ORLANDO, Fla. - When Robert White shot through the sky in a rocket-powered X-15 airplane nearly 50 years ago, he earned a place in the development of America's space program that those in the field still talk about.
First to break Mach 4 - four times the speed of sound. First to break Mach 5. First to break Mach 6 - more than 4,000 mph. All in a few months in 1961. Then in 1962 the young test pilot with Hollywood good looks nosed his airplane 59 miles above the earth to be the first to take a winged craft into space.
"He is an icon," said Jim Young, chief historian at Edwards Air Force Base in California. "He accomplished some things that were major milestones in the history of flight."
White, of Orlando, who retired from the Air Force in 1981 as a major general, died in his sleep Wednesday after several months of declining health. He was 85.
Greg White, his son, remarked that it was ironic that a man who lived his life on the edge of danger for decades died so peacefully.
Father and son appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1962 under the title "What a Ride!" after White's landmark journey into space.
It was the apex of his career as a test pilot, the nation was enthralled, and kids across America were busy gluing together gray plastic models of his plane.
While first American astronauts Alan Shepard, Virgil Grissom and John Glenn all had been nose-coned into space at the time, White's feat was a forerunner of the space shuttle program to follow. It began to demonstrate that a winged craft could travel in space.
Born and raised in New York City, White entered the military in 1942 and was commissioned as a pilot in 1944 in the thick of World War II. His P-51 was shot down over Germany in early 1945, and he spent a couple of months in a prisoner of war camp. He was called back into the service during the Korean War.
In 1954, White was transferred to Edwards, where the testing toward space flight was getting under way. He was part of the pioneering group detailed in Tom Wolfe's novel and subsequent movie "The Right Stuff."
White also served in Vietnam , where he completed 70 combat missions in an F-105. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.