Ultimate Aviation Gift? How About A $7,000 Photo Of The X-15 Signed by 7 Test Pilots?

A screen grab of the eBay listing for the "Seven X-15 Test Pilot" photo showing the $8250 starting price. (Photo: via eBay)

Auction House Lists Rare X-15 Photo with Autographs of Neil Armstrong, Pete Knight, Scott Crossfield and More.

With holiday shopping season here, what do you get for the wealthy aviation collector who has everything? An ultra-rare photo of the experimental X-15 rocket plane signed by seven of its most famous test pilots, including the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, is one solid gift idea. But this ultimate aviation gift may break the sound barrier of your PayPal account.

This artifact showed up on eBay and was originally listed for $8,250. When we did some investigating we found the prominent Las Vegas collectible artifact broker, History for Sale, was behind the listing. A shrewd buyer could snap up the signed photo at a discount directly from the History for Sale website for a mere $7,012.50, a whopping savings of $1237.50!

When we spoke to History for Sale in Las Vegas about the rare photo, they told us, “Our system indicates we acquired this piece some years ago from another auction house”.

If the $7,012.50 price tag still gives you a case of supersonic sticker shock, it’s worth considering why a photo like this is actually so valuable- and unique.

A rare photo of William “Pete” Knight after landing the specially painted X-15A-2 on October 3, 1967 after setting his Mach 6.7 speed record. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

We did some independent price comparisons to see if History for Sale’s valuation of the photo was within reasonable pricing expectations. First of all, original photos (not reprints) of the X-15 are getting increasingly tough to come by. Secondly, all but one of the test pilots in this photo are, unfortunately, deceased. Going down the list of test pilot autographs on this photo we have:

  • William “Pete” Knight: Knight is the “fastest man in history”. He still holds the unclassified speed record for atmospheric flight at a staggering Mach 6.7 set on October 3, 1967 in an X-15. Knight also owns a long list of other test pilot accomplishments. Pete Knight passed away in 2004, making his signature increasingly valuable among aviation collectors.
  • Milt Thompson: Thompson passed away in 1993. He was Chief Engineer and Director of Research Projects at the NASA Dryden Research Center in addition to being one of the elite X-15 pilots. Milt Thompson was also the only civilian test pilot to fly the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a test bed for the Air Force’s intended development of reusable space planes that was cancelled when NASA took over space shuttle development. Thompson’s autograph alone is rare and highly collectible.
  • Bob White: White has never received the recognition he deserves as a test pilot. Bob White was the first human to fly above Mach 4, Mach 5, and Mach 6. He also earned astronaut wings from an X-15 flight and was the U.S. Air Force’s first “winged” astronaut. White is the author of “Higher and Faster: Memoir of a Pioneering Air Force Test Pilot”. His book is among the very best on the X-15 program and the golden era of flight testing.
  • Joe Engle: Engle is the last surviving X-15 test pilot, a living time capsule of aviation history. He is also the only man to have flown two different types of winged spacecraft in space flight, the X-15 and the U.S. space shuttle. Engle served as a test pilot on the U.S. space shuttle program in addition to his X-15 and other extensive flight test experience. He is the only living X-15 pilot who can still sign an autograph.
  • Bill Dana: Dana was another of the elite cadre of test pilots to earn astronaut wings flying the X-15 rocket plane to an extreme altitude of more than 50 miles high. That is beyond earth’s atmosphere and into the near-reaches of outer space. He was also active in the dangerous “lifting body” flight test program, made famous in the opening scene of the popular television series, “The Six Million Dollar Man”- although Dana was not the man in the crash sequence in the opening of the show. Bill Dana passed away in 2014.
  • Scott Crossfield: Perhaps the name most identified with the X-15 program, Crossfield was the first pilot to fly above Mach 2. He also flew the D-558-I and D-558-II test aircraft. Crossfield wrote what is likely the definitive chronicle of America’s golden age of flight testing, “Always Another Dawn”, published in 1960. Scott Crossfield died in April, 2006.
  • Neil Armstrong: Ask any American to name an astronaut, and they will likely say, “Neil Armstrong”. Known most prominently as the first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong’s flight test record is every bit as impressive as his lunar exploration achievements. During his career as a test pilot, Armstrong flew 200 different aircraft types, including every operational aircraft in the famous Century Series, America’s first highly capable series of jet combat aircraft that included the F-100 Super Saber, F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief and F-106 Delta Dart.

Doing some price shopping we find collectible copies of Scott Crossfield’s book, “Always Another Dawn”, selling as high $985 USD on Amazon. There are copies available in used or library condition for as little as $40 USD, but they are not signed or in collectible condition.

