Albert Scott Crossfield – Lieutenant, United States Navy

E-Mail: June 2006:

I find it absolutely appalling  that your would include Yeager, writing in his autobiography, described Crossfield as “a proficient pilot, but also among the most arrogant I’ve met.” …on your web site.

Scott was a pilot and degreed engineer who broke Yeager’s record.  Men with huge egos will walk over a mild mannered individual. Any posturing Scotty did was to stand his ground and get the job done. There are thousands of pilots who are absolutely furious with obituaries including this quote. It is an insult to the man and it is time to remove it.

I worked with Scott Crossfield for 12 years, from 1994 to 2006. When you work closely with someone for such an extended period, you learn their true nature.

Scotty’s qualities made him unique from other pilots. It was his wonderful sense of humor, incredible vocabulary and writing skills, honesty, destain for lawyers, nature to dig his heals in–then relent if logic dictated, humble nature and unquenchable desire to learn–to his last day, that made him a true American original.

Scotty always made me laugh. It was a privileged to be his friend.

Diane Titterington

The Aviation Speakers Bureau

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Born in Berkeley, California, Crossfield grew up in California and Washington. He served with the U.S. Navy as a flight instructor and fighter pilot during World War II. From 1946-1950, he worked in the University of Washington’s Kirsten Wind Tunnel while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering. In 1950, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ High-Speed Flight Station (now the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as an aeronautical research pilot. In those early days, it was called Muroc Field, reverse spelling of the wealthy California Corum family who donated the land to the Army Air Corps. Crossfield joined the Navy because he could enter flight training two weeks earlier than a date offered by the Army Air Corps.

Over the next five years, he flew nearly all of the experimental aircraft under test at Edwards, including the X-1, XF-92, X-4, X-5, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

On November 20, 1953, he became the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound as he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of 1,291 mph -Mach 2.005). The Skyrocket D-558-II surpassed its intended design speed by 25 percent on that day. With 99 flights in the rocket-powered X-1 and D-558-II, he had — by a wide margin — more experience with rocketplanes than any other pilot in the world by the time he left Edwards to join North American Aviation in 1955. As North American’s chief engineering test pilot, he played a major role in the design and development of the X-15 and its systems.

Once it was ready to fly, it was his job to demonstrate its airworthiness at speeds ranging up to Mach 3. Because the X-15 and its systems were unproven, these tests were considered extremely hazardous. Scott Crossfield not only designed the X-15 from the beginning, but introduced many innovations, to include putting engine controls of the rocket plane into the cockpit. Previously, all engine adjustments resulted from technicians making adjustments on the ground based upon results of flight profiles.

In a 2000 public lecture, ‘Scotty’ (as he was known to friends) described how the X-15 aeronautical calculations and design required computing power that filled four 10×12 rooms. He went on to say that these very same calculations could be performed today on a notebook computer. He also hinted that Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composite company were performing pioneering work for a private aircraft to take-off from an airport, fly into outer space, and return to that airport. In 2004, White Knight carried Space Ship One to its successful launch and winning of the Ansari X-Prize, the first attempt since the X-15 cancellation.

It was during this time that Crossfield was part of the Air Force’s Man In Space Soonest project.

On June 8, 1959, he completed the airplane’s first flight, an unpowered glide from 37,550 feet. On September 17, 1959, he completed the first powered flight. Because of delays in the development of the X-15’s mammoth 57,000 pounds force (254 kN) thrust XLR-99 engine, the early flights were completed with a pair of interim XLR-11 rocket engines.

Shortly after launch on his third flight, one of these engines exploded. Unable to jettison his propellants, Crossfield was forced to make an emergency landing during which the excessive load on the aircraft broke its back just behind the cockpit. He was uninjured and the airplane was repaired. During descent, the cockpit windows completely frosted and Crossfield was literally flying blind. Ever resourceful, he removed a flight boot, took off his sock, and created a peep hole to reference his chase plane wingman all the way to landing.

On June 8, 1960, he had another close call during ground tests with the XLR-99 engine. He was seated in the cockpit of the No. 3 X-15 when a malfunctioning valve caused a catastrophic explosion. Remarkably, he was once again uninjured and the airplane was completely rebuilt. On November 15 of the same year, he completed the X-15’s first powered flight with the XLR-99 engine. Two flights later, on December 6, he brought North American’s demonstration program to a successful conclusion as he completed his final flight in the X-15. Although it had been his hope to eventually pilot one of the craft into space, the USAF would not allow it, and gave strict orders which basically amounted to “stay in the sky, stay out of space.”

Altogether, he completed 16 captive carry (mated to the B-52 launch aircraft), one glide and 13 powered flights in the X-15. The surprise X-15 retirement after its record setting Mach 6.72 flight because of funding cutbacks led pilot Joe Engle to remark that if he knew it was the last flight, he would have pushed it to even faster speeds. Crossfield in his remarks to a number of aviation groups cited this as one of few aircraft programs in which grown men cried when it was cancelled.

He remained at North American as systems director of test and quality assurance in the company’s Space and Information Systems Division where he oversaw quality, reliability engineering and systems test activities for such programs as the Apollo command and service modules and the Saturn II booster.

In 1966, he became the division’s technical director for research engineering and test. In 1967, he joined Eastern Air Lines where he served as a division vice president for research and development and, subsequently, as a staff vice president working with U.S. military and civilian agencies on air traffic control technologies.

In 1974-1975, he worked for Hawker-Siddeley as a senior vice president supporting HS 146 activities in the United States. In 1977, he joined the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology where he served, until his retirement in 1993, as a technical adviser on all aspects of civil aviation research and development and became one of the nation’s leading advocates for a reinvigorated research airplane program.

Crossfield was played by Scott Wilson in the 1983 film The Right Stuff.

From 2001-2003, Crossfield trained pilots Terry Queijo, Kevin Kochersberger, Chris Johnson and Ken Hyde for The Wright Experience, which prepared to fly a reproduction Wright Flyer on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight on December 17, 1903. The training was successful, but the recreation of the flight on December 17, 2003 was ultimately not successful due to low engine power and the flyer’s rain-soaked fabric covering which added considerably to its takeoff weight. The Wright replica did fly successfully at Kitty Hawk after the Centennial jubilee but without media coverage.

In one sense, it was only fitting that Crossfield conduct this experimental flight training because all pilots in this project had to unlearn their considerable flying experience and learn forgotten Wright brothers techniques.

