X-2 September 27, 1956

3247 Aerial image of the crash site. CLUI photo

The rocket-powered X-2 was designed to be the first airplane capable of surpassing Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) and to achieve altitudes above 100,000 feet. Launched from beneath the wing of a modified B-50 bomber, Capt. Milburn G. Apt flew a perfect flight profile and successfully achieved a speed of Mach 3.2 (2,094 mph). As he turned back toward Edwards, the plane went out of control. Apt ejected in the plane’s encapsulated cockpit, which was designed to protect the pilot from wind blast before slowing enough to allow safe bailout. Briefly knocked unconscious, he was unable to get out of the capsule before it crashed on Edwards Air Force Base, killing him. The airplane crashed five miles away, off the eastern edge of the base, in the Kramer Hills.

3248 U.S. Air Force photoDesigned and built by Bell Aircraft Company of Buffalo, New York, Apt’s plane was one of only two X-2 vehicles ever made. The other caught fire under the wing of a B-50 and was dropped into Lake Ontario before making any powered flights. Bell had previously produced several variants of the more famous X-1, which broke the sound barrier in 1947, and subsequently explored flight from the transonic region through the Mach 2 range. 

A camera in the cockpit shows the flight from launch to moments before the pilot’s ejection. The camera, taking one frame per second, is sped up to eight frames per second here, and shows the Machmeter starting at 0.0 and rising past its limit, 3.0.  Video courtesy of Peter Merlin/NASA.