This week in history: NF-104 CRASH

av_nf-104a-behind leftThe Lockheed NF-104A was an American mixed power, high-performance, supersonic aerospace trainer that served as a low-cost astronaut training vehicle for the X-15 and projected X-20 Dyna-Soar programs.

The third NF-104A (USAF 56-0762) was delivered to the USAF on 1 November 1963, and was destroyed in a crash while being piloted by Chuck Yeager on 10 December 1963.

As excerpted from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff:

Two extraordinary pieces of equipment were being developed specifically for ARPS. One was a space mission simulator, a device more realistic and sophisticated than the Mercury project simulator NASA had on the boards. The other was the NF-104, which was an F-104 with a rocket engine mounted over the tailpipe. The rocket engine used hydrogen peroxide and JP4 fuel and would deliver 6.000 pounds of thrust. It was like a super-afterburner. The main engine plus the regular afterburner would take you to about 60,000 feet, and when you cut in the rocket, and that would take you somewhere between 120,000 and 140,000 feet. At least that was what the engineers confidently assumed. The plan was that the ARPS students would run profiles on the space mission simulator, then put on silver pressure suits, space-flight style, and take the NF-104 up to 120,000 feet or more in a tremendous arc, affording up to two minutes of weightlessness. During this interval they could master the use of reaction controls, which were hydrogen-peroxide thrusters of the sort used in all vehicles above 100,000 feet, whether the X-15, the Mercury capsule, or the X-20.

The only problem was, nobody had ever wrung out the NF-104. Just how it would handle in the weak molecular structure of the atmosphere above 100,000 feet, what the limits of its performance envelope would be, nobody knew. The F-104 had been built as a high-speed interceptor, and when you tried to do other things with it, it became very “unforgiving,” as the expression went. Pilots were already beginning to crunch the F-104 simply because the engine flamed out and they fell to the ground with about as much glide as a set of car keys. But Yeager loved the damned ship. It went like a bat. As the commandant of ARPS, he seized the opportunity to test the NF-104 as if it had his name on it.

yeager&NF104The main reason he would be testing it would be for use in the school, but there was an extra dividend. Whoever was the first to push the NF-104 to optimum performance was certain to set a new world record for altitude achieved by a ship taking off under its own power. The Soviets had set the current record, 113,980 feet, in 1961 with the E-66A, a delta-winged fighter plane. The X-2 and the X-15 had flown higher, but they had to be hauled aloft by a larger ship before their rockets were ignited. The Mercury and Vostok space vehicles were lifted to altitude by automated booster rockets, which were then disengaged and jettisoned. Of course, all aircraft records were losing their dazzle now that space flight had begun. It was getting to be like setting some sort of new record for railroad trains. Yeager hadn’t tried to break a record in the skied over Edwards since December 1953, ten years ago, when he had set a new speed mark of Mach 2.4 in the X-1A and had come down in the far side of the arc in the most horrendous bout with high-speed instability any man had ever survived. Now Yeager was back on the flight line again to go for broke, out by the shimmering mirage surface of Rogers Lake, under that pale-blue desert sky, and the righteous energy was flowing again… and through that wild unbroken beast… a few volts of that righteous old-time religion… well, that would be all right, too.

