Joe Engle: The Man Who Flew the Rocket

Joe Engle: The Man Who Flew the Rocket

America’s space program has spanned many generations. The era of the program a person identifies with the most has much to do with age. For some, the space program will always be those first flights in the Mercury and Gemini programs. Others can remember exactly where they were when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module on Apollo 11 and on to the moon’s surface. Others from later generations identify more with the Space Shuttle program. Few people can say their name was intertwined through the entire manned spaceflight program, but Joe Engle is just such a man. Joe’s aviation career started in a fabric-covered biplane, and would span a time when men were pushing jet fighter aircraft as high and fast as they could get them to go. And before long he was using those same stick and rudder skills to hand fly the space shuttle from orbit. 

There isn’t a time Joe can remember when he wasn’t thinking about flying. “My mother always said that as far back as she could remember I talked about becoming a pilot,” he said. Joe’s first airplane ride was in a PT-17 Stearman. “There was a Labor Day weekend event in our town in Chapman, Kansas, and a barnstormer said he would take us up for two dollars each. We tried to save up but couldn’t get enough, so he took us together in one flight.” That ride took his interest in airplanes to a new level. After college he joined the United States Air Force and was assigned to single engine training. 

Air Force aviation was exciting right out of the gate for Joe. He started out flying the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, North American T-28 Trojan, and later the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star. “I loved that every time I transitioned to a new aircraft, it would be a machine that could take me higher, farther, and faster.”  He was eventually assigned to the F-84F Thunderjet and F-100 Super Sabre at George AFB with the 474th Fighter Day Squadron and the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron. There he befriended Chuck Yeager, who changed the course of Joe’s career by recommending him for the Air Force’s test pilot school. After spending some time at Edwards Air Force Base test flying for the Cessna YAT-37 Dragonfly and Northrop F-5 programs, Joe decided to apply to the Aerospace Research Pilot School, where pilots worked with the cutting edge in new aircraft and weapons systems.    

Between 1962 and 1975, the school expanded its role to include astronaut training for armed forces test pilots. The school’s commandant was none other than Chuck Yeager, and he personally selected Joe for admission. “I really had mixed emotions, because to me it meant the possibility of leaving stick-and-rudder flying, which I had coveted my whole life,” Joe said.

During this time, NASA was searching for a round of astronauts. Joe decided to apply. Soon after, he was summoned by his commanding officer, who told Joe he was pulling his application to NASA and tore it up in front of him. The general alluded that there was something else in store for Joe. That something else turned out to be a new rocket plane: the North American X-15. The jet’s long slender black fuselage extended out more than 50 feet, but it had a small wing span of just 22 feet. Powered by an XLR99 rocket engine, the X-15 was the first large throttle-able and restartable liquid-propelled rocket engine. After being carried aloft under the wing of a modified Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, it was capable of taking pilots to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere at speeds over Mach 6, or 4,520 mph.

Photo courtesy of NASA

“I was excited because everyone wanted to fly the X-15,” Joe said. “It was the ultimate in flight testing. You still had to use your stick and rudder skills, but it was going to be higher and faster than ever before.”

At that time there were four pilots who shared the duties of flying the X-15, resulting in about a flight per month for each pilot. Joe became the youngest person to qualify as an astronaut when he flew the X-15 to an altitude of 280,600 feet, more than fifty miles above Earth’s surface. Altogether he flew the X-15 16 times and is one of only eight men  to ever qualify for astronaut wings by flying an airplane into space.   

After completing his work for the X-15 program, Joe finally joined the ranks of NASA in April 1966 when he was selected to become an astronaut. He was the only person to come to NASA with prior space flight experience. Joe trained alongside Jim McDivitt and Ed White and was assigned to the Apollo Program. His first assignment was to be support crew for Apollo 10, and he would later be the backup lunar module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission. In addition, Joe worked in mission control on some of the missions as a CAPCOM. He was to be part of the prime crew for Apollo 17 before budget cuts canceled the last three planned Apollo flights. However, this wasn’t the end of Joe’s career in space.

He went on to fly the re-entry approach and landing tests in the Space Shuttle Enterprise, taking off on top of a Boeing 747 and being released at 25,000 feet to fly the profile back to the runway and evaluate the characteristics of the orbiter. He and Richard Truly completed the first flight of the shuttle in its orbital configuration. Joe also served as a back-up commander for STS-1, which was the first orbital test of the Space Shuttle Columbia. 

In November 1981, Joe commanded STS-2, which was Columbia’s second orbital test. He hand-flew the shuttle from orbit to landing, which was the first and only time a winged aerospace vehicle was flown manually from orbit through landing.

On August 27, 1985, Joe flew into space for the last time, as commander of the Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-51-I. During this flight the crew deployed three separate communications satellites and completed a repair on the Syncom IV-3 satellite. “It was really something to see them out there rewiring and wrestling that thing around,” Joe said. “When it came time for re-entry, it was very smooth. A gentle buildup of gs. “ 

In late 2015, one of Joe’s old friends was moved to a new home. The National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio had built a new wing to house more of its impressive collection, including X-15A-2 56-6671. Joe was invited to the grand opening, where he was able to reunite with the X-15 that had been a milestone in his flying career. “Sitting back in that cockpit, it just felt like I was back home again.”

Joe at the ceremonial opening of NMUSAF fourth hangar
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EAA Lifetime 41434, EAA Aviation Museum Programs Coordinator