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Clues Surface in Death of Expert Pilot

Crossfield helped design the X-15, a rocket plane that he flew at nearly three times the speed of sound and up to an altitude of 88,116 feet.
Crossfield helped design the X-15, a rocket plane that he flew at nearly three times the speed of sound and up to an altitude of 88,116 feet. (Family Photo)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

A. Scott Crossfield was flying through thick clouds 10,000 feet above rugged Georgia wilderness when turbulence began to batter his single-engine plane.

The legendary test pilot, who, for a moment in history, was the fastest man alive, had cheated death many times. But not this time. An hour into a flight home from Alabama to Manassas Regional Airport, the Herndon resident plowed straight into an intense thunderstorm. He banked and tried to turn around. But it was too late.

"Atlanta," Crossfield calmly radioed to controllers, "this is Seven Nine X-ray. I'd like to deviate south. Weather." Those were his last known words.

The wind tore at his Cessna. In the next 30 seconds, the plane plummeted 6,000 feet, broke apart and plunged the last 4,000 feet into the woods in two mangled heaps.

It was an incongruous end for such an accomplished aviator, a death akin to a NASCAR driver being killed in a minivan on the way to the supermarket. This was a pilot who had flown supersonic rocket planes, broke Mach 2 and helped design the X-15, a rocket plane that touched the edge of space. He made the cover of Life magazine in 1958 and was profiled in Tom Wolfe's bestseller "The Right Stuff."

His death in April 2006 has left his family and friends wondering how such a skilled pilot could blunder into such a nasty storm. Even at 84, he was too experienced, too meticulous, too smart to die that way, they say, echoing recent refrains about record-setting aviator Steve Fossett, who vanished in a small plane over Nevada on Sept. 3.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating Crossfield's crash for a year and a half and is expected to vote Wednesday on the probable cause. In investigative reports released this summer by the NTSB, clues have emerged as to what happened.

The board's investigators found that an air traffic controller didn't warn Crossfield about the foul weather, the reports show. But they also studied Crossfield's actions and his decision to fly despite questionable conditions. One of the first lessons taught to all pilots is one that Crossfield constantly reiterated: You, the aviator, are ultimately responsible for your life.

Crossfield knew that experience is not insurance, that there are no guarantees in life.

"Death is the handmaiden of the pilot," he wrote in 1960. "Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God."

Crossfield "is considered one of the all-time best test pilots in this country, maybe the world," said Donald Lopez, a friend, former test pilot and deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum. "It is sort of ironic that he died in a small plane like that."

Crossfield took his first flight lesson at 12. He worked at a Boeing plant in Washington state as a clerk and took classes at the University of Washington. He eventually joined the Navy and became a flight instructor during World War II. By 1950, he was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for the predecessor to NASA. Just three years earlier, over that same swath of desert, Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier.

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