleaned from every flight. Walker was a promoter of wingedspace-flight and was involved in the X-15 program since its inception. Hehelped solve design problems in the X-15 program from a pilot's point of viewusing his experience on previous research flights. As an advocate forbetter pilot instrumentation, Walker continually worked with the technicians toimprove the instrument display, giving the pilot essential data required forreentry into the atmosphere and safe landings.

Walkerworked to develop the reaction control system (RCS) used to adjust the attitudeof the X-15 while in the upper portion of the atmosphere where the dynamicpressure is so low that conventional flight controls such as flaps, ailerons,or speed brakes are useless. Testing of the hydrogen peroxide-fueled RCSwas done with the small rocket nozzles installed in the wings and nose of amodified F-104. Walker climbed into the JF-104 one morning and smelled hotperoxide. He immediately climbed out of the aircraft just before the H2SO4tank, located right behind the cockpit, exploded.

Joe Walkerleft the X-15 program after 25 flights between March 25, 1960, and August 22,1963, and then moved on to other challenges at NASA. He was the first topilot the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) which led to the development ofthe Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) used by astronauts like NeilArmstrong before they landed on the Moon. After leaving the LLRV project,he moved on to the XB-70 triple-sonic bomber research project. During thistime, he still served as chase pilot for various test programs and continued totravel across the country giving presentations on the X-15 and other researchprojects in progress at the NASA Flight Research Center (now known as Dryden Flight Research Center).

Walker was scheduled to make his firstflight in the XB-70 on June 9, 1966. However, on the morning of June 8, hewas flying chase to an XB-70 sonic boom test mission. After the flighttests were completed, several aircraft joined them in a photo opportunity forGeneral Electric, who had manufactured the jet engines used in all theaircraft. They wanted photos for their corporate brochure for an upcomingstockholder's meeting. The in-flight photographers urged the pilots totighten the formation for better photos. Due to the unique configurationof the XB-70, a wingtip vortex caught Walker's plane and the F-104N wascartwheeled over on top of the bomber, instantly killing Walker as his planecame apart and severed the tails from the bomber. XB-70 pilot Al White (backuppilot from North American Aviation on the X-15 program) was able to eject, butMajor Carl Cross was unable to operate the ejection system and went down withthe plane. Joseph A. Walker, an aviation icon was gone.

Walker received many awards for his life'sachievements, which included the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters,Distinguished Flying Cross, Octave Chanute Award, Iven C. Kincheloe Award,American Airlines Admiral of the Flagship Fleet Award, Harmon InternationalTrophy for Aviators, Robert J. Collier Award, David C. Schilling Award, and theNational Pilots Association's Pilot of the Year. His alma mater awardedhim an honorary doctorate degree in Aeronautical Sciences, and there's even acrater on the Moon named after him! His family was awarded posthumousastronaut wings in a ceremony at the Dryden Flight Research Center, August 23, 2005, this was 42 years and one day after his last X-15 flight. 

Forty yearsafter his death, some aviation enthusiasts have banded together to create theJoseph A. Walker Memorial Fund. The main goals of the Fund are two-fold:1) to preserve our nation's historical experimental aircraft; and 2) to givefinancial support to send a student and faculty staff member from Joseph A. Walker Middle School in Quartz Hill, California, to a session of Space Camp eachsummer.

Other goalsof the fund include: 1) placement of a plaque honoring Joe Walker and USAFMajor Carl Cross at the F-104N/XB-70 crash site about 10 miles outside Barstow,California; 2) development of a partnership between the Joe Walker MiddleSchool and a school from his home-town of Washington, Pennsylvania; 3)placement of a model of the X-15 on the grounds of the Joe Walker MiddleSchool; and 4) a yearly celebration of Joe Walker's life and achievements

On June 8,2006, a large white cross was erected at the site where the fuselage of Walker's F-104 came to rest on the desert floor exactly 40 years previously. Severalaviation enthusiasts from the X-Hunters organization, Joe Walker's son Jim, andmembers of the Orange County Space Society were on hand to pay their respectsto Joe Walker and Major Carl Cross, heroes of aviation history that helped paveour way to the stars.

The OrangeCounty Space Society has supported Cathie Godwin in the creation of the JosephA.Walker Memorial Fund. This article will introduce our readers to a test pilotextraordinaire who lost his life in the pursuit of the dream of aeronautics andspace. The article explains the purpose of the fund and we encourage fellowspace enthusiasts to contribute to the fund. You may do so through our web siteat www.OCSpace.org.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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