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X-15 rocket plane pilot Bill Dana passes away at age 83

LOS ANGELES--Famed research test pilot Bill Dana, who flew the X-15 rocket plane and other pioneering aircraft during the birth of the space age, has died at age 83.

Dana died Tuesday at an assisted living facility in suburban Phoenix, according to an announcement Wednesday by NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.

Starting in the 1950s, Dana logged more than 8,000 hours in more than 60 types of aircraft, ranging from helicopters and sailplanes to the hypersonic X-15, which he flew to a maximum altitude of nearly 59 miles, reaching a top speed of 3,897 mph.

In 2005, he was awarded civilian astronaut wings for two of those flights to the edge of space — nearly 40 years after his X-15 flights — because at the time, NASA did not confer astronaut wings on its pilots.

Dana also flew NASA's so-called lifting body aircraft that led to the design of the space shuttle.

Dana was born in Pasadena, California, but grew up in Bakersfield, where he fell in love with aircraft as a child.

“I remember seeing B-25s and P-38s flying over at the start of World War II and there was something very glorious and exciting about the warbirds, and I was attracted to it and I never really lost my ambition to fly those airplane(s),” he told Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in a 1997 interview.

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This 1967 file image provided by NASA shows research pilot Bill Dana in front of the X-15 on the dry lakebed at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (AP

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