yeager_2Yeager had taken the NF-104 up for three checkout flights, edging it up gradually toward 100,000 feet, where the limits of the envelope, whatever they were, would begin to reveal themselves. And now he was out on the flight line for the second of two major preliminary flights. Tomorrow he would let it all out and go for the record. It was another of those absolutely clear brilliant afternoons on the dome of the world. In the morning flight everything had gone exactly according to plan. He had taken the ship up to 108,000 feet after cutting in the rocket engine at 60,000. The rocket had propelled the ship up at a 50-degree angle of attack. One of the disagreeable sides of the ship was her dislike of extreme angles. At any angle greater than 30 degrees, her nose would pitch up, which was the move she made just before going into spins. But at 108,000 feet it was no problem. The air was so thin at that altitude, so close to being pure “space,” that the reaction controls, the hydrogen peroxide thrusts, worked beautifully. Yeager had only to nudge the sidearm hand controller by his lap and a thruster on top of the nose of the plane pushed the nose right down again, and he was in perfect position to re-enter the dense atmosphere below. Now he was going up for one final exploration of that same region before going for broke tomorrow.
NF-104At 40,000 feet Yeager began his speed run. He cut in the afterburner and it slammed him back in his seat, and he was now riding an engine with nearly 16,000 pounds of thrust. As soon as the Machmeter hit 2.2, he pulled back on the stick and started the climb. The afterburner would carry him to 60,000 feet before exhausting its fuel. At precisely that moment he thre the switch for the rocket engine… terrific jolt… He’s slammed back in his seat again. The nose pitches up to 70 degrees. The g-forces start rising. The desert sky starts falling away. He’s going straight up into the indigo. At 78,000 feet a light on the console… as usual… the main engine overheating from the tremendous exertion of the climb. He throws the switch, and shuts it down but the rocket is still accelerating. Who doesn’t know this feeling if he doesn’t! The bastards are fantastic! … One hundred thousand feet… He shuts down the rocket engine. He’s still climbing. The g-forces slide off… makes you feel like you’re pitching forward…

He’s weightless, coming over the top of the arc… 104.000 feet… It’s absolutely silent… Twenty miles up… The sky is almost black. He’s looking straight up into it, because the nose of the ship is pitched up. His angle of attack is still about 50 degrees. He’s over the top of the arc and coming down. He pushes the sidearm control to bring down the nose of the ship but the nose isn’t budging. It’s still pitched up! He hits the thruster again… Shit!… She won’t go down!… Now he can see it, the whole diagram… This morning at 108,000 feet the air was so thin it offered no resistance and you could easily push the nose down with the thrusters. At 104,000 feet the air remains just thick enough to exert aerodynamic pressure. The thrusters aren’t strong enough to overcome it… He keeps hitting the reaction controls… The hydrogen peroxide squirts out of the jet on the nose of the ship and doesn’t do a goddamned thing… He’s dropping and the nose is still pitched up… The outside of the envelope!… well, here it is, the sonofabitch… It doesn’t want to stretch… and here we go!…

nf104-3The ship snaps into a flat spin. It’s spinning right over its center of gravity, like a pinwheel on a stick. He pushes the sidearm control again. The hydrogen peroxide is finished. He has 600 pounds of fuel left in the main engine but there’s no way to start it up. To relight the engine you have to put the ship nose down into a dive and force air through the intake duct to and start the engine windmilling to build up the rpms. Without rpms there’s no hydraulic pressure and without hydraulic pressure you can’t move the stabilizer wings on the tail and without the stabilizer wings you can’t control this bastard at the lower altitudes… He’s in a steady-state flat spin and dropping… He’s whirling around at a terrific rate… He makes himself keep his eyes pinned on the instruments… A little sightseeing at this point and it’s vertigo and you’re finished… He;s down to 80,000 feet and the rpms are dead zero… He’s falling 150 feet a second… 9,000 feet a minute… And what do I do next?… here in the jaws of the Gulp… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – The damned beast isn’t making a sound… just spinning around like a length of pipe in the sky… he has one last shot… the speed brakes, a parachute rig in the tail for slowing the ship down after a high-speed landing…

The altimeter keeps winding down… Twenty-five thousand feet… but the altimeter is based on sea level… He’s only 21,000 feet above the high desert… The slack’s running out… He pops the speed brake… Bango! – the chute catches with a jolt… it pulls the tail up… He pitches down… The spin stops. The nose is pointed down. Now he only has to jettison the chute and let her dive and pick up the rpms. He jettisons the chute… and the beast heaves up again! The nose goes back up in the air!… It’s the rear stabilizer wing… The leading edge is locked, frozen into the position of the climb to altitude. With no rpms and no hydraulic controls he can’t move the tail… The nose is pitched way above 30 degrees… Here she goes again… He has no rpms, no power, no more speed chute and only 180 knots airspeed… He’s down to 12,000 feet… 8,000 feet above the farm… There’s not a goddamned thing left in the manual or the bag of tricks or the righteousness of twenty years of military flying… Chosen or damned!… It blows at any seam! Yeager hasn’t bailed out an airplane since the day he was shot down over Germany when he was twenty… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – I’ve tried C!… 11,000 feet, 7,000 feet from the farm… He hunches himself into a ball, just as it says in the manual, and reaches under the seat for the cinch ring and pulls.

