Tuesday, February 14, 2012
America's First Rocketplane
The first flight of a MX-324 glider took place on October 2, 1943, at the remote Harper Dry Lake, not far from today's Edwards AFB and Mojave Air and Space Port, where modern rocket plane development is underway. The small aircraft were towed aloft behind a P-38 Lightning. There were several incidents that seriously jeopardized the program. During one of the glide test flights, the pilot pulled the wrong handle when it came time to jettison the tow rope...he had grabbed the escape hatch release by mistake! The aerodynamic changes that this caused led to severe buffeting, but he was able to land safely. On another test flight, one of the MX-324s was lost when the tiny glider got caught in the P-38's prop wash, and entered a spin. When the pilot recovered, he was inverted and lying on the ceiling, unable to reach the flight controls. Instead, he bailed out and parachuted to safety. The -324 continued its gliding descent inverted and was damaged beyond repair on hitting the lakebed.
The engine used on the MX-324 was a 200-pound-thrust Aerojet XCAL-200 liquid-fuel compound rotary rocket, which actually was comprised of several smaller rockets that rotated about an common axis. The fuel was monoethylaniline and red fuming nitric acid.
The first powered flight of the MX-324 took place on July 5, 1944 (some accounts state that it was on July 4, other say it was July 22; date confusion is not surprising, since even the photo of the then-top-secret aircraft wasn't release for two years!) with Northrop test pilot Harry Crosby at the controls. The plane was towed to 8,000 feet, and Crosby then release the tow rope and ignited the engine. The flight lasted only four minutes, 3:30 under rocket power, but was considered a success.
Just over a year later, on September 12, 1945, Harry Crosby was at the controls of the XP-79 prototype when it went out of control during its maiden flight. He was killed while trying to bail out.
Historian's note: there's a lot of confusion about this plane, as would be expected from a secret project conducted during this time period. Besides the variation of first flight dates, even the model designation is in dispute. Northrop historian Ira Chart states that the MX-324 was the unpowered glider and the MX-334 was the powered version. Author Andreas Parsch states the opposite. It is clear, though, that in the official news release accompanying our photo, two years after the flight the powered version was being referred to as the MX-324.
Update: After this posted this morning, I received the following note from one of my Mojave rocket plane friends: "Well... America's third rocketplane, but arguably America's first military rocket plane, as the caption claims. In 1931, William G. Swan flew a rocket glider at Bader Field in Atlantic City. In 1941, Lt. Homer Boushey took off in a JATO-equipped Army Air Corps Ercoupe from which the propeller had been removed. The MX-324 was probably the first airplane designed from the outset for rocket power." Thanks, Randall!