Years earlier, Crossfield demonstrated his flight test skills on his very first student solo. His instructor was not available on the designated early morning, so Crossfield, on his own, took off and went through manuevers he had practiced with his instructor, to include spin entry and spin recovery. During the first spin, Crossfield experienced vibrations, banging, and noise in the aircraft that he had never encountered with his instructor. He recovered, climbed to a higher altitude, and repeated his spin entry and spin recovery, getting the same vibration, banging and noice. On his third spin entry, at yet an even higher altitude, he looked over his shoulder as he was spinning and observed the instructor’s door disengaged and flapping in the spin. He reached back, pulled the door close, and discovered all the vibrations, banging and noise stopped. Satisfied, he recovered from the spin, landed (actually, did several landings), and fueled the airplane. He also realized his instructor had been holding the door during their practice spin entries and recoveries, and never mentioned this door quirk. In later years, Crossfield often cited his curiosity about this solo spin anomaly and his desire to analyze what was going on and why it happened, as the start of his test pilot career.

When asked to name his favorite airplane, Crossfield replied, “the one I was flying at the time,” because he thoroughly enjoyed them all and their specialness. To young teens, he would compare airplanes to different girls or boys they would date: each one was special and a learning experience.

Fatal Crash and Reactions

On April 19, 2006, a Cessna 210 piloted by Crossfield was reported missing while flying from Prattville, Alabama, toward Herndon, Virginia. On April 20, authorities confirmed his body was found in the wreckage of his plane in a remote area of Gordon County, Georgia. There were severe thunderstorms in the area when air traffic monitors lost radio and radar contact with Crossfield’s plane.

While lightning itself poses a relatively minor risk to all-metal aircraft like Crossfield’s, thunderstorms often contain turbulence severe enough to break an aircraft into pieces, as well as strong downdrafts, heavy rain, severe icing, and heavy hail. The Gordon County Sheriff’s department reported that debris from Crossfield’s aircraft was found in three different locations within a quarter mile, suggesting that the plane broke up while it was still in the air.

Scott was returning from Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, where he had given a talk. He was survived by his wife of sixty years, Alice Crossfield; six children; and two grandchildren.

Chuck Yeager, a colleague and rival of Crossfield at the High-Speed Flight Station during the 1950s, blamed the crash on Crossfield’s “complacency”. In an interview after the crash,Yeager stated that he was “sure sorry to hear” about the fatal accident, but that Crossfield had a habit of flying in bad weather and, at times, “exceeded his capability and got in trouble.” Crossfield had not commented on Yeager’s own, non-fatal accident in 2003.

Crossfield and Yeager often kidded and ribbed each other in the media, with Crossfield playing the straight man. However, on weather matters, Crossfield got thorough weather briefings, whether it was performing the primary test flight on the Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet transport, flying his Beech Bonanza, or before his fatal flight on a Cessna 210 that was not weather-radar equipped. Aircraft Owner and Pilot Association President Phil Boyer said, “No one loved flying more than Scott Crossfield. I’ve known him since I first came to Washington. I can’t think of anyone with more varied aviation experience. And while we don’t know yet what caused the accident, it certainly gives us all pause to remember that weather is no respecter of experience or fame.”


Scott Crossfield received the Lawrence Sperry Award, Octave Chanute Award, Iven C. Kincheloe Award, Harmon International Trophy, the Collier Trophy, and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal (1993), and was named Honorary Fellow by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (1999). He has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1983), the International Space Hall of Fame (1988), and the Aerospace Walk of Honor (1990). He also had an elementary school named in his honor near his last residence, in Herndon, Virginia. A ribbon named after him is one of the Aerospace Education Awards in the Civil Air Patrol Senior Members program. While he was celebrated as a daring test pilot, he claimed that his actual profession was an engineer. “I am an aeronautical engineer, an aerodynamicist and a designer. My flying was only primarily because I felt that it was essential to designing and building better airplanes for pilots to fly.” [5]. Even so, Crossfield often performed much of the dangerous initial test flight profiles with a small cadre of other test pilots before active duty Air Force and Navy test pilots were turned loose in the experimental aircraft. Crossfield opined his military, NACA, and NASA flight test job was to prepare military test pilots to earn recognition for aeronautical firsts by giving them solid flight data.

To friends and protegees, Crossfield was incredibly generous with his time and his insights. A morning meet for a cup of coffee could easily turn into a three-hour chat about almost anything. One such chat was his first meeting with Vice President Nixon about test flight; Nixon remarked about the danger of flying. Crossfield replied, “I think you are in a much more precarious position, sir, as an elected official,” then wryly remarked he predicted Watergate fallout well before any other person. To an even smaller group of those who were close, Crossfield discussed distinguishing capabilities of test pilots and who could be counted upon to get recurring reliable data on profile flights and those who were assigned to the chase planes.

Scott Crossfield, 1921-2006
Legend in Supersonic Flight Craved Innovation, Not Glory
By Joe Holley and Stephanie McCrummen
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Friday, April 21, 2006

Scott Crossfield, a legendary test pilot who pushed the boundaries of flight in supersonic planes, was killed Wednesday when the small Cessna he was piloting crashed into the pine-shrouded mountains of northeast Georgia during a storm. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Herndon resident was part of a team of X-plane pilots whose fantastic flying feats helped make the dream of manned spaceflight a reality.

The body of Crossfield, 84, was found yesterday afternoon amid the wreckage of his Cessna 210, which he had been flying for years. He was returning home from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, where he had given a talk, and was believed to be the only person aboard. The crash is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“This is a major loss for everybody in aviation,” said Ken Hyde, a friend who worked with Crossfield in 2003 on efforts to reenact the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ maiden flight.

Hyde said he did not believe that Crossfield was taking an unnecessary risk when he flew into the storm. “I just don’t think he had enough information to understand the kind of weather he was going into,” he said. “Somehow he got into a Level 6 storm. They don’t get any worse than that.”

In a lifetime of flying, Crossfield was well acquainted with risk, having survived at least one crash landing and a catastrophic engine explosion while testing the X-15, a revolutionary rocket-powered airplane.

In “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s account of the Space Age’s early years, Crossfield, Chuck Yeager and their fellow test pilots are portrayed as the type of man with “the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day.”

