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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Mystery of the Missing Crossfield Papers

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.
Sometimes collections come to the Archives in unusual ways and sometimes extraordinary circumstances shape the content of those collections. When I was processing the A. Scott Crossfield Papers for the National Air and Space Museum Archives, it was clear that there was a good deal more material from the later stages of Crossfield’s career and I would soon find some intriguing correspondence that explained why.

Scott Crossfield standing in front of the North American X-15, October 1958. NASM 9A08280.

Albert Scott "Scotty" Crossfield, Jr. was an aviator, U.S. Navy veteran, and aeronautical engineer best known for his work as a test pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where he made history on November 20, 1953 in the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket as the first pilot to exceed Mach 2. In 1955, Crossfield left NACA and went to work for North American Aviation, Inc. as both Project Pilot and as a Design Specialist on their X-15 program. Later at North American, Crossfield worked on various projects including the Hounddog Missile (AGM-28, GAM-77), Paragliders for the Gemini program, Apollo Command and Service Module, and the Saturn V launch vehicles, second stage. In 1967, Crossfield joined Eastern Airlines where he served in various executive positions for several years before leaving to serve as Senior Vice President for Hawker Siddeley Aviation's U.S. subsidiary branch (an office he helped establish). After leaving Hawker Siddeley, Crossfield served for many years as an independent technical advisor to the U.S. Congress and, in the later part of his life, Crossfield traveled extensively to give talks, attend events, and make various professional appearances.

Scott Crossfield during his time at Eastern Air Lines. NASM 9A10099.

While going through the collection, I was surprised at the quantity of material from Crossfield’s years with Eastern Airlines onwards and I was also surprised at gaps in the papers from Crossfield’s exciting work at North American. Then I found some correspondence, dated 1973, from Crossfield to both a history professor at the University of Wyoming and to a high-ranking U.S. Navy official in San Francisco alluding to an aircraft crash that destroyed some of his personal papers. A little research revealed that a terrible tragedy had indeed shaped the scope of the collection that the NASM Archives holds today.

On the evening of February 7, 1973, two U.S. Navy Vought A-7E Corsair II aircraft were on a routine training flight from Naval Air Station Lemoore to Sacramento, California when one of the aircraft plummeted into the Tahoe Apartment Building in Alameda, California. Eleven people were killed, including the pilot, Lieutenant Robert Lee Ward. A former secretary of Crossfield’s , Marian L. Brown, was a resident of the Tahoe Apartment building who fortunately survived the crash. She was in possession of Crossfield’s personal records covering the years 1958 to 1967 because she was being paid to organize them for Crossfield’s future writing projects. As Crossfield states in a letter dated April 6, 1973 to J.M. Tobin, Commandant, Twelfth Naval District and Commander, Naval Base, San Francisco:

“The records covered all of my activities associated with the X-15 airplane design and test, the F-100, F-107, Sabreliner, and B-70 programs associated while I was Chief Engineering Test Pilot for North American. Also contained were the documents of the design development, test, and quality assurance of the Apollo, Saturn II booster, the paraglider, and the development history of the full pressure suit started with the Navy in 1951.”
Fortunately for our researchers, the collection does still contain some fascinating material on these programs that Crossfield had either retained in his possession or gathered from other sources over the years. Still, who knows what information was lost to history forever that night along with the most terrible loss of all, the lives of those who were killed. As Crossfield put it in his letter to CDR Tobin:

“It is very regrettable they were lost but like with the pilot, the loss is permanent.”
The A. Scott Crossfield papers are a good reminder that the collections we house today are a product of the often eventful lives they have lived before they come to our institutions, and an even better reminder of the importance of safeguarding these materials for future generations.

Jessamyn N. Lloyd
National Air and Space Museum

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