Scott Crossfield Tribute: Goodbye To A Test Pilot’s Test Pilot

I’m climbing up through 33,000ft (10,000m) over the bleached dry Mojave Desert as I write this. From my window on the port side of my United 757 I can see several kilometres to the north, the white expanse of Edwards AFB and its dry lakebed. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that, 50 years ago, the rarefied air up here was once home to a very special man, the test pilot Scott Crossfield, who died in an aircraft accident on 20 April.

Crossfield-Obit-W200.jpgI couldn’t pretend to have known Crossfield in any way, but I met him several times and I think I can tell you something about this exceptional pilot and why he will be so deeply missed.

Crossfield was almost an institution at the Society of Experimental Test Pilots annual meetings in Los Angeles. Virtually every year it seemed this wiry, energetic, silver haired pilot would be surrounded by a knot of admirers – young and old, all keen to hear “war stories” and pick up any nugget they could from the master. Crossfield was, after all, the first man to fly faster than both twice the speed of sound (20 Nov 1953) and three times the speed of sound (15 Nov 1960).

But he was much more than the pioneering pilot who had punched through the sound barrier in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket and the North American X-15. He was also an expert aeronautical engineer, aerodynamicist and designer who had helped perfect the X-15 as well as the subsequent Apollo command and service modules and Saturn V second stage. In short, he was a true all rounder and “the test pilot’s test pilot.”

For all his sky high achievements, however, Crossfield was also a humble man who egotistically kept his feet firmly on the ground. To the test pilots gathered at the SETP his talks were direct, full of solid information and, it has to be said, peppered with enough wit to make him the proverbial George Burns of aerospace.

Here are a couple of examples of classic Crossfield quotes, taken from various notes I took at SETP talks over the past few years when he was connected with a ‘Century of Flight’ project involving the building and testing of a replica Wright Brothers 1902 glider.
He liked to disarm his audience from the get go. One year it was “while I have been around for a long time, I want to suppress the rumour that I flew chase on the Wrights…..I flew low cover.” The year before it was “I did not fly low cover over Custer!”

He showed video of the Wright Flyer project, in which he flew the highly unstable glider which was towed through a pasture behind a pick-up truck at over 50mph (80km/h). At one point Crossfield, piloting it in the prone position, hit the ground with such violence the (then) 80-year old was tossed out like a rag doll. Seasoned test pilots of all ages groaned in shared distress as the video was played, and Crossfield commented: “…and this shows the Wrights were also the first to have an operational ejection seat”.  
And his verdict on the Wright’s design? “We discovered they had an indifference, rather than an ignorance of stability. One of the crew said it flies like a Kleenex – that’s not in the pilot’s lexicon but boy, it describes it very well!”

His partner on the project was the champion aerobatic pilot Patti Wagstaff….itself a situation of such rich humour that Crossfield found impossible to ignore. “Patti said she liked new aircraft and old pilots, so I suggested we run away together. She declined saying she was thinking more ‘classic’ than ‘antique.’

Thank you, and God’s speed Mr Crossfield.

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