Test pilot Scott Crossfield’s book, “Always Another Dawn” is selling at a premium on some Amazon.com product pages, although copies are also available for less in different editions and conditions. (Photo: via Amazon.com)

A signed photo of an X-15 by test pilot Joe Walker, who died when his NASA NF-104 collided with the second XB-70 Valkyrie prototype in June 1966, is listed on eBay for $1,199 USD. While Walker’s autograph is not included on this X-15 photo from History for Sale, it calibrates the value of the other X-15 test pilots’ individual signatures.

A screen capture of an eBay listing for an X-15 photo signed by test pilot Joe Walker. (Photo: via eBay)

It’s also worth noting that the Joe Walker autographed photo on eBay is signed to a specific person’s name, in this case, it looks like the Walker autograph reads, “Howdy to Jim Garrefy”.  Every aviation autograph hound knows the real value of an aviation autograph comes when the signature is not attributed to a specific person, it is only signed by the test pilot themselves. This significantly increases the value of the autograph.

Test pilot autographs have become so valuable that even during the “golden era” of flight testing in the late 1940’s through the ‘60’s around Edwards AFB, most test pilots would only sign autographs specifically with the person’s name asking for the autograph, as in, “To Tom from Chuck Yeager”. This practice discouraged the brokering of signed test pilot memorabilia on the secondary market for profit.

While some of the increase in the value of rare, test pilot autographed photos took place in the decades following the golden era of flight testing, the values set new altitude records after the release of the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Right Stuff” in 1983. This increased the value of autographs from test pilots like Chuck Yeager up to similar prices with professional athletes and Hollywood entertainers. Today a Chuck Yeager autograph typically sells for much more than an autographed photo from pop music stars like Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande, partially because these young entertainers are still around and will be signing photos of themselves for fans for many years to come. And, while most entertainer autographs tend to move in value with their popularity, autographs of historic personalities like test pilots tend to increase steadily as they age since their accomplishments remain relevant. The introduction of online auction sites like eBay in 1995 also facilitated a rapid increase in aviation autograph values as the site made these items widely available and easy to bid on.

X-15 test pilot Scott Crossfield at the launch of Space Ship One on October 4, 2004. This remarkable portrait of him was shot by photographer D. Ramey Logan who has shared it on Wikipedia so that it can be widely viewed. (Photo: D. Ramey Logan via Wikipedia)

Test pilot autographs are also increasingly difficult to come by since there are fewer pilots left from the golden age of flight testing. Chuck Yeager in particular was known to be very selective about whom and how he signed autographs for. As a result, an authentic Yeager signature without a specific name attribution is quite valuable today even though Yeager, thankfully, is still alive at 97.

So, is this autographed X-15 photo from History for Sale really worth in excess of $7,000 USD? Short answer: Yes- it is.

In fact, because of the unique, large size of the photo, its excellent condition and the quantity and quality of signatures, this artifact’s value may soon move north of $10,000 to the right aviation enthusiast considering how difficult it would be to find any similar item elsewhere.

And that brings us to an interesting question about this photo and its origin: Are there any more of the ultra-rare, ultra-valuable “Seven X-15 Test Pilot Photos” in existence? The answer is: probably.

Consider that this photo was likely printed in 11” X 14” size (which also adds to its value) for some type of a publicity event. Unless the event was held specifically for a single person, such as an aircraft industry executive, high-ranking military officer or a museum display, then perhaps several of the prints were signed at the same time by the seven test pilots during this same event. What may have become of any other similarly autographed photos, if they exist?

Another X-15 photo, this one a different, smaller 8” X 10” image of an X-15 landing, appeared on another auction house website, this one called Heritage Auctions. This photo is priced with a starting bid of $5,200 USD. The interesting thing about this second, smaller and different X-15 autographed photo is- the exact same pilots signed the photo in the exact same order with what appears to be the same pen(s). This suggests this separate photo may have been signed during the same event where the same seven pilots were next to each other in the same order as the photo moved down the line of pilots for their autographs.

The appearance of this second photo, the smaller 8” X 10”, $5,200 USD “Seven X-15 Test Pilot Photo” suggests there could be more X-15 photos out there with this original set of autographs from the very same signing event. Where they are, if they exist, remains a mystery.

These two X-15 photos are signed by the same test pilots in the same order with pens that appear to be the same. This suggests they may have been signed at the same time and event. While no more have surfaced recently, it may suggest that more of the
“Seven X-15 Test Pilot” photos exist somewhere.

But with only 55 shopping days until Christmas, how much time do you have to do a deep dive with Google and Tineye searches, and scour eBay with the hopes of finding one of the (possibly) missing Seven X-15 Test Pilot Photos? So, if you have the cash to part with, this artifact is a prime piece of aviation history that seems to have all the “Right Stuff” for a perfect gift for the super-aviation history buff on your Christmas list. But don’t wait too long, it may disappear with Mach speed.

About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.