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Originally published March 24, 2010 at 10:00 AM | Page modified March 24, 2010 at 4:07 PM

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Test pilot Robert White dies; flew X-15 into space

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert M. White, who flew high enough as a test pilot in an X-15 rocket plane to earn astronaut wings in the early 1960s, has died at age 85.

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES —

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert M. White, who flew high enough as a test pilot in an X-15 rocket plane to earn astronaut wings in the early 1960s, has died at age 85.

White died March 17, NASA said in a statement. His son, Greg White, told the Orlando Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times that his father died in his sleep in Orlando, Fla.

White was a veteran combat pilot before he came to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and began flying X-15s in the hypersonic, high-altitude research program that contributed to the U.S. space effort.

X-15s were carried aloft under the wing of a B-52 bomber and released at 45,000 feet. The rocket engine was ignited to hurl the slender, stubby-winged craft on altitude or speed runs that ended with an unpowered glide to a landing on a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles.

On July 17, 1962, White flew to an altitude of 314,750 feet, more than 59 miles high. That was well above the 50-mile altitude the Air Force accepted as the start of space, earning him the service's first rating as a "winged astronaut." At the time, only four other Americans, all Mercury astronauts, had gone into space.

During the previous year, White had become the first person to fly a winged craft several times the speed of sound at Mach 4, Mach 5 and then - at full throttle - to Mach 6, or more than 4,000 mph.

Born in New York City in 1924, White joined the military in 1942 as an aviation cadet.

He served in the 355th Fighter Group in Europe during World War II, flying P-51 fighters from July 1944 to February 1945, when he was shot down over Germany on his 52nd mission and held as a prisoner of war until April 1945, according to his Air Force biography.

White received a bachelor of science degree from New York University in 1951, the year he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, serving with units based in the U.S. and Japan.

In 1954, White went to the Air Force's Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards and was eventually selected as an Air Force representative in the X-15 program, which also involved NASA, the Navy and aircraft builder North American Aviation. In all, he flew 16 X-15 missions between April 13, 1960, and Dec. 14, 1962.

There were 199 flights in the X-15 program, which ran from 1959 to 1968. At the time, only the Air Force pilots were awarded astronaut wings.

White returned to Edwards in 2005 when astronaut wings were awarded to three civilian X-15 pilots, two posthumously, according to Alan Brown, a spokesman at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

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After his X-15 flights, White served in various Air Force assignments and received a master of science degree in business administration from George Washington University before being sent to Southeast Asia. He flew 70 combat missions in F-105 aircraft over North Vietnam in 1967 and earned the Air Force Cross.

White later commanded the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards before retiring in 1981.

He and his wife, Chris, who died previously, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

---

On the Net:

NASA X-15 Interactive: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/x15-interactive/

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