Incredible Escapes

By Bauman, Richard | The World and I, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Incredible Escapes


Bauman, Richard, The World and I


An old English proverb reads: "Better a lucky physician than a learned one." More than a few people have said something akin to that: "I'd rather be lucky than good," after escaping unscathed what could have been their last moments of life. Chance happenings, bizarre circumstances, human resilience and luck are the stuff that helped extricate some folks from deadly events.

The X-15: At the edge of space

The X-15 rocket plane was part of the United States space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Launched from beneath the wing of an airborne B-52 bomber, the sleek, black rocket ship flew higher than any other non-missile- launched vehicle; often it was flown to the edge of space.

The X-15 was designed to have a one-million-horsepower rocket motor. The rocket plane, however, was ready to fly a year and a half before its motor was completed, so early flights were propelled by smaller rocket motors.

The gargantuan motor was finally ready in early spring 1960, but it had to first be ground-tested in the X-15. Test pilot Scott Crossfield had made many flights in the X-15, and knew the craft better than anyone else. He was to test the motor.

The sleek craft was literally clamped in place on a test stand at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Crossfield was in the cockpit. Engineers and technicians associated with the test were in a blockhouse.

The million-horsepower rocket motor was fired and put through a series of power cycles. During one of them it malfunctioned, and the rocket motor blew itself to bits! The explosion shattered the X-15. The cockpit section was torn loose and hurled more than forty feet. A ball of orange flame engulfed it. Inside the cockpit, Crossfield had experienced a force equivalent to fifty-times the pull of gravity.

Later, Crossfield said of the explosion: "It was the biggest bang I'd ever heard." It was like going from the frying pan into the fire, literally, as Crossfield found himself centered in the sphere of fire.

"It was like being in the sun," he said, describing the first moments after the explosion. "While I was of course concerned, I realized I was in a structure designed to resist heat." He not only survived, he had only minor injuries.

"Lucky Lindy"

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh was the most famous man in the world. He flew nonstop and solo across the Atlantic: the first person to do so. After that day he was known around the world as "Lucky Lindy." But he was even luckier just two years earlier when he made aviation history for the first time.

Lindbergh was a student pilot in the United States Air Service, in March 1925. During a training exercise, he and other cadets were practicing air-to-air fighter attack strategies. Flying biplanes in three-plane formation, Lindbergh and another cadet, C.D. McAllister, were following their group leader, P.R. Love, in simulated attack on a DH-48 target plane. Love was in the lead, Lindbergh was to Love's left, McAllister was on his right.

Swooping down on the DH, Love pulled out of his dive above the target plane as Lindbergh and McAllister swept under it. "I passed by the DH, and a moment later felt a jolt and then the crash," Lindbergh wrote in his report on the incident. The wings of his and McAllister's plane interlocked for an instant. Then, breaking free of each other, the planes plunged earthward, out of control.

The right wing of Lindbergh's plane folded back over the cockpit. It was shaking horrendously and bashing him in the head. Lindbergh fended off the pounding wing and squirmed out of the cockpit.

Lindbergh described in his report how he jumped free of the plane, only to have it continue to fall scant feet away from him. He was sure it was going to spin into him. When the plane finally drifted away, Lindbergh pulled the ripcord of his parachute. You can almost hear his sigh of relief as he wrote, "The parachute worked perfectly. …

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