Sky High

My climb to the top in the F-104.

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The vertical tail extended about as high as the wing extended sideways, so the vertical tail would contribute a large dihedral effect; dihedral tended to restore the fighter to straight-and-level flight. To moderate the overall dihedral, the wings had 10 degrees of negative dihedral. They drooped a little.

The Starfighter had a “flying tail”—the entire horizontal surface moved—placed high above the engine exhaust, so it could be made of aluminum instead of heat-resistant but heavier stainless steel. Even at Mach 1.5 the flying tail was very effective, allowing the pilot to pull five Gs in a turn at 35,000 feet.

Johnson’s fighter never got a chance to tangle with any MiGs, but if it had, it would have left them in its contrails.


The Home Front

When I was selected for test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, my wife Jan was delighted. But she was concerned about the number of pilots killed during my previous assignment and wondered if test flying would be even more dangerous.
Our second child was expected to be born about two months into my year of test pilot training. We already had a four-year-old son, and Jan did not want her children to grow up without a father. Asked about the risk, I explained that I had had the best training in the world, the test aircraft were maintained to a higher level, and that we flew during the daytime and in clear weather. I wasn't sure how much of that was accurate, but she seemed to accept my explanation.
All but three of the pilots in our class were married, and most had children, so Jan and I weren’t the only couple having such discussions. The school may have known this: They planned an open house—an opportunity for the families to visit the school.
On the appointed day, we gathered in the auditorium for Colonel Charles Yeager to make his entrance. When he arrived, he had on rows of ribbons for combat in World War II and for flight test accomplishments. But he also wore a large white bandage around his neck, and his left arm was in a sling. If the premier test pilot in the Air Force was this banged up, it seemed clear to Jan that flight test could be a very dangerous business.
The tour of the hangar held another surprise. Yeager was bandaged up because he’d recently punched out of an NF-104, the wreckage of which was spread out on the hangar floor for an investigation. No piece of his crashed aircraft was larger than a refrigerator, and everything was covered in gray ash. The sight of wreckage was familiar to me, but most civilians, and certainly Jan, had never viewed such a shocking sight.
Jan’s concerns would prove to be well founded. Over the next 25 years, 32 test pilots—friends of mine—would be killed in aircraft.


Now Departing: T-Tails and Other Killers

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