In the movie of the same name, both plane and pilot are portrayed as shaking violently at the approach of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), but Crossfield said during a CBS-TV newscast in 2003 that nothing of the sort happened. “I will not endorse anything that was in ‘The Right Stuff,’ ” he said on the “Early Show.”

On November 20, 1953, he climbed into the cockpit of a D-558-II Skyrocket and was taken aloft in the belly of a Boeing P2B Superfortress (the Navy’s name for the B-29). At 32,000 feet, Crossfield’s rocket plane dropped out of the bomber, climbed to 72,000 feet and then dived to 62,000 feet, reaching speeds of more than 1,320 mph.

His record-breaking flight, one in a series of flights conducted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, forerunner to NASA, made him the “fastest man alive” — for less than a month. On December 12, 1953, Yeager, his test-pilot rival, flew an X-1A at Mach 2.4 (1,612 mph).

Crossfield left the NACA in 1955 and joined North American Aviation, where on June 8, 1959, he became the first person to fly the fabled X-15, piloting the plane in an unpowered glide from 37,550 feet. He completed the first powered flight Sept. 17, 1959, and on subsequent flights he reached speeds approaching Mach 3.

“I am given a lot more credit and notoriety for the X-15 than I really deserve,” he told Aviation Week & Space Technology in 1988. “The X-15 was a natural extension of the research airplane program in our quest for higher productivity, higher speeds and know-how to get into space. In fact, the X-15, as we saw it, was a prelude to going into space.”

Although Crossfield brushed the lip of outer space while flying the X-15, he never became an astronaut. Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman, told the Associated Press that Crossfield never applied, although he did do some engineering work for the Apollo space program.

I don’t know if he was ever interested,” said Don Lopez, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and a longtime friend. “He certainly had the qualifications, but test pilots back then were much happier flying their airplanes.”

Albert Scott Crossfield was born in Berkeley, California, on October 2, 1921, and first went up in a plane as a 6-year-old, before Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo in “The Spirit of St. Louis.” He took his first flying lesson at age 13 and soloed at 15.

A Preeminent Pilot
Legendary test pilot Scott Crossfield, the first person to fly at twice the speed of sound, was found dead on Thursday in the wreckage of a single-engine plane in the mountains of northern Georgia.

“Some people like to race cars, some people like to go in boats. Well, I like to go in airplanes,” he told the Edmonton (Alberta) Journal in 2003. “And it was my generation’s thing to do.”

A Navy fighter pilot and flight instructor during World War II, he learned to fly a variety of aircraft but did not see combat. After the war, he resumed his studies at the University of Washington, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1950, both in aeronautical engineering. He also worked at the university’s Kirsten Wind Tunnel.

Retired Marine Corps General John R. “Jack” Dailey, director of the Air and Space Museum, remembered Crossfield as “a very modest person, very professional.”

Yeager, writing in his autobiography, described Crossfield as “a proficient pilot, but also among the most arrogant I’ve met.”

Lopez recalled that in later years, Yeager and Crossfield liked to needle each other. “Scott always called him Charlie, not Chuck,” Lopez said.

Crossfield resented the caricature of the test pilot as a swaggering cockpit cowboy. In the “Early Show” interview, he noted that he was an aeronautical engineer, an aerodynamicist and a designer. “My flying was only primarily because I felt that it was essential to designing and building better airplanes for pilots to fly,” he said.

“He was an engineer at heart,” Hyde said. “You could see the gleam in his eye when he talked about tests he did and problems he had to solve. . . . Where we’d test just to the point where the thing would get a little hairy, Scott would fly it until something broke. Then he’d come back and say, ‘Don’t go that far.’ ”

The Wrights were his role models. “They completed the whole circle,” he said in the CBS interview. “They got involved in the concept, the criteria, the requirements, the performance, the details, the manufacturing and quality control, and the managing of a new and innovative work.”

In later years, he was an executive for Eastern Airlines and Hawker Siddeley Aviation and a technical consultant to the House Committee on Science and Technology. He also lectured across the country and made frequent appearances at the Air and Space Museum.

“He always had time to talk to people about flying,” Dailey said, “and the younger they were, the more time he was happy to give them.”

He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Alice Crossfield of Herndon; six children, Sally Virginia Crossfield of Louisville, Becky Lee Crossfield of Loudoun County, Tom Crossfield of Tampa, Paul Crossfield of Leesburg, Tony Crossfield of Herndon and Robert Crossfield of Purcellville; and two grandchildren.

Dailey noted the irony of a man who survived crash landings and explosions only to die in a small, private plane in a storm. “But if he’d been given a choice,” he said, “he probably wouldn’t have had it any other way. He would not have wanted it to happen on a front porch, in a rocker.”

The first man to fly twice the speed of sound, Scott Crossfield was found dead today inside the wreckage of a single-engine plane he had been flying on Wednesday morning from Alabama to Virginia, authorities told the Associated Press.

Crossfield’s Cessna 210A was found by search crews in the mountains northwest of Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday after radio and radar contact was lost at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT) the day before. There were thunderstorms reported in the area, though the cause of the crash was not immediately released.

“Scott Crossfield was a pioneer and a legend in the world of test flight and space flight,” said Mike Coats, Johnson Space Center Director. “The astronaut corps and all of NASA are deeply saddened by his death, but his legacy will be with us through the centuries.”

Crossfield, 84, made aeronautical history in 1953 when he reached a speed of more than 1,320 mph, or Mach 2, in a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket research aircraft. Taken aloft by a Boeing P2B Superfortress (the Navy’s designation of the B-29), Crossfield climbed to 72,000 feet before diving to 62,000 feet, becoming the first person to travel at more than twice the speed of sound, according to his NASA biography.

A research pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, Crossfield flew nearly all of the experimental craft under test at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., between 1950 and 1955. Over the five year period, he flew the X-1, X-4, X-5, XF-92A, and the D-558-I and -II. By the time Crossfield left Edwards to join North American Aviation in 1955, he had amassed more experience with rocket planes than any other pilot in the world.

At North American, Crossfield served as both a test pilot and design consultant for the X-15 rocket-powered plane. On June 8, 1959, he became the first to fly the aircraft on an unpowered glide from 37,550 feet. Three months later, Crossfield completed its first powered flight on September 17, 1959.

Shortly after launch on Crossfield’s third X-15 flight, one of its engines exploded. Unable to jettison his propellants, Crossfield was forced to make an emergency landing during which the aircraft broke its back just behind the cockpit. He was uninjured and the airplane was repaired.

