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.'That Plane Was His Pride and Joy'
In 1953, Crossfield made history by breaking Mach 2 -- twice the speed of sound -- in the Douglas Skyrocket. Before lighting off the engines, he said a simple prayer: "Don't let me goof this one." He held the record for three weeks until Yeager flew Mach 2.5.
Crossfield next joined North American Aviation, where he helped design the X-15, a cutting-edge rocket plane that he flew at nearly three times the speed of sound and up to 88,116 feet. He went on to work for Eastern Airlines and moved to Herndon in 1971 to live on five acres near Dulles International Airport. By 1977, he was working as a technical consultant to the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. He retired in 1993.
Crossfield won numerous aviation awards but told interviewers that he was most proud that Fairfax County named a Herndon elementary school, just across the street from his house, after him.
By the late 1980s, he had been without his own plane for two decades. Test pilots rarely made a lot of money, and he was no exception. He had written an autobiography, but it didn't sell well. He had six children and had a government job.
On occasion, he flew with other people or tested their planes, but it wasn't the same as owning his own. His wife couldn't handle his constant talk of airplanes.
"I urged him to buy" one, said Alice Crossfield, 87, who married Crossfield in 1943. "I couldn't think of anything better for him to spend the money on."
At 68, Crossfield bought a Cessna 210A. It was far less sporty than the X-15. With a maximum speed of 199 mph, it was like the old family Buick. In a bit of unintentional symmetry, the plane rolled off the assembly line in December 1960, the same month Crossfield took his last X-15 flight.
"It was his mistress," said Eugene Deatrick, a close friend and former test pilot. "Outside of his wife, that plane was his pride and joy."
If Crossfield wasn't at home, working in his yard or using the computer in his small office lined with models of airplanes he had flown, he could be found at his Cessna's hangar at the Manassas airport. He tried to fly once or twice a week and took trips across the country to visit friends and relatives, recording each journey on a map of the United States that he kept in his house.A Decision Now Full of What-Ifs
In his final days, Crossfield had flown to Alabama to meet with his good friend Judith Rice, then a top official at the Civil Air Patrol, and to speak to a group of new Air Force officers at the Maxwell-Gunter base. The day before he left Alabama, he and Rice detoured from their scheduled activities to check out his Cessna, parked at Prattville-Grouby Field Airport, 15 miles northwest of Montgomery.
He gently rubbed the plane's aluminum skin, then pulled on its rudder, elevators and ailerons, moving each control back and forth, Rice recalled. He checked the oil, opened and closed the luggage door, and closely inspected his landing gear.
The conversation turned to their mutual love of flying. Crossfield said he worried about his vision, which was deteriorating, and wondered what he would do when he had to turn in his wings. Rice, an experienced pilot and aircraft owner, said she hoped that when she dies, it will be in her plane. Crossfield agreed: "I want to go in the air, not a bathtub."
But they decided it wasn't such a great plan: It would destroy their beloved planes.
The next day, Rice picked up Crossfield, who had stayed at officers' quarters at the Air Force base, at 7 a.m. Central Time. Crossfield had reviewed forecasts, but he told Rice he would work his way around the weather. He didn't want to wait too long because local airspace was going to be shut down for a visit by President Bush to Tuskegee University. If he waited until after the restrictions were lifted, he might have a problem getting back into Manassas at night, with his diminishing eyesight.
Crossfield conducted a rigorous preflight inspection, even climbing atop the wing to stick a finger in the fuel tank to verify the readings on the gauges.
Because of poor visibility, he waited to take off so that he could get back safely if he had a malfunction. By 9 a.m., he was ready to go. Rice watched as he left the 5,400-foot runway and disappeared into the sky.
As he headed northeast, Crossfield was passed from air traffic controller to controller. At 11:01 a.m. Eastern Time, he checked in with controller Olin T. Hill at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center. Hill, who joined the FAA in 1982, acknowledged Crossfield's response, according to transcripts of the radio calls and the recently released reports. He declined to be interviewed.
Hill noticed that his radar scope was displaying heavy rain in the plane's path, but he didn't warn Crossfield, he told investigators. He said he didn't think the radar data were timely, as is sometimes the case. He said he would have told Crossfield about the weather if the pilot had asked, the reports show.
According to the NTSB report, Hill violated FAA rules that require controllers to issue weather reports to pilots if they don't have any higher-priority tasks, such as keeping planes apart.
However, avoiding weather is considered primarily the pilot's responsibility. And safety experts say Crossfield could have taken simple steps to avoid the crash -- postponed his trip for a day or requested regular weather updates from controllers.
Regular inquiries about the weather "may have sensitized the controller" to Crossfield's predicament, said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation. "It is a shared responsibility between pilot and controller. . . . You have to make sure a message is sent and a message is received."
By 11:10 a.m., one minute after his final radio call about deviating away from the storm, Crossfield was dead.
A few months after the crash, the NTSB returned some of the wreckage to his family. A door, a twisted propeller and pieces of aluminum lean against a fence next to the house in Herndon, a constant reminder.
Alice Crossfield says she can't let it go. "That is him out there, you know," she said.