First pilot of suborbital flight makes final journey into unknown

by | Mar 24, 2010 | History, NASA, Seradata News | 0 comments

A few days before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo had its first captive carry flight the first US Air Force pilot to fly into space in an aircraft passed away on 17 March

US Air Force Major General Robert White flew his North American X-15 on 17 July 1962 to 59.6miles (95.9km), the USAF’s designation for space is 50 miles making him the first USAF pilot to reach space. He was later awarded USAF astronaut wings. White was also the first pilot to fly at Mach 6, again in the X-15 testing velocities that were simply unknown to man

A command pilot astronaut, his military decorations and awards include the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with four oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal with 16 oak leaf clusters, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon with “V” device. For his achievements in the X-15 aircraft, White received the Harmon International Aviators Trophy, the Collier Trophy and NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal

Born in New York city in 1924 he attended New York public schools, earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from New York University in 1951 and a master of science degree in business administration from The George Washington University in 1966. He graduated from the Air Command and Staff College in 1959 and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in 1966

He entered active military service in November 1942 as an aviation cadet and received his pilot wings and commission as a second lieutenant in February 1944. A fighter pilot in Europe he was shot down and captured but was released in April 1945. Leaving the armed services at the end of World War II he was recalled to active duty in May 1951 during the Korean War

His USAF career began there, where he served as pilot and engineering officer with the 514th Troop Carrier Wing, moving on to the 40th Fighter Squadron, based near Tokyo, Japan and in 1953 returned to the US to serve as a systems engineer at Rome Air Development Center, Griffiss Air Force Base, New York

White attended the USAF Experimental Test Pilot School from 1954 serving as a test pilot and deputy chief of flight test operations division, and later as assistant chief of the manned spacecraft operations branch. On 9 November 1961 he became the first man to fly a winged craft six times faster than the speed of sound when he flew his X-15 at 3,561kt (6,589km/h)

After his X-15 flights White rose through the ranks as operations officer, fighter squadron commander, tactical systems chief, commander of operations including in Vietnam, USAF systems command  F-15 systems programme director and from 1970 he was commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, where he was responsible for research and developmental flight testing of manned and unmanned aerospace vehicles and other projects

In November 1972 White assumed duties as commandant, Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He became chief of staff of the Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force in March 1975. He was promoted to the grade of major general effective 12 February 1975

White retired on 1 February in 1981 as chief of staff, Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, Ramstein Air Base, Germany

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