He’s exploded out of thNF104crashe cockpit with such force it’s like a concussion… He can’t see… Wham… a jolt in the back… It’s the seat separating from him and the parachute rig… His head begins to clear… He’s in midair, in his pressure suit, looking out through the visor of his helmet… Every second seems enormously elongated… infinite… such slow motion… He’s suspended in midair… weightless… The ship had been falling about 100 miles and hour and the ejection rocket had propelled him up at 90 miles an hour. For one thick adrenal moment he’s weightless in midair, 7,000 feet above the desert… The seat floats nearby, as if the two of them are parked in the atmosphere… The butt of the seat, the underside, is facing him… a red hole… the socket where the ejection mechanism had been attached… it’s dribbling a charcoal red… lava… the remains of the rocket propellant… It’s glowing… it’s oozing out of the socket… In the next moment they’re both falling, he and he seat. His parachute has a quarter bag over it and on the bag is a drogue chute that pulls the bag off so the parachute will stream out gradually and not break the chute or the pilot’s back when the canopy pops open during a high-speed ejection. It’s designed for an ejection at 400 or 500 miles and hour, but he’s only going 175.

In this infinitely expanded few seconds the lines stream out and Yeager and the rocket seat and the glowing red socket sail through the air together… and now the seat is drifting above him… into the chute lines!… The seat is nestled in the chute lines… dribbling lava out of the socket… eating through the lines… An infinite second… He’s jerked up by the shoulders… it’s the chute opening and the canopy filling… in that very instant the lava – it smashes into the visor of his helmet… Something slices through his left eye… He’s knocked silly… He can’t see a goddamned thing… The burning snaps him to… His left eye is gushing blood… It’s pouring down inside the lid and down his face and his face is on fire… Jesus Christ!… the seat rig… The jerk of the parachute had suddenly slowed his speed, but the seat kept falling… It had fallen out of the chute lines and the butt end crashed into his visor… 180 pounds of metal… a double layer visor.. the goddamned thing has smashed through both layers… He’s burning!… There’s rocket lava inside the helmet… The seat has fallen away… He can’t see… blood pouring out of his left eye and there’s smoke inside the helmet… Rubber!…

It’s the seal between the helmet and the pressure suit… It’s burning up… The propellant won’t quit… A tremendous whoosh… He can feel the rush… he can even hear it… The whole left side of his helmet is full of flames… A sheet of flame goes up his neck and the side of his face… The oxygen!… The propellant has burned through the rubber seal, setting off the pressure suit’s automatic oxygen system… The integrity of the circuit has been violated and it rushes oxygen to the helmet, to the pilot’s face… A hundred percent oxygen! Christ!… It turns the lava into an inferno… Everything that can burn is on fire… everything else is melting… Even with the hole smashed in the visor the helmet is full of smoke… He’s choking… blinded… The left side of his head is on fire… He’s suffocating… He brings up his left hand… He has on pressure-suit gloves locked and taped to the sleeve… He jams his in through the hole in the visor and tries to create and air scoop with it to bring air to his mouth… The flames… They’re all over it… They go to work on his glove where it touches his face… They devour it!… His index finger is burning up… His goddamned finger is burning!… But he doesn’t move it… Get some air!… Nothing else matters… He’s gulping smoke… He has to get the visor open… It’s twisted… He’s encased in a little broken globe dying in a cloud of his own fried flesh… The stench of it!… rubber and human hide… He has to get the visor open… It’s that or nothing, no two ways about it… It’s smashed all to hell… He jams both hands underneath… It’s a tremendous effort… It lifts… Salvation!…

