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Aviation Museum opens exhibit on X-15 research plane, flown by Neil Armstrong

The X-15 research plane, considered the most productive research plane in American aerospace history, is the subject of a new exhibit now open at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, Blue Grass Airport.

Neil Armstrong

The X-15 was delivered in October 1958 and conducted 199 flights until its retirement in December 1968. The program included three aircraft and pursued research in the hypersonic region, above MACH 5, or fives times the speed of sound. One of its most productive capabilities was flight in earth’s atmosphere as well as in space, followed by landing back on the ground. On its fastest flight, the X-15 traveled 4,520 MPH or over one and one-quarter miles each second. The official altitude record it holds is 314,700 feet, just under 60 miles high. A number of engineering questions affecting the manned space program, the lunar landings, and operation of the space shuttle were addressed during the test flights of the X-15. Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon and subject of the recently released movie First Man, flew the X-15 on seven research flights before moving to NASA’s manned space flight program.

John Leland Atwood, one of America’s most prolific aerospace engineers and a native of Boone County, was president of North American Aviation at the time of the X-15’s assembly. Atwood is a 2000 honoree in the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame.

The exhibit presents details on the development of the X-15 and operational experiences of the program.

No artifacts or X-15 aircraft are part of the exhibit. One surviving X-15 aircraft resides at the Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio; the other is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is located at 4029 Airport Road, adjacent to Blue Grass Airport in Lexington. It is open Tuesday through Sunday and is the official aviation museum of the Commonwealth. It is also home to the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame and operates as a non-profit corporation.

For more information, visit www.aviationky.org, or call 859-231-1219.

The X-15 made the first manned probes into the lower edges of space. The design specifications of speeds to 4,000 MPH and altitudes of 50 miles were surpassed several times during its operational life. Of the 12 pilots that flew in the X-15, several met the altitude requirement to officially become an astronaut.

An Air Force B-52 bomber would carry the X-15 under its wing to an altitude of 45,000 feet and 500 MPH speed. It would then release and fire a rocket engine with over 50,000 lbs. of thrust. The powered flight of the X-15 lasted for two minutes or less, followed by a gliding flight and touchdown on a dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base or nearby. In eight to ten minutes, the entire flight was complete.

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