Scott Crossfield was a hero who lived up to the expectations of his admirers.
Not all of them do, you know.
Crossfield died during the night of April 19 after encountering a Level 6 thunderstorm over Georgia, while flying his Cessna 210 toward Virginia. The wreckage was found the next day in a wooded gully near the mountain town of Ranger, in northern Georgia.
Crossfield was that rare man of many great accomplishments who always was interested in the accomplishments of we lesser mortals. In quiet moments, we would sit and talk, sometimes about Naval Aviation, which we had in common, or test flight perils that were good for laughs in retrospect, or the small things that make up the greater joy of flying. Those conversations weren’t all about Scotty, either. He had a charming and all-too-rare knack for making his conversations about both parties to them.
Chuck Yeager, the first man to exceed the speed of sound, refers to Crossfield as “among the most arrogant” pilots he ever met. That’s not my experience. Yeager and Crossfield were rivals in their younger years and each made derogatory remarks about the other, but Crossfield’s tended to be good-humored. Indeed, he resented caricature of the test pilot as a swaggering cockpit cowboy. He preferred being known as an aeronautical engineer, an aerodynamicist and a designer.
“He was an engineer at heart,” said Ken Hyde, who worked closely with Crossfield when he was training four pilots to fly Hyde’s exquisite replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, prior to the 100th anniversary of the original’s first flights. “You could see the gleam in his eye when he talked about tests he did and problems he had to solve.”
Today, I think of Scotty sitting in the back of a station wagon, its tailgate propped open with a 2×4, his strong hands holding the towlines of Hyde’s 1902 Wright glider replica, in which the Flyer pilots – like the Wrights, themselves – trained. As the car moved down the turf runway, glider and pilot became airborne. Crossfield’s hands were the sensitive link between towcar and glider, ready to let go at the first hint of a problem but otherwise strong and steady. I think of him, early on those misty Virginia mornings, usually first on the field, checking everything, crawling around under the glider – he was 81 at the time, but spryer than many half his age – walking the field to look for soft spots, laughing and joking with the gathering crew and onlookers.
Crossfield was the first person to fly at twice the speed of sound and later, depending on the source, either broke Mach 3 or reached Mach 2.97 in the X-15. Either way, he became the era’s “fastest man alive.” Crossfield set the Mach 2 record in 1953, when he reached 1,320 mph in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. In 1960, he flew the X-15 to Mach 3 (or maybe Mach 2.97) after launching from a B-52, reaching a then-record altitude of 81,000 feet. At the time, he was working as a pilot and design consultant for North American Aviation, which built the X-15.
Crossfield became one of a group of civilian pilots assembled by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, in the early 1950s. In 1959, NASA selected its first group of seven astronauts. Crossfield never applied, though he did some engineering work on the Apollo space program. Many test pilots sneered at the Mercury program and did not consider it real flying. They regarded astronauts as little more than “Spam in a can” because their capsules were controlled from the ground. Perhaps that’s why Crossfield didn’t apply. He certainly had the qualifications but test pilots, then as now, were much happier flying airplanes.
On April 19, Crossfield took off from Prattville, Ala., around 9 a.m. en route to Manassas, Va. He encountered a fierce thunderstorm over a hilly, forested region of north-central Georgia. Radar and radio contact with him were lost. Crews searching for the missing airplane found it shortly after 1 p.m. on the 20th, a Civil Air Patrol spokeswoman said.
“This is a major loss for everybody in aviation,” said Hyde, adding that he did not believe Crossfield was taking an unnecessary risk when he flew into a storm. “I just don’t think he had enough information to understand the kind of weather he was going into,” he said. “Somehow he got into a Level 6 storm. They don’t get any worse than that.”
In a lifetime of flying, Crossfield was well-acquainted with risk, having survived at least one crash landing and a catastrophic engine explosion while testing the X-15. It seems ironic that he died at the controls of a small plane with a cruising speed of about 165 knots, having chased the speed of sound less than 50 years after the Wright brothers’ first flights.