Like a sea the air carries it all away, the smoke, the flames… The fire is out. He can breathe. He can see out of his right eye. The desert, the mesquite, the motherless Joshua trees are rising slowly toward him… He can’t open his left eye… Now he can feel the pain… Half his head is broiled… That isn’t the worst of it… The damned finger!… Jesus!… He can make out the terrain, he’s been over it a million times… Over there’s the highway, 466, and there’s route 6 crossing it… His left glove is practically burned off… The glove and his left index finger… he can’t tell them apart… they look as if they exploded in an over… He’s not far from base… Whatever is with the finger, it’s very bad… Nearly down… He gets ready… Right out of the manual… A terrific wallop… He’s down on the mesquite, looking across the desert, one-eyed… He stands up… Hell! He’s in one piece!… He can hardly use his left hand. The goddamned finger is killing him. The whole side of his head… he starts taking off the parachute harness… It’s all in the manual! Regulation issue!… He starts rolling up the parachute, just like it says… Some of the cords are almost melted through, from the lava… His head feels like it’s still on fire… The pain comes from way down deep… But he’s got to get the helmet off… It’s a hell of an operation… He doesn’t dare touch his head… It feels enormous… Somebody’s running toward him… It’s a kid, a guy in his twenties… He’s come from the highway… He comes up close and his mouth falls open and he gives Yeager a look of stone horror…

“Are you all right!”
The look on the kid’s face! Christalmighty!”
“I was in my car! I saw you coming down!
“Listen,” says Yeager. The pain in his finger is terrific. “Listen… you got a knife?”

The kid digs into his pocket and pulls out a penknife. Yeager starts cutting the glove off his left hand. He can’t bear it anymore. The kid stands there hypnotized and horrified. From the look on the kid’s face, Yeager can begin to see himself. His neck, the whole left side of his head, his ear, his cheek, his eye must be burned up. His eye socket is slashed, swollen, caked shut, and covered with a crust of burned blood, and half his hair is burned away. The whole mess and the rest of his face and nostrils and his lips are smeared with the sludge of the burning rubber. And he’s standing there in the middle of the desert in a pressure suit with his head cocked, squinting out of one eye, working on his glove with a penknife… The knife cuts through the glove an it cuts the meat of his finger… You can’t tell any longer… It’s all run together… The goddamned finger looks like it’s melted… He’s got to get the glove off. That’s all there is to it. It hurts too goddamned much. He pulls off the glove and a big hunk of melted meat from the finger comes off with it… it’s like fried suet…

“Arrggghhh…” It’s the kid. He’s retching. It’s too much for him, the poor bastard. He looks up at Yeager. His eyes open and his mouth opens. All the glue has come undone. He can’t hold it in any longer.

“God,” he says, “you… look awful!” The Good Samaritan, A.A.D.! Also a Doctor! And he just gave his diagnosis! That’s all a man needs… to be forty years old and to fall one hundred goddamned thousand feet in a flat spin and punch out and make a million-dollar hole in the ground and get half his head and his hand burned up and have his eye practically ripped out of his skull… and have the Good Samaritan, A.A.D., arrive as if sent by the spirit of Pancho Barnes herself to render a midnight verdict among the motherless Joshua trees while the screen doors bang and the pictures of a hundred dead pilots rattle in their frames:
“My God!… you look awful.”

A few minutes later the rescue helicopter arrived. The medics found Yeager standing out in the mesquite, him and some kid who had been passing by. Yeager was standing erect with his parachute rolled up and his helmet in the crook of his arm, right out of the manual, and staring at them quite levelly out of what is left of his face, as if they had an appointment and he was on time.

As the hospital they discovered one stroke of good luck. The blood over Yeager’s left eye had been baked into a crust-like shield. Otherwise he might have lost it. He had suffered third – and second-degree burns on his head and neck. The burns required a month of treatment in the hospital, but he was able to heal without disfigurement. He even regained the use of his left index finger.

No one even broke the Russian mark with the NF-104 or even tried to. Up above 100,000 feet the plane’s envelope was too goddamned full of holes. And Yeager never again sought to set a world record in the sky over the high desert.

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  1. […] experimental planes that came through Edwards. Although many of his flights went according to plan, one mission quite literally blew up in his face. In December 1963, Yeager was testing a Lockheed Starfighter F-104 when it unexpectedly spun out of […]

  2. I hate to say this but typical test pilot. Nerves of steel and always having a backup plan. And they know this better than anybody engineers guess about practically everything. My hat is off to all test pilots, they earn their pay everyday.

