Joe Engle hadn’t climbed into the cockpit of a hypersonic X-15 rocket plane that cruised to the edge of space for half a century.
But the 83-year-old retired Air Force test pilot and the record-setting aircraft were brought together Friday when the X-15 became the first plane towed into a new, privately funded $40.8 million gallery expansion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Engle, the sole survivor of a dozen military and NASA test pilots who flew the X-15 in the 1960s, knocked on its metallic side and talked about how he practiced launch control procedures from memory Friday morning.
“It was so good to be back in it,” he said. “Just like an old friend.”
The X-15 will lead a parade of more than 70 presidential, research and experimental, and cargo planes, spacecraft and rockets into the new hangar set for a public debut next June.
The aerospace artifacts will be moved gradually, continuing next week with the last roll in next spring, officials said.
Outside the Air Force museum, visitors can watch the planes being towed into the hangar, said Museum Director John “Jack” Hudson. A tentative and weather-dependent schedule will be posted on the museum’s website.
“This has been years in the making because five years ago, let’s say, this was just a vision and it was an idea,” he said. The non-profit Air Force Museum Foundation raised all of the money for the 224,000-square-foot expansion, he said.
Officials hope the new expansion will boost attendance at the museum which attracts more than a million visitors a year.
Hudson said the base budget for the project was $35.4 million, a number museum officials have repeatedly cited as the initial cost. Other expenses were incurred for theatrical and LED lighting, a concrete tow path, a cradle for a Titan IV rocket, and two additional amphitheater-like learning nodes to educate students and visitors on science and technology related topics, among other costs, Hudson said.
Many of the planes that will be moved are inside presidential and research and development galleries in a restricted access hangar at Wright-Patterson. Most visitors have had to sign up on a first-come, first-served list and take a shuttle bus to see the exhibits, which has limited the exposure to the public to usually less than 100,000 visitors a year, officials have said.
They come to see famous planes, like the X-15, which brought out the smart phone cameras of construction workers and a group of 11 aerospace writers meeting at Wright-Patterson on Friday who got a sneak preview of the hangar.
“The X-15 was the predecessor in many ways to the space shuttle,” said Paul Dye, a retired NASA space shuttle flight director and today an aerospace writer. “Any time I get to see one of the two surviving ones is exciting.” The other is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Engle, a former space shuttle astronaut who has flown more than 180 aircraft, ranks the X-15 as his favorite to fly.
Dropped in free fall under the wing of a lumbering B-52, Engle waited for the powerful engines to kick in to accelerate the X-15 to beyond Mach 5 and above 280,000 feet. In July 1965, the retired Air Force major general became at age 32 the youngest pilot to earn astronaut’s wings.
Flying in the X-15 was akin to “climbing on a real, high-spirited stallion, good horse, that could run like hell and go fast and high,” he said. “You needed to be alert, right on top of it at all the time…
“We did fly the airplane very close to the limits that we knew” in speed and altitude, he said. “The fact that we were flying near the edge of the envelope was as challenging as anything.”
Other aircraft in the museum’s line-up that will move to the new gallery include the presidential Air Force One Boeing 707 jet that carried President John F. Kennedy’s remains home after his Nov. 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, and the delta-winged, supersonic XB-70 bomber that draws visitors from around the world.
Figuring out what to put where is a complicated patchwork among curators and planners.
“It’s really complicated because it’s three-dimensional chess to get all of this in here,” said Doug Lantry, research division curator. “… All these flavors have to come together in a big, delicate dance to get all this stuff here safely in the right spot.”
The concrete floor of the hangar, for example, varies in thickness from five inches to a foot thick depending on the size and weight of the plane. The 42-foot tall, and 175-foot wide hangar doors on both ends of the hangar were built with the dimensions of giant planes in mind.
Turner Construction Co. started work on the project in the summer of 2014.