The Sounds of the Fastest Plane in the World, an ICBM Missile, and 28 Other Jets, Rockets, and Weapons

An aural history of the Cold War technologies that underpinned the space race and the arms race.


If you spend any time looking for records at flea markets and garage sales, you come to recognize a variety of common vintage records: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Barbra Streisand, box collections of "best of" classical music, the band America.

And then there are the rare finds, the albums that you would never expect to exist. My latest find at the Alameda Point Antiques Fair falls into that category. It's a 1961 record by Reprise Records that I found yesterday digging through crates: X-15 and Other Sounds of Rockets, Missiles, and Jets.

I knew the X-15 was a spaceplane, the fastest manned aircraft ever built. But how could you make an album out of its flights?

"We are indebted to the abilities and perseverance of the many sound technicians who operated those [recording] machines, past and present. To the nameless front-line technicians who recorded the sounds of World War Ii aircraft under every condition (using wire, disc, film, and primitive tape machines), gratitude is expressed for the sounds they recorded under super-human stress," the back of the album intoned. "To their successors, we give our thanks for preserving these historic sounds while fulfilling their primary mission of recording higher and faster flight." Narrated with patriotic brio by disc jockey Johnny Magnus, the album, is "a sound-picture of the North American X-15, her contemporary companions, and her gallant predecessors."

And it became my possession for $2. And now yours, via SoundCloud, for nothing.

The X-15 was built by a company called North American Aviation, which is now a part of Boeing via a sale to Rockwell International. The recordings saw the light of day because one of the company's employees, Martin Halperin, "who recorded, supervised, or revivified the sounds from their original sources." According to the album cover, "The sound department of North American Aviation, Incorporated (Los Angeles Division) has one of the largest libraries of documented aerial sounds on earth."

Before you listen to the title track, let me tell you a couple more things about the X-15. The rocket-powered plane was carried into the sky by a B-52 bomber. Once untethered and under its own power, it could reach speeds of 4,500 miles per hour and altitudes over 100,000 feet before gliding back to Earth. "The X-15 paved the way for America's piloted space program, setting unofficial world records for flight speed and altitude along the way," NASA says. Also, Neil Armstrong flew one. Here's one being dropped from a B-52.


And here's the test flight audio from the X-15, introduced with a wonderful guarantee: "The voices are actual. All things are as they occurred."

Another truly fascinating track was recorded in the nosecone of an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile! "As a passenger in the nosecone of Atlas intercontinental missile, you will be on top of the result of more than a million man-hours of work," Magnus narrates. "In the uninterrupted sequence which follows, actually recorded in the nosecone, you will hear the following: the countdown and launch, the separation of the first stage at burnout, the intermittent sounds of the guidance rockets, the separation of the second stage, the separation of the nose cone, and the sound of the guidance rockets as they guide you to your final destination. Now get ready for countdown and launch!" 

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