    • If you were involved in flight research you would know that every flight test card has references to the expected performance and the emergency actions if the result of the test card is not optimal. Black border checklists and the pre mission briefing and test readiness discussions cover the what if’s and what to do next. The pilots have their inputs and often lead the discussion. It’s not just perfect test pilots and a room full of ignorant engineers.

      • No one in these teams is ignorant! Things go wrong. You are testing something untested, not used in that way before. You are making history and creating great future things for all mankind! Thanks to all those smart people, checklists and his trading and great grit General Yeager lived! He was a great man and superior test pilot! Died at 97 years old! RIP fellow pilot!

    • What exactly is it that you hate to say? Your characterization of engineers as guessing about practically everything is, well, let’s just say an odd one.

  3. God bless Chuck Yeager. He was an Aircraft Mechanic’s type Pilot. We should of left space flight design up to the Airforce because NASA still doesn’t have Spacecraft that takes off and lands under it’s own power. But their still A-ok.

  4. They say the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed when shit gets real. Test pilots are a different breed. But training and the skill of Chuck Yeager shone through.
    Bravo Zulu. One of the best ever!

  5. Goddamn I thought the burning sequence after bailout was pure Hollywood fiction. I can’t imagine how horrible that decent was and the timing was superb. I guess you can’t make real shit like this up.
    Where are movies like this anymore!

  6. The content below is from the excellent website Col. Robert Smtih attempted to assist Yaeger in his record attempt. The Flight profile for the NF-104 to get to over 100,000 ft was set and had been proven by pilots before Yaeger attempted his flight. the website is

    Pilots who successfully flew the profile before Yaeger:
    Robert A Rushworth
    Jack Woodman
    Robert W. Smith

    Section 11 Unwanted Record for Chuck Yaeger

    “After Chuck Yeager took command of ARPS, a few months before I graduated, we didn’t see him except for the brief period we were together on the graduation trip for our class with him and Gen. Twig Branch and hospital commander Col. Stan Bear to Europe. I can tell you this, when you traveled with Chuck Yeager anywhere, he received attention. In the subsequent year I don’t think I ever encountered Chuck, until after Pete had briefed me on the decision by headquarters.

    In preparation for his AST project, I briefed him every chance he gave me, went over the airplane with him and discussed procedures and the flight profiles. I briefed him on the specifics of the mission before every flight he made.

    I detailed everything I knew about the airplane and handling it, especially the differences between the RCS and aerodynamic control, but often I got the message that he didn’t need all of that, he had experience to call upon. He was not demeaning or curt, just matter of fact and very confident. Over the years I have seen a lot of Jeckyl and a little Hyde in Chuck, when he has greeted me as an old buddy, an unknown or disdainfully, reasons unknown, or just circumstance. But during this period our relationship was very cordial, so much so that Jackie Cochran, and her powerful husband, invited Martha and me to a private party followed by the Wright Memorial Dinner in Los Angeles. Jackie adored Chuck and I was being rewarded for assisting him. The Big Four were all at that party, including Chief of Staff, General LeMay.

    The event was very special to Martha, because her personal dinner partner was Dr. Edward Teller, father of the atom bomb. At the party, Mrs. Lemay introduced me to her husband, mistakenly by higher rank. When I politely revised that, she asked why he didn’t promote me, to which he sourly replied, “If I did I’d have to pay him!” and promptly walked away, without an inkling of a smile. After my previous introduction in his office as one of the Air Force finalists for the NASA Gemini program, I had still never seen him smile, which some attributed to a disease of facial nerves. I can say, as many have, he was somewhat unnerving.

    As Chuck started flying the zoom missions, I went over his ground station plots after each mission with him. Those gave no indications about techniques or attitude of the airplane, being limited to a ground plot, but showed climb angle and ground track, which was all I’d ever had available. Chucks plots showed that he never would complete the initial pull up to the necessary angle of 70 degrees when he was trying to get maximum zoom and he barely got over 100,000 feet on any mission. The early part of a climb was especially critical because the speed was very high and rapidly lost in drag at low angle versus conversion to altitude at the proper steep climb angle. If the angle were not achieved at the outset but was raised to correct it later the loss of energy was great. The plots showed he was doing just that, which I brought to his attention before each flight.