Crossfield subsequently qualified the first two X-15s for flight before North American turned them over to NASA and the U.S. Air Force. He flew the two aircraft a total of 14 times (not counting 16 captive flights), reaching a maximum speed of Mach 2.97 (1,960 miles per hour) and a maximum altitude of 88,116 feet.

“Scott Crossfield was a true pioneer whose daring X-15 flights helped pave the way for the space shuttle,” said NASA Adminstrator Michael Griffin.” Today, those of us in the aeronautics and space communities extend our condolences and deepest sympathies to Scott’s family.”

Crossfield continued working for North American until 1967, overseeing testing and quality assurance on the Hound Dog missile, Paraglider, Apollo Command and Service Module, and the Saturn V rocket’s second stage.

In 1960, Crossfield published his autobiography (written with Clay Blair, Jr.), “Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot,” covering his life through the end of the early X-15 flights.

Crossfield later held executive positions with Eastern Airlines and Hawker Siddley Aviation. From 1977 until his retirement in 1993, he was a technical consultant to the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, advising its members on matters relating to civil aviation.

More recently, Crossfield served as technical adviser for the “Countdown to Kitty Hawk” project, which built and flew an exact reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer for the national centennial of flight celebration at Kitty Hawk in December 2003.

Born in Berkeley, California, on October 2, 1921, Crossfield attended the University of Washington in 1940 before joining the U.S. Navy in 1942. Commissioned an ensign in 1943, he spent six months overseas without seeing combat duty. While in the Navy he flew the F6F and F4U fighters, as well as SNJ trainers, in addition to a variety of other aircraft.

Crossfield graduated in 1949 with a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington. He earned a masters in aeronautical science the following year from the same university and received an honorary doctor of science from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1982.

Among his many honors were the Collier Trophy for 1961 from the National Aeronautics Association, presented by President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962, and the International Clifford B.

Harmon Trophy for 1960, also presented by President Kennedy in the White House the year before.

He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the International Space Hall of Fame and the Aerospace Walk of Honor.

Upon his retirement in 1993, Crossfield was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal for his contributions to aeronautics and aviation over a period spanning half a century by NASA.

Scott Crossfield’s funeral will be held on 1300, 15 August 2006. Attendees should gather at the Administration Building, Arlington Cemetery about one hour prior. Proceed to an assigned reception room to greet the family. At 1300, everyone shall get into their cars and follow the car bearing the urn to a transfer point. The urn will be placed upon a horse pulled caisson. From there the Chaplain will lead the Honor Guard and the caisson to the Columbarium where the urn will be placed. This shall be a full honors ceremony. It is anticipated that there shall be a fly-over also.

The Last Flight of Scott Crossfield

Before there were astronauts, there was Crossfied. Throughout the modern history of aviation, there was always Crossfield. Until now.

By Chris Jones
November 2006, Volume 146, Issue 5
Courtesy of Esquire Magazine

Four identical rooms, A, B, C and D, one for each corner of Arlington National Cemetery’s right-angled administration building, and in each of them a funeral scheduled to begin at one o’clock on this overcast August afternoon: Bradford, Crossfield, Flattley, and Lee. And in the hour after that, there will be four more: Daily, Kirkpatrick, Ratcliff, and Strausser. And there will be four more after that, the families pooling together in the lobby, united by their brave faces, and their funeral processions passing by a rumbling yellow Caterpillar unceremoniously scooping out another grave. With so many aged veterans and young soldiers having exercised their right to be buried here, these are some of the new motions of loss.

More of them remain time-honored. First, there is the gathering, the comfort found in numbers and memories. For this particular old man, there are hundreds of mourners assigned to Room B, cane-toting leatherheads and young flyboys and even Neil Armstrong, dragged out of hiding by the death of a friend.

Next comes the long line of cars inching behind the old man’s family, who walk behind a polished black caisson drawn by four white horses. On top of the caisson is a flag-draped casket; behind an invisible door in the back of the casket is hidden a small wooden box; inside that small wooden box is an urn; the urn is filled with ashes.

The long walk stops when a whispered signal is given, and suddenly Navy jets scream overhead, four F/A-18’s, with the second of them peeling out of formation and rocketing nearly vertical until it pierces the knife-gray sky and disappears.

When the sound of their engines fades, it’s replaced by sobs and gasping, women with their hands held to their faces and men with their chins on their heaving chests, until that sound, too, is replaced by rifle fire ringing through the trees.

Then there is more walking, toward a shelter near the cold-seeming bunker, the Columbarium, filled with wrung-out heroes. Under that canopy, there are prayers recited, hymns played, and the elaborate folding of the flag by boy-faced sailors. Once it’s a perfect triangle, it is presented to one of the old man’s six middle-aged children, Paul, the heat of his tears fogging his glasses. A solemn-faced sailor with many medals shining on his chest approaches Paul and leans in. “On behalf of the president of the United States,” he begins, but the rest of his words of condolence nobody seems able to hear.

A bugler squeezes out taps, at last melting even an astronaut’s heart, especially after the notes echo across the scorched grass and run into the same song being played for different men, for Bradford, Flattley, and Lee.

Again there is rifle fire, three more shots.

And at last the family is left alone to say goodbye, to place the ashes where they will stay, locked away in that bunker, in accordance with their humble wishes that the final home of their father and grandfather never become a shrine. There will be no gravestone for strangers to run their fingers over, no bronze plaque on which to leave pennies until they are blackened by the sun.

If there is going to be a place to commune with the old man’s spirit, to come to know what he knew, this will not be it.

On April 19, 2006, Scott Crossfield woke up early, packed his bags, and ate a bowl of oatmeal in his room at Brett Hall on the sprawling Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. His friend Judy Rice picked him up at seven o’clock. The roads were empty, and they were at the airport in nearby Prattville within twenty minutes; he hoped to be in the air by eight.

Rice asked him whether he had slept well, and he said that he always did. She also asked him whether he had taken a look at the forecast. He told her that there were a few storm clouds brewing up north, a hiccup between him and his home airfield in Manassas, Virginia. But they didn’t look like much of a splutter, and even if they became something more, he could work his way around them. “They might even give me a push,” he said. He thought the trip would take him a little less than four hours, and he would be walking through his front door in time for lunch.

