Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bill Dana dies at 83; NASA test pilot helped usher in space age

 

 The black sky enveloped NASA test pilot Bill Dana as his X-15 rocket plane stopped climbing at 306,900 feet and began teetering back toward the small brown stretch of Mojave Desert more than 58 miles below.

"The horizon appeared as a ring of bright blue around the shell of the earth, with darkness above," Dana later told NASA officials. "I knew I'd gotten all the altitude I needed to qualify as a space adventurer."

William Harvey Dana, the famed test pilot who helped usher in the space age in the 1960s by routinely flying rocket planes to new supersonic speeds and stratospheric heights, has died. He was 83.

Dana died Tuesday at an assisted living facility near Phoenix from complications of progressive Parkinson's disease. His death was announced Wednesday by NASA.

All military pilots are highly skilled, but test pilots have long been considered the best of the best. Like lead climbers who blaze a path up a mountain peak, test pilots help those who follow them avoid costly mistakes.

Dana was a square-jawed aviator during an age when pilots strapped into cutting-edge aircraft and blasted to the edges of the flight envelope — with little assurance they would return safely. It was the era chronicled in "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe's 1979 book (and later a movie) about the early days of the space program.

Over Dana's 48-year career, he flew more than 8,000 hours in more than 60 aircraft, including helicopters and wingless experimental rocket planes.

Several of the aircraft Dana piloted now hang in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. However, he is perhaps most associated with the X-15 rocket plane program, which demonstrated it was possible for a winged aircraft to fly to — and from — space. It was a feat that came 19 years before the space shuttle.

Dana was born in Pasadena on Nov. 3, 1930, and raised in Bakersfield. He received a bachelor's degree from the U.S. Military Academy in 1952 and served four years as a pilot in the Air Force.

After earning a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from USC in 1958, he joined NASA as an aeronautical research engineer at the High-Speed Flight Station — now NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center — at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.


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