    In addition, I tried repeatedly to get him to sit still long enough to listen to the difference between handling the AST as an airplane and the way it would be when he flew over the top of a max zoom. He was in no way disparaging me, but he just seemed confident that he had experienced everything airplanes could do, and the briefings would end. I just don’t think he conceived that there was anything in an airplane that he had not already done and he was right. He had implicit feel for flight in an airplane, no doubt, but he wouldn’t perceive the concept of flight except in the atmosphere. The AST would soon stop being an airplane for him. I repeatedly tried to convince him, and hoped that his repeated failures to exceed about 100,000 to 105,000 feet would get his attention, but it never did.

    Chuck reminded me of the racecar drivers of long ago versus today’s drivers. The old ones just felt it and drove it. The great current drivers help to establish the design, understand the technology and why the car handles like it does and grow with changes. Some of the best are engineering graduates.

    Chuck had the same results on the morning of December 10th, before his fateful afternoon flight and we talked about the profile and problems again. I remember telling him with certainty that he would never beat the record if he didn’t hold the 3.5 g’s right up to 70 degrees and damned sure hold the climb angle until intercepting the 16-degree angle of attack. In a sense, pitch attitude control display was very familiar, because it was used with the RCS controller like an ILS approach with the stick. But the down side was that the airplanes RCS responses were nothing like the response of the control stick. That was not possible, because it was space dynamics and control versus flying an airplane.

    The AST zoom was 100% on instruments, but I assumed Chuck was skilled in that, although instrument training was sparse and crude in his WW II era training. It was very easy to let off the stick pressure and reduce the 3.5 g during pull-up or later allow the climb angle to decrease and once decreased it could not be corrected without serious loss of energy and possible adverse consequences. There was no second chance on any of the objectives. I repeated each briefing that it could only be those mistakes that were costing him altitude.

    I emphasized, the airplane was perfectly well equipped to display the information necessary to fly the mission and with sufficient margin to safely do so as long as he did not vary greatly from the profile, exceeding the limits of the display. There were many, many things necessary to a safe and successful flight, distractions, switches and controls to be attended to, continually monitoring critical engine and rocket gages, constantly retarding and finally shutting down afterburner and then main jet exactly at their limits for maximum performance with safety. Some of that might be sacrificed during the zoom, if necessary, to give critical attention to the primary task of controlling the flight path and converting from aerodynamic controls to the RCS as the atmosphere gave way to space, but all was important. And then attending to the most critical of all, controlling proper attitude throughout the 140 degrees of nose-over, and finally, the reentry retaining the 16 degree alpha until safely in aerodynamic descent.

    I saw no progress in Chuck’s results. I was concerned, but I knew that there was nothing more I could do than repeat and hope he would finally accept the message, or somehow find it with his almost magical ability to fly. I don’t believe he ever bought the concept that the AST would not control like any airplane he ever flew or heeded my description of the differences necessary for controlling it.”

  7. Good think Yeager has friends in high places.

    ‘Screwing the Pooch’ on his zoom flights culminated in the loss of an AST vehicle on his 4th flight.

    He hit a NAA van parked on an Edwards taxiway shortly after returning to flight during his investigation.

    Amazing pilot and warrior but completely out of his element with technical space flight.

  8. I met Chuck Yeager in the 1980s at a Hughes Aircraft Management Club dinner. He simply mesmerized me and the other attendees with the telling of his WWII and test pilot experiences. At the end of the dinner I was able to get his autograph and shake his hand. An event I wouldn’t trade with any other living person. You could honestly not tell his face or head had ever been burned. Amazing considering how badly he was hurt.

    Coincidentally, my dad worked at Lockheed in the late 1950s and helped build the F-104 Starfighter. Dad said the wings were so sharp they could cut a man’s arm so they had to keep them covered when the plane was on the ground.


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