In hangar 19, Crossfield completed his preflight ritual. He ran his hands along the skin of his plane, a vintage Cessna 210A, white with green-and-yellow trim; he curled his fingers around its flaps and rudder, gingerly working their hinges; he loaded his luggage into its compartment, put his flight bag on the front passenger seat, and laid some cookies, a banana, and a jug of Gatorade on the back.

The airport’s manager, a lined, quiet man with a gray mustache named Ray Hill, tugged the plane out onto the ramp. Together he and Crossfield checked its oil and fuel levels and gave it another walk-around, like two old cowboys admiring a horse. “You wouldn’t know he done all those things he’s supposed to have done,” Hill would later recall.

Crossfield looked up at the sky. The ceiling was low. He mentioned to Hill some of his plane’s eccentricities, which included sticky landing gear. It had worked perfectly for the last while, since the Cessna’s annual maintenance, but just to be safe, Crossfield decided that he would wait for the clouds to lift, so that Hill and Rice could see if his wheels went up, and if not, he could return to the ground without too much bother.

Once, he had been the first man to fly twice and three times the speed of sound. The machines he piloted hang today, like mobiles, from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum, a short walk from the front steps of the Capitol dome. Even now, fifty years removed from their sonic history and coated with a thin layer of dust, they are beautiful. Crossfield would sometimes make the trip to the museum and look up at them, remembering first the Douglas D-558-II, shining white and rivetless, and next the sinister-looking X-15, which he first drew on the back of an envelope. Although his fame came from his flying, from his cameo in The Right Stuff as Chuck Yeager’s rival and foil, and from his years spent breaking in the precursors to moon rockets, he was also a designer and an engineer and an inventor. The first high-altitude full-pressure suit—built to keep a pilot’s blood from spitting out bubbles of nitrogen, filling his lungs with a crippling pink froth—sprung from Crossfield’s head and hands. The perches of some of the most advanced aircraft of the early space age were modeled after the tractor seats he had settled into as a child. But nothing else he ever did came close to his X-15, which he guided from the back of that envelope to a then-record 88,116 feet, the edge of space. Looking at it today, tied down and static, it’s hard to imagine where it has been and what it once represented, and it’s harder still to picture the old man as a young one, his helmet ricocheting off the cockpit’s canopy as he pushed closer and closer to oblivion.

Even a trip to the desert doesn’t much help with the dreaming. The pale skies over Edwards Air Force Base in southern California— where Crossfield left behind his longest vapor trails—are still crisscrossed by our most incredible machines, Blackbirds, Nighthawks, and Raptors; they are still flown by young pilots who develop a respect for wind shear and wake turbulence that borders on the mystical; those pilots still risk becoming the latest in a long string of Class-A mishaps, bogeyspeak for smoking holes in the ground. And yet there is less swagger in them than in the great, lead-bellied ghosts of the past. They have stopped drinking and smoking and carousing and riding horses and racing along empty highways on their motorcycles and in their Corvettes. They have waived romance for reason. They are far more likely to retire to a lounge with textbooks and a cup of coffee than to some dusty desert bar with black-and-white photographs of dead pilots on the wall.

Visual Confirmation

In the go-go jet propelled 1960s, pilots were daredevils and speed was a religion. These video clips give a small window into the insanity of that time, when aviators employed methods that would make Wile E. Coyote proud.

Crossfield enters the cockpit of the D-558 II, circa 1950s.

The X-15 is launched, dropped from a B-52 bomber, circa 1960s.

But in those photographs, shaken crooked and sometimes loose by sonic booms, there were lessons—the same lessons held by museums and smoking holes in the ground—that storied men like Scott Crossfield learned early on. They knew and accepted and even relished the fact that for all of our glories, there will be failures; that for all of our firsts, there will be lasts.

Come nine o’clock, there still wasn’t all that much distance between Crossfield and the low sky, but he was mindful of having to clear fifty miles by ten o’clock. President Bush was flying into Tuske-gee that morning, and to keep the skies open for Air Force One, there would be no other flights allowed in its vicinity during a four-hour block, until two o’clock in the afternoon. Crossfield couldn’t wait that long, not wanting to risk flying after dark, his night vision one of the few casualties of his aging. It was his time to go.

He shook Hill’s hand and gave Rice a hug and stepped up into his plane, as he had done hundreds of times. “Promise me you’ll never change,” Crossfield called out to Rice before latching shut the door. He completed his run-up, firing the mags to full power and testing the flaps. At last, he raced toward the end of the runway, heading due west, before lifting over the trees and making a gentle turn to the right. His wheels rose smoothly. Rice and Hill watched him climb until he pierced a knife-gray sky and disappeared.

Crossfield settled into a seat that, for him, had become as comfortable as a barstool. He set his course north-northeast, aiming just west of Atlanta, where air-traffic controllers watched him become another dot on their screens. The last time he saw Virginia was on the cool, early Monday morning of April 17. He kissed Alice, his wife of sixty-three years, closed the front door behind him, eased himself into his rattling red pickup, and drove from his home in Herndon, across the street from the school that had been named after him, to the airfield in nearby Manassas.

It is big enough to have a control tower rising above the lush green but not so big as to host commercial flights. Instead, rows of small planes are tied down and covered over like winter crops, and a little restaurant serves pancakes to hungry pilots, fresh from the hard labor of flying planes that won’t do the flying for you. Like a lot of small airports, Manassas feels slightly battered, as though it had just been pockmarked by hailstones, but that same feeling lends it a softness somehow, the ground almost supple. During the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, more than twenty thousand men were killed or wounded in the surrounding fields. But for those who keep their planes here, Manassas means letting out a quick, short, sometimes subconscious breath, having made it back alive.

Crossfield made a pit stop at the tiny, tin-walled shop on Observation Road, not far from the gate that protects the private hangars. The Manassas Aviation Center has shelves filled with quarts of oil, flight manuals, filters, batteries, and baseball caps. A shy, dark-haired woman named Sue, who called Crossfield “my sweetie,” sold him three different charts, maps tailor-made for skyscraping. Lined up, they would cover his flight path to Alabama with geography to spare, documenting the obstacles between him and safety, power lines and radio antennas and water towers and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

So armed, Crossfield drove through the gate to his hangar, unblocked his plane, tugged it outside, and replaced it with his truck. He loaded his bags, his laptop computer, some fruit and snacks, and a drink into his plane. Then, as he always did, he took a step back to survey it.

