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BUSINESSMAN GETS OK TO LOCATE, RECOVER X-2

The late afternoon sky was overcast as Captain William Leyshon pulled back on the control yoke and lifted the B-50 from the runway at the Niagara Falls Air Force Base.

Attached to the belly of the big aircraft was an X-2 supersonic rocket plane, one of only two built at the former Bell Aircraft plant in Wheatfield in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The four-engine B-50, a modified B-29, took off into the prevailing westerly wind, circled to the right and headed east over Lake Ontario.

Sitting next to the 46-year-old Leyshon was co-pilot David Howe, 34, of Grand Island. Among the other seven crew members were Bell test pilot Jean L. "Skip" Ziegler, 32, of Snyder, and flight engineer Frank Walco, 33, of Buffalo.

None of them knew that this test flight on May 12, 1953, would end in tragedy.

The X-2 was the successor to the X-1 series of rocket planes built at the Bell plant in the 1940s. Legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in an X-1 on Oct. 14, 1947.

Yeager went on to become the embodiment of "The Right Stuff," after Tom Wolfe published a book describing Yeager's role in the high-flying derring-do that preceded the space program.

But the "Right Stuff" didn't start in California, notes Niagara Falls entrepreneur and local expert on the X-series aircraft, Louis Ricciuti.

"The 'Right Stuff' started right here in Niagara County and Western New York," Ricciuti said.

And on that fateful day, a sad chapter would be written in the history of aviation here.

The X-2 was built of stainless steel and a steel alloy. It was designed to fly at Mach 3 -- three times the speed of sound -- to explore the heat problems encountered at those speeds.

As Capt. Leyshon leveled the B-50 out at 30,000 feet over Lake Ontario, the sleek, swept-wing plane attached to the belly of the larger plane had not yet flown under its own power.

Some months earlier, it had been dropped from the belly of a B-50 at Edwards Air Force Base, for a glide trial.

It glided well, but upon landing, the plane's nose wheel collapsed, gouging a long, narrow trail in the hard desert floor.

The plane was sent back to Bell for repairs, and once it was fixed, tests resumed, this time from the air base here.

On May 12, the mission did not involve dropping the X-2 from the B-50. The crew took the plane up to run three tests during the looping flight over Lake Ontario in restricted military airspace.

First, the crew checked communications links between the two planes. The fuel tanks of the rocket plane were pressurized to test the fueling process. And, most important, test pilot Ziegler practiced entering the cramped cockpit of the X-2 while it was attached to the bomb bay area of the mother ship.

Ziegler had just climbed out of the X-2 cockpit when leather gaskets on the pressurized fuel tanks ruptured, releasing the highly explosive oxygen and alcohol fuel.

Suddenly the X-2 was a bomb, and to save the lives of those on board, it had to be jettisoned.

The pilot of a chase plane reported seeing "a ball of fire" as his aircraft was flipped over by the impact of the explosion.

Ziegler was believed to have been killed instantly.

Walco was seen bailing out from his observation post at the rear of the B-50.

But his parachute did not open, recounted Ricciuti, who collected his information through interviews with former Bell employees and their surviving relatives, and from Air Force archives.

Neither man's body was recovered.

Another crewman in the B-50, Robert Walters, 27, of Tonawanda, was injured. The explosion knocked out one of the B-50's four engines. The crippled B-50 limped back to the Niagara Falls Air Base.

For 46 years, the X-2 has remained in 800 feet of water at the bottom of Lake Ontario.

"I met with the Air Force Wednesday and they said, 'Go get it,' " said Ricciuti, referring to a meeting he had with Neil E. Nolf, the public affairs officer at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base.

Ricciuti said he had to check with the Air Force to make sure there were no secret materials or sensitive data on board the X-2 when it fell into the lake.

The answer: Full speed ahead.

"We support the effort of this enterprise to recover the aircraft and tell the story of its important place in history," said Nolf.

The official Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, didn't lay claim to the aircraft and gave Ricciuti's recovery project its sanction, Nolf said.

Whatever remains of the X-2 will be reassembled and displayed at the Niagara Aerospace Museum in the Summit Park Mall on Williams Road in Wheatfield.

Ricciuti, who became fascinated with military aircraft as a boy growing up near the Niagara Falls Air Base, has studied the X-2's fate for five years. Using witness statements and maps, he believes he has narrowed the recovery site to a five-by-two-mile area in the center of the lake about 80 nautical miles northeast of Youngstown.

The first, cursory investigation of the search area will be made in about two weeks, he said.

Then the intensive work starts.

The recovery operation will be conducted in three stages:

Visual identification of the plane's components using sophisticated electronic sensing equipment, such as side-scan sonar, magnetometers that detect metal under water and digital photographic imaging cameras;

Preparation of a detailed site map of the recovery area and debris field;

The actual retrieval of the components of the X-2.

Ricciuti said a manned submersible will be used to visually inspect the wreckage and to determine the best means of retrieval.

Ricciuti said he could bring the plane up as early as next spring.

Hugh M. Neeson, a museum trustee and former vice president and general manager of Bell Aircraft's successor, Bell Aerospace Textron, said: "The way the aircraft was designed, it was very structurally sound. I'm sure it broke apart, but there may be sections of the airplane that are intact."

According to the Air Force, the remaining X-2 completed a series of glide flights, then made its first powered flight Nov. 18, 1955. On Sept. 27, 1956, Capt. Milburn G. "Mel" Apt accelerated the X-2 to a speed of just over Mach 3 (about 2,000 miles per hour) at 65,500 feet. Just after reaching that speed, the plane went out of control and crashed into the desert, killing Apt. That ended the X-2 program.

That X-2 was "remarkably intact" after that impact, Ricciuti said.

The recovery of the other X-2 from the bottom of Lake Ontario "would be a remarkable recovery and a significant addition, not only to the museum, but to aircraft history," said Neeson.

The cold, fresh water of Lake Ontario is the perfect environment to preserve the plane and its components, said Ricciuti.

"The question is how many pieces the plane is in," said Jack E. Heine, president of the museum's board of trustees. "It's something I've always wondered about -- how much of the plane is intact."

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