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Crossfield Elementary Remembers Local Hero

Test pilot hero's death mourned

Sometime in late June of this year, Scott Crossfield Elementary School in Herndon will send its sixth-graders on to continue their education.

As always, speeches will be given reminding them of the importance of having an education and a strong work ethic, and as always a few of those students' minds might wander off into daydreams.

One thing that won't be usual will be the absence of that extra chair, placed on that stage almost every year at this time since 1988 for their neighbor, a former research pilot and engineer for NASA's predecessor in the '50s and '60s and the man for whom the school is named, Scott Crossfield. He had previously attended almost every sixth-grade graduation since the school was named for him.

Crossfield's remains were found Thursday, April 20, among the wreckage of his single-engine Cessna 210A airplane, 50 miles northwest of Atlanta, Ga., one day after his aircraft dropped from radar screens during a thunderstorm, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. He was 84-years-old.

Crossfield was best-known for his record-breaking test flights chronicled in the novel and 1983 film, "The Right Stuff," with the National Advisory Committee to Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) in the 1950s.

Over the deserts in Edwards, Calif., that decade, Crossfield forged a piece of history for himself when he became the first person to reach Mach 2 — twice the speed of sound — making him, for a brief period of time, the fastest man on the planet.

He would later go on to assist in the development of the X-15 rocket-powered airplane, the Hound Dog missile and Apollo Command and was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983, according to his official NASA biography.

WHILE THE COUNTRY lost a trailblazer in aeronautics engineering and space exploration, Crossfield Elementary lost a beloved and respected community representative.

The test pilot lived across the street from the school and he was a relative celebrity amongst its students and their families.

"A lot of parents my age and older would be enthralled when he would come around," said Crossfield principal Jerry Kovalcik. "They'd gather around and say, 'wow, is that Scott Crossfield?'"

"I remember once he came in for Scott Crossfield Spirit Day, and he was there in the front lobby and the kids all came in with their blue and white shirts and he'd bend over and sign his name with a magic marker on their shirts," Kovalcik said, making an exaggerated signing motion with his hand as he laughed.

He was a man with a firm handshake, who always looked directly in the eyes of the person talking to him and spoke in a "clear, pointed voice," Kovalcik remembers of Crossfield's physical character.

"He was very active in the school, he was here every time we invited him," Kovalcik said. "And he was a very busy guy ... his calendar was anything but open ... but he always made time to be here."

Crossfield, who would speak regularly to students about the importance of education, had a very strong connection with the school, according to Kovalcik.

"When I was brand new, I think he wanted to know how good of a principal I'd be for his school," he said, "I could tell that as he listened to me and looked at me."

Crossfield's presence is felt in more than just the name attached to the outside of the school. The building's main lobby has a display case with a model of Crossfield's X-5 rocket-plane and a framed copy of the June 8, 1988 edition of The Reston Connection, reporting the dedication of the school to Crossfield, is hung on the wall.

CROSSFIELD ELEMENTARY'S sixth-grade students more than likely remember him on a personal level the best, as they had seen him multiple times according to Kovalcik.

"I remember he said, 'work hard at something and achieve great praise,' or something like that," said 11-year-old Mitch Dollard, a sixth-grader at Crossfield Elementary. "The school is dedicated to him, and he lived a long life, but now he died ... it's kind of sad."

"We were in fourth grade and he came in to carve wood," said An Nguyen, an 11-year-old sixth-grader.

"Oh yeah, when we had colonial day," said her enthusiastic classmate, 12-year-old sixth-grader Caitlin Gunning. "It took him all day."

"He ran it through this saw thing," said Nguyen. "It was colonial day and he was trying to teach us about colonial life."

"He always told us to do good and, 'keep up with your work,'" she added.

Crossfield last visited the school about a week before he died, Kovalcik said. He had come in to schedule times to speak to the students.

"He saw his role here as a person to promote how important school was," Kovalcik said. "He [would tell] the kids how education was such an important factor in his life."

"It's funny how you kind of take things for granted," Kovalcik said, adding that he never considered how it would be when Crossfield died.

"I would hope that future principals have a chance to read up on him and talk to the people who knew him," he said. "From reading in the [Washington] Post and others you can see he was an achiever, a risk-taker, an engineer. But for the people who met him, you see he was one of those people that was humble, who didn't always like to look back on the past, but always forward to the future. He tried to impart that to our students."

"We enjoyed for 18 years the ability to have Scott Crossfield present at the school," Kovalcik said. "To have that figurehead and that powerful message from someone, and to have him standing there right next to you as you say it, it's more powerful."

"It's going to change now that the building is like a lot of others in that it's named after someone who died," he added. "It going to take some getting used to talking about it in the past tense."

Crossfield Elementary is soliciting ideas from its students as to how to commemorate the passing of Crossfield at the sixth-grade graduation ceremony this June.