Like the airfield, his Cessna 210A looked a little battered. Forty-five years old, it was the first run of a new model, fresh from the factory in Wichita, Kansas, in December 1960, the same year Crossfield broke Mach 3. He liked that about it, and he liked that it looked flown, maintained but not coddled, washed only by the rain. “Well, it’s mine, and it’s paid for” was his standard response when asked about his feelings for it. He tried to pretend that it was just another of his life’s machines—certainly no D-558-II and nothing like the X-15. But the truth was, the old man had grown more tender about his old plane the older they had grown together. If it wasn’t love that was shared between them, there was at least an understanding.

During his middle years, after Edwards, after other men had flown faster than him, Crossfield stopped flying altogether. It wasn’t a vicious breakup, a priest storming out of his church. He had just convinced himself that he had done what he needed to do. And so for twenty years, one of the nation’s most accomplished pilots wasn’t a pilot at all.

But during an otherwise ordinary morning in the late 1980s, Alice Crossfield looked across the kitchen table at her husband and said, “If you don’t start flying again now, you never will.” Spurred, Crossfield asked a friend of his, the owner of a Taylorcraft, if he could take a shot at flying his plane, just to see if he still had the gift for it. The friend agreed, and the first man to fly twice and three times the speed of sound settled into the seat, two decades after he had last roared an engine to life, pointed himself down the center of the runway, and lifted into the sky. It was as though he had never left it.

His fire rekindled, Crossfield bought his Cessna 210A. It was not beautiful and it was not perfect. Its sticky landing gear, especially, was the sort of quirk that pilots would call “personality.”

Over the years, he had the instrument panel updated and the latest in navigation technology bolted on, but he refused to have an autopilot installed. Crossfield hand-flew his plane, in constant touch with its wants and needs. He was so intent on keeping that steady connection that he rarely even invited anyone to sit in the seat beside him, lest they try to cut in. Over his thousands of hours spent aloft in that weathered Cessna, he told an interviewer a few years ago, he flew solo for all but about fifty of them. He didn’t want anything or anyone to get between him and his plane and his plane and the air and the air and the universe. Down to his final departure from Manassas, flying for Scott Crossfield remained a solitary, intimate pursuit. Whenever he lifted off, it was as though, through his hospital-green headset, he could hear music written only for him.

Judy Rice—an outreach director for the Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force’s volunteer wing—was waiting for him in Alabama. She had arranged a private hangar, number 19, for his Cessna, at the end of a barnlike row. His eyesight wasn’t what it had once been, forcing him to wear glasses, and a good chunk of his hearing had been blasted into nothingness by afterburners and centrifuges, but in most ways, Rice thought Crossfield had aged well. He was sharp, funny, and hale.

He had a speech to give the next morning, to an incoming class of officer recruits. But in the meantime, he would talk with Rice about his hopes for one of his pet projects, the National Conference on Aviation and Space Education, or NCASE. Rice, a curly-haired spark plug, organized the biannual gathering of teachers and pilots designed to help expose students to the wonders of flight. This year’s event was scheduled for October in Arlington, and as always, one of its highlights would be the presentation of an award named for Crossfield, given to an exceptional aerospace teacher every year.

The next morning, Crossfield headed to the expansive, crowded Polifka Auditorium, where, standing behind a podium next to an American flag, he told his audience of new lieutenants stories of the desert in the fifties and sixties. He did so not to brag but to open their eyes to what their decision to join the Air Force had made possible. He had devoted nearly his entire life to flying—since he had first learned how as a twelve-year-old, in exchange for delivering the Long Beach Press-Telegram to the airport owner in Wilmington, California—and his love for it seemed limitless.

His long career began during World War II as a fighter pilot and instructor in the Navy. In 1950, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor. He was a civilian pilot by then, lined up alongside big-chested professional horsebreakers like Yeager. In family portraits, he was always the man at the end of the row, wearing a suit and a skinny tie, with his black hair oiled back; when he first showed up for work at the High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards, he looked as though he were there to pick away at the boundaries of astronautics with a pencil, not a plane. But because he didn’t have the same restrictions placed on him as the military fliers did, he was, in fact, among the most daring of those brass-balled men. Crossfield battled with lawyers, actuaries, and administrators nearly as often as he pitted himself against the sound barrier. (Later they would even try to stop him from flying to work in his Beech Bonanza, in case he crashed it instead of an X-1 or an XF-92 and wasted his life; he kept flying it anyway.) He raced Yeager for first glories and lost, but on November 20, 1953, he won redemption, becoming the first man to fly Mach 2, more than thirteen hundred miles per hour, in the D-558-II, better known as the Skyrocket, pushing past its theoretical top speed by 25 percent.

In 1955, Crossfield left NACA to join North American Aviation as a pilot and design consultant. Not long after, he was struck by perhaps his greatest inspiration, sketching out his breakthrough design for the X-15. It was the sort of fantastic machine we’re too practical and gutless to dream up today, a sleek black monster that, he hoped, might one day catapult him into space. He saw it built and took it on its first glides and powered flights. He crashed it once, during an emergency landing after an engine exploded in flight, breaking it in half, but he also secretly pushed it past Mach 3, a trick he only whispered about for years after, because it violated his contract.

Along the way, he was given trophies by President Kennedy and, in 1965, became one of the charter inductees into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Two years later, he quit North American having never become an astronaut—and believing, as he would for the rest of his life, that the nation’s sudden turn away from rocket planes to capsules ultimately undermined our progress in space—but secure in his position as a hero of the golden age of aviation. He spent the remainder of his career working for Eastern Air Lines, Hawker Siddeley Aviation, and even for Congress, serving as a technical consultant to the House Committee on Science and Technology, tackling problems such as air-traffic congestion. Until his retirement in 1993—and even after, in less official capacities—he remained almost single-minded in his commitment to flight.

Crossfield climbed to eleven thousand feet, passed along from sector to sector by Atlanta. It’s impossible to know what he could see through the breaks in the cloud deck. Perhaps he caught sight of the Frontier Yarns plant in Wetumpka; the mobile homes of Central; the Alabama National Guard Armory in Goodwater; the silver dome of the Clay County courthouse, wrapped in bunting for its centennial; the cemetery in Ashland, dotted with plastic flowers to mark sadder anniversaries; the white water tower with the heart painted on it in Lineville; the flat red roof of the Stinky Chicken Farm in Barfield; the Department of Transportation yard in Heflin; the peace symbol mown into the green hillside in Fruithurst; the brown rivers of Tallapoosa as he chugged across into Georgia; the steam rising out of the massive cooling towers near Stilesboro. Even if he saw none of those things, he almost certainly saw the rich vine country of Alabama melt into dun flatlands, invaded by the bedroom communities west of Atlanta. He almost certainly saw those flatlands begin lifting and folding and rolling into creases that would become foothills on their way to becoming mountains. And he almost certainly saw himself as an old man turned young again.

