A Side Light of The X-15 Program


As it turned out, on that morning in the desert in 1960, where they were dropping the X-15, there could be some doubt as to who was in the most danger, i.e. was it the pilot flying the X-15 or Bob Mosley flying a lumbering C-130?

                                                       THE LUMBERING C-130

Here is the story; you be the judge.

Most anyone interested in Aviation knows pretty well that the X-15 was a rocket ship, taken aloft by a B-52 bomber. It was released from the bomber at a very high altitude (like 43,000 feet). The X-15’s rocket engines were then ignited and the pilot steered the X-15 to various altitudes, at various speeds; speeds and altitudes never before traveled by man. Upon rocket burn out the pilot initiated a long glide back to the Muroc Dry Lake adjacent to Edwards AFB, upon which he made a “dead stick” landing; sliding across the dry lake bed on two skids, it used as the main gear, and a normal dual rubber tired nose gear/wheel.

As can be seen, such a mission was a series of events, where things could go wrong, which was further compounded by countless other “unknown events “ that could go wrong as well. It was a test flight program that epitomized the essence of the Edwards AFB Flight Test Center’s logo, Ad Explorata; Toward the Unknown.

Now on the “fringes” of such an ambitious test program were numerous support functions that had to be performed also; not necessarily demanding or news worthy functions, but still required functions, e.g. telemetry, chase planes, hazardous fuel handling, and on and on.

Once I had an experience, while performing one of these X-15 support functions, that may well have been more exciting than anything the X-15 pilot encountered that day. On this support mission, I was to fly a C-130 transport with a big 0 -10 fire truck, a fire crew, an X-15 ground crew, a trailer with gasoline in it, and other rescue personnel and equipment on board, out to a dry lake bed about 100 miles to the east of Edwards AFB (almost directly under where the release point was going to be). This was required so as to be able to support the X-15 pilot/aircraft, in case the pilot did not get a good rocket start after separation, and thus would have to make an emergency landing on the lake bed below.--------- Now, I had been fortunate enough to be the copilot of the B-52 drop Aircraft, on some occasions in the past, wherein I got to see one of the most beautiful sights you can see, i.e. when the X-15 pilot would light off the rockets and zoom right up /out front of you, with the beautiful white plume from the rockets, billowing out against the “purplish” looking sky at 43,000 feet.

 But, on this mission I was going to get to see the X-15 from the ground; the ground directly beneath it, when it dropped. This diversity in missions added to the pleasure of being a Test Pilot at Edwards AFB, in that you got to do so many different and interesting things, i.e. if you were not busy doing your own assigned testing, you helped others do their testing; when needed.

The first part of my mission that day went well. We made the usual early morning toke off (most testing required early take offs for calm air) and we arrived at our dry lake bed in short order. I cannot recall the name of the lake bed, but it had absolutely no facilities of any kind. It was just a Dry Lake Bed. The equipment/people we airlifted was/were unloaded and everyone set up their equipment as required; then we waited. Then we waited some more, and as I remember, it was around 11:00 AM before the drop actually occurred and by that time it was getting pretty hot, out in the direct sun light, on the lake bed.---- The drop went well. The X-15 pilot got a good rocket start and zoomed away into space leaving his beautiful white plume behind. Then there was nothing remaining to be done except gather the equipment and depart; which we did.

As I recall I flew at about 16,000 feet on the return trip and all was going well until one of the crew members from the back, came up to the flight deck and told me that I should come back to the cargo compartment. I do not know why he did not use the intercom, but as I recall it, he didn’t, and I am glad he didn’t. I think I remember this correctly, because what I saw was a total shock to me and it would not have been such a shock, had he told me about it on the intercom. In any event, WHAT I saw, was a large portion of the cargo compartment floor covered in gasoline. Not JP 4, but just plain old gasoline. There was so much of it that it had not only covered a large portion of the cargo compartment floor, but had even filled those little tie down ring cut outs in the floor, and it was moving forward on the floor, up toward the avionics bay, near the front of the plane.

I did not try to figure out at that moment where the gasoline had come from or even if it was still coming. I just told everyone, in a loud voice, that there would be no more electrical transmissions OF ANY KIND (there were certainly no emergency procedures for me to follow for an airplane having it’s whole cargo floor covered in gasoline).

I may have been technically wrong in not declaring an emergency, but the way I did it worked out and I am still here to tell the story. ----- What I did was slow the plane down a little, keeping the deck angle as positive as possible and flew on towards Edwards. My mind was kind of like that scene in an old cowboy movie where they kept switching scenes between the Indians  chasing the wagon, and the wheel of the wagon about to come off. I could see (in my mind) that gasoline creeping up toward that avionics bay little by little, as I looked ahead towards Edwards.-----  Upon nearing Edwards, I made no call to the tower at all. I did not know what kind of electrical out puts went on in that electronics bay, but I was taking no chances. I had to put the landing gear down on the final approach but that was it. No calls or transmissions of any kind. I simply landed straight in on runway 23, totally unannounced, making a no flap approach to keep the deck angle higher, smoothed in a landing, eased on the brakes, shut all 4 engines down right out there in the middle of the runway, and all of us got the hell out of that thing.  

I cannot imagine what the tower must have thought and said.---- All of the usual Fire and Ground Support Equipment arrived as we stood out there in the hot sun, but there was really nothing for them to do then except clean up the gasoline and remove the equipment. Fortunately, we got transportation out of there fairly soon, and I really could have cared less as to what they did after that, so long a my crew and the other guys aboard were safe.----As before, I may not have done it the best way, but MY way worked. 

I made no real effort to find out where or how the gasoline got out of the Fire Truck or the trailer (which ever it was), but apparently the gasoline in the fire truck or in a trailer/tank like thing, had been topped off in the morning, when it was cool at Edwards and had expanded in volume while sitting out on the hot lake bed so long. This coupled with the decrease in pressure in the plane, while in flight, made the expanding fuel JUST have to go some where and it did----all over the floor of the cargo compartment of my airplane.

Not that I could have done anymore about it than I did, but I have always wondered how those guys could have sat back there , with gasoline all over the place, and waited so long to tell me about it. Thank the good lord, no one decided to have a smoke, while thinking about it. 

Pretty much in the Edwards “Piece of Cake” attitude, there was no follow up discussion on any of the above; “No Harm No Foul”. I liked that. Can you imagine what a field day they would have with that situation today?


Robert L. Mosley

Click the A-20 below to return to Bob's home page