We can know, too, what he did not see from his height. He did not see the junked cars on overgrown front lawns; the one-pump filling stations and cracks in the sidewalk; the dump sites and mud puddles and tumbled barns; stray dogs and roadkill, flattened armadillos mostly; the hollers with their moonshine stills and dope fields; the downtowns with their boarded-up pharmacies and shoe stores; the suburban strip malls and Cracker Barrels; foreclosure notices on front doors; the abattoirs, glue factories, and burning pits; the countless billboards for radio stations, boat motors, furniture outlets, fast-food joints, high school football teams, and Baptist churches announcing GOD KNOWS WHEN YOU WERE HERE LAST.

He didn’t see all of those things, just as he didn’t see the thin storm clouds ahead of him turning into something else entirely. The day before, his speech had been good enough to ignite something in him, and he had asked Rice to take him back to the airport after lunch. There, he opened the hangar doors and stepped into the semidarkness, just an old man who wanted to spend some quiet time with his old plane. He ran his hand over its sides, as though smoothing the wrinkles in a blanket; gave the control surfaces a friendly nudge; opened and closed the baggage compartment and doors. Not long before his flight down, he had replaced the original twin-blade propeller with a triple—earned in exchange for giving another talk—and now he looked at it squarely in the nose, his face reflected in the one surface of his plane that was still polished.

Crossfield must have felt he needed to give his Cessna a little more love, because he bought a quart of oil and left it unopened inside of his plane, as if in tribute, just to sweeten it up. “In case I might need it in the morning,” he said.

And then he and Rice suddenly talked about dying, perhaps because they were both pilots, and every pilot is chased by the knowledge that for all of their firsts, there will be a last. “I don’t want to go out in my bathtub, and I don’t want to go out in my bed,” Crossfield told her. “I want to go out in my plane.”

Because of a “convectively enhanced disturbance” over Arkansas and because of local surface-based instability and diurnal heating, because of the moon or the sun or the tides or the stars, those thin storm clouds were being called to order in the Tennessee Valley. They were about to be fattened and fortified and united in their anger, and they were now beginning their charge toward Georgia, leaving lightning strikes and great pools of rain in their wake. They were destined to become, for so many reasons or for no good reason at all, what meteorologists call a Level 6 thunderstorm, the top of the scale. And what’s more, they had become a Level 6 thunderstorm south of the Mason-Dixon line, and every southern storm, even in springtime, feels as though it has a dash of hurricane in it. In small towns like Ludville, Ranger, and Fairmount, nestled among the trees and the mountains and the rich red earth, this was not going to be the sort of storm that makes you reach for an umbrella. This was going to be the sort of storm that makes you wonder what you had done wrong. Perhaps it was Atlanta’s spring haze that hid it from him. Perhaps he thought he could outrace it. Perhaps he thought he had waited in Prattville long enough for it to have passed in front of him, and now he planned on sneaking back behind it. Perhaps he didn’t know how bad it was. Perhaps he thought that no matter how bad it was, he could ride it out.

Whatever his thinking, Crossfield flew into the heart of it. Satellite images from that morning show a wide, swirling mass of cloud, thunderheads grown tall enough to leave shadows seen from space. They show enough for us to know that a small plane caught inside of it would have been tempting a Class-A mishap.

There isn’t much less material in a jumbo jet’s passenger door than there is in an entire Cessna. The even more significant difference, of course, is the one that divides jet engines from propellers. Most small planes won’t hump along much faster than an opened-up sedan. They don’t slice through the sky so much as they are at the mercy of it.

Inside big storms, particularly top-of-the-scale storms, particularly top-of-the-scale southern storms over mountains, the turbulence can knock a small plane to pieces. There are harrowing stories from pilots who have survived pitched battles for their lives in a nearly perfect blackness. Visibility is zero. Rain and hail bounce off windows and sometimes shatter them. No longer in their pilots’ hands, planes are slammed to the bottom of air pockets hard enough to feel as though they’ve hit ground, and next they are pushed high into the atmosphere and back down again, rising and falling through thousands of feet in seconds and minutes. Sometimes they are even flipped upside down, forced into barrel rolls by the winds whistling around them. All the pilot can do is try to stay level and hope to come out of it. He might also try to turn around.

Crossfield did. His last communication with air-traffic control was a request to make a 180 degree turn. Seconds later, at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, a dot disappeared from radar screens, and an anonymous controller suddenly felt sick to his stomach. Whenever that happens, phones start to ring. They rang in police stations and firehouses and eventually in the offices and homes of members of the Civil Air Patrol’s search-and-rescue teams, volunteers who give up their weekends to learn the hard art of finding lost planes. Most ominously, the phone also rang in the Chicago office of a man named Todd Fox, an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. After he had hung up, he read back his hastily jotted notes.

A little after nine o’clock that morning, a Cessna 210A, call sign N6579X, had taken off from Prattville, Alabama, bound for Manassas, Virginia. At precisely 11:10 A.M. local time, at fifty-five hundred feet—half of its normal cruising altitude—the plane suddenly had made itself scarce in northwestern Georgia, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. A thunderstorm was still bending trees in the region. There was no word yet on how many people were aboard the plane, but it was registered to an eighty-four-year-old man named Scott Crossfield. Fox stared hard at the name. He knew it immediately. He also knew, better than most, what thunderstorms did to small planes, and he made plans to fly to Georgia.

After Crossfield lost contact, from those last seconds on in, there can never be certainties. What if he had turned sooner? What if the president hadn’t been flying into Tuskegee and Crossfield had left Prattville a few hours later? What if his night vision hadn’t left him? What if the storm had stayed thin? That is not the end of the wondering. Crossfield had been in tough spots before—hell, he’d been in tough spots no other pilot had been in before—and perhaps he thought he could get out of this tough spot, too. Perhaps he knew he wouldn’t find escape but decided he wasn’t going down without a fight, straight-armed, “Aw, shit.” Perhaps he knew there was nothing for him to do, and he closed his eyes and waited for gravity’s inevitable embrace.

Perhaps he thought of his family; perhaps he thought of the desert; perhaps he thought of how high and fast he had flown in his life; perhaps he thought of what might be done with his ashes; perhaps he didn’t have time to think of anything but the trees and the mountains and the rich red earth.

Late the next morning, after the weather had cleared, a search plane spotted what looked like a door lying flat in a field. It was white with green-and-yellow trim. And then, perhaps a mile away, a helicopter crew saw what looked like wreckage on a steep slope, sheltered by hardwoods that sought the cool of the valley floor.

In turn, the search plane guided the Civil Air Patrol’s ground team—a mechanic named Jim Weed, a salesman named Keith Dickerson, an IT guy named William Hale—calling them forward through the woods, first left and then right, until they found what they were looking for, this crumpled thing another part of them had hoped they would never find.

The old plane was upside down and inside out, its tail snapped off and flipped back over itself. One of the bladders that had held its gas had been thrown clear; already the forest undergrowth had been killed by their spilled fuel. The floor pan rose silver out of the top of the debris. One of the wings poked out, too, as did some flashes of seat upholstery. There were flight charts to Alabama and back strewn about, as were two of the three propeller blades, twisted.

Tangled in the wreckage were the roots of some nearby trees that had been exposed when a mound of dirt had been pushed up. Above them there was a hole in the forest canopy, but not a big one. When Todd Fox looked up at the blue sky through it, he decided that the hole had been made by a Cessna 210A traveling nearly vertical. He measured the impact crater and found that it was four feet deep, and that mean figure confirmed his suspicions.

Worse fears were also confirmed, this time by the coroner. There were no passengers—because there hardly ever were—but the body of an eighty-four-year-old man named Scott Crossfield was found not in his bathtub or in his bed but in his plane.

What remained of his Cessna was carried out of the woods and hauled to a nearby Department of Transportation yard, where Fox did his best to make it whole again. So much of it was so far gone that it would never again look like a plane. Instead, by Fox’s eyes, it was a jigsaw puzzle, and he did his best to ferret out its four corners, connect them with edge pieces, and fill the void in the middle. After he was finished, there were pieces still missing: Parts of the right elevator and the plane’s third propeller blade have never been found. But the cables that ran between the controls and the rudder and flaps had not been cut; the wings had not fallen off; there had not been a fire. The machine was looking blameless, aside from the fact that it had been unable to hold itself together, coming apart over the course of one last, long mile, first shedding its door into a field.

Behind a warehouse filled with spare parts from carcasses picked clean, a soft-spoken, blue-eyed man named Todd Thaxton tends to neat rows of wrecked planes. He and his team at Atlanta Air Recovery in suburban Griffin, Georgia, have pulled them out of treetops and dragged them down from snow-covered peaks and raised them from their watery graves. Today, there are more than one hundred of them out back, big and small, damaged and destroyed; they share only their having taken last flights.

The worst of the current inventory—the Chalk’s Ocean Airways seaplane that lost a wing and splashed down off Miami Beach last year, taking twenty souls to the bottom with it—suffocates the weeds struggling to grow out from under its belly. There are also shattered Cessnas and Pipers, Bonanzas and Mooneys, their fragments sometimes covered by stomach-turning tarps, stacked high in trailers and wooden crates lined up like tombstones. Last week alone, Thaxton picked up the pieces of seven planes, brought them back to Griffin, and laid them out under the sun.

They will be held here indefinitely, gone over by accident investigators, insurance agents, liability lawyers, and family members and friends of the lost pilots and passengers. If a lawsuit is filed by those left behind, the plane will stay here for years, sometimes decades. If not, Thaxton will wait for word from the accident investigators to release the plane, either back to the insurance company or to the recyclers, depending on its condition. Downed planes are our modern-day buffalo, every scrap put to use.

Not long after Fox had begun his investigation, he had his jigsaw puzzle moved here. But Crossfield’s plane had a relatively short stay, a little less than three months, sandwiched between a crushed helicopter flipped on its side and the boxed-up debris left over from a calamitous wreck in Graniteville, South Carolina. After Fox put the Cessna back together for a second time, double-checking—and leaving the storm looking like his only culprit—he released it in early July. Paul Crossfield made the long trip to Griffin and stared down at what had become the first of his father’s caissons, spread out at his feet. With Thaxton’s help, he found the data plate—a small silver tab riveted to the side of every plane, stamped with its make, model, and serial number—and pried free some of the instruments. He put them into a cardboard box, carried the box back to his car, and drove away.

Thaxton surveyed what was left of the machine and shook his head. He dumped Scott Crossfield’s final plane into a rust-colored boxcar trailer waiting in the parking lot. A recycler hauled it away, using a shredder to separate the steel from the aluminum, sold for scrap, gone to make soda cans and siding.

Within days, a different plane had tak¬en its place in the yard, this one white with brown trim.

The buffalo business has never had much room for sentiment.

Nor, on this overcast August afternoon, does Arlington National Cemetery, or its buglers, or its white horses and boy-faced sailors. Two o’clock arrives, and it’s time for Daily, Kirk¬patrick, Ratcliff, and Strausser to be honored, but only until three o’clock, when four more men wait their turn.

If there is going to be a place to commune with the old man’s spirit, to come to know what he knew, this will not be it.

It will not be found in the National Air and Space Museum, either, or at a tiny tin-walled shop near an empty hangar in Manassas, or in the featureless California desert, or along the single runway in Prattville, or in a field of wrecked planes in Griffin, or in a smoke¬less hole in the ground bordered by Ludville, Ranger, and Fairmount, made off-limits to the curious by posted warning of the Black Knob Hunt Club.

The truth is, there is only one such place.

A small plane lifts off the ground, intimate and solitary, the voices crackling through the headset having been turned off, finally flying low and steady due north, toward the foot¬hills of the Smoky Mountains, today under blue skies, making the shadows short, the ridges lit up bright and shining, blanketed with pine trees, interrupted only every so often by ribbons of hardwoods nestled in the cool of the valleys, running between the bush-hugging farms and the brown rivers, looking from here like such a fine and soft place to come back down to earth.


  • LT   US NAVY
  • DATE OF BIRTH: 10/02/1921
  • DATE OF DEATH: 04/19/2006

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