Zoom climbs in the rocket-boosted NF-104 could top out at 120,000 feet in zero gravity. (Courtesy George J. Marrett)

Sky High in a Starfighter

My climb to the top in the F-104.

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The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter looked more like a rocket than an airplane. Out in front was a sharply pointed nose with a long pitot tube. The airplane’s straight, stubby wings were canted downward, and they were so thin and small, like fins, that you wondered how it could fly. Lockheed press releases even described the airplane as “the missile with a man in it.” For pilots, its tiny cross-section made it the kind of aircraft you put on like a glove. The cockpit was small but comfortable, and the pilot sat reclined with legs extended, the way you sit in a sports car.

Early versions were designed with an ejection seat that fired downward, and to prevent injuries the pilot wore metal spurs attached to his flight boots, cowboy style. The spurs were connected to cables that would automatically pull his feet against the ejection seat during an ejection. Later, the seat was redesigned to fire upward, but the spurs stayed. Most pilots put their spurs on just before they boarded and took them off immediately after deplaning; others wore them around to show off. When I was a second lieutenant attending flying school, I saw an Air Force colonel wearing an orange flying suit and a dress military hat with “scrambled eggs” on the visor. His spurs were clinking and clanking as he walked. Then and there I knew I wanted to fly the Starfighter.

I got my chance in December 1963, when I was selected to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. At the time, the grand old man of supersonic flight, Colonel Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, was the commandant of the school, and he was guiding the Air Force toward the new frontier of spaceflight.

Our class had 10 Air Force pilots, two Navy pilots, two NASA pilots, and one pilot each from Canada and the Netherlands. We all wanted to be part of the Space Age even though our very presence here put us in competition with NASA. The Air Force had initiated its own manned space program with the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar, a single-seat space vehicle scheduled to make its first flight in 1966, just three years away.

All X-20 pilots would be graduates of Yeager’s school and actually fly their spacecraft from liftoff to an unpowered landing on Edwards’ Rogers Dry Lake. NASA astronauts, on the other hand, returned to Earth in a capsule suspended from a parachute and landed in the ocean.

Yeager was instrumental in changing the curriculum of the test pilot school to include spaceflight training. The name of the school was also changed to Aerospace Research Pilot School, though it was commonly referred to as Yeager’s Charm School. He still had the golden touch: Yeager seemed to have a credit card enabling him to tap into the Air Force budget, and there seemed to be no limit to what he could spend. His motto appeared to be “Follow me. I will put the Air Force in space.”

To give his students a real taste of space, Yeager contracted with Lockheed to modify three production F-104s for high-altitude flight. Designated NF-104s, they were inexpensive trainers that would expose students to altitudes above 100,000 feet. Like the X-15, the NF-104s had small directional thrusters in the nose and wingtips for attitude control up where normal controls had no effect.

Each NF-104 was equipped with a Rocketdyne liquid-fuel rocket engine that used JP-4 fuel and hydrogen peroxide as an oxidizer to produce 6,000 pounds of thrust. With the reaction control system, a student could control the NF-104 on a zero-G trajectory through the thin atmosphere at the edge of space for about 80 seconds. The pilot wore a pressure suit; without engine power at that altitude there was no cockpit pressurization.

It was widely understood that whoever first pushed the NF-104 to its maximum performance was certain to set a world record for altitude achieved by an aircraft taking off under its own power. In 1961 the Soviets had set a record of 113,890 feet with the E-66A, a rocket-powered variant of the MiG-21 fighter. Some U.S. X-planes had flown higher, but they had to be carried aloft by a Boeing B-52 (see “Mother,” June/July 2001).

In 1963, Lockheed began shakedown flights on the NF-104 with company test pilot Jack Woodman. After a few months the program was turned over to Major Robert W. “Smitty” Smith at the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), flying out of the Fighter Branch of Test Operations. A year later, when I was assigned to the fighter branch, I did a little off-the-record dogfighting against Smitty. By disabling the safety system that prevented loss of control at high angles of attack and high Gs, he could fly the F-104 near its aerodynamic limits. You couldn’t beat Smitty in an F-104.

To reach maximum altitude, the pilot accelerated the NF-104 at full power to maximum speed, then pulled up into a “zoom climb.” In a zoom, the more energy you could build up during acceleration—and the more precisely you could maintain the optimal climb angle—the higher the airplane would climb when it coasted to the top of the zoom. Smitty reached 120,800 feet on one zoom—not an official world record because it was a test flight and the official monitors were not in place. Optimum climb angle for the aircraft turned out to be between 65 and 70 degrees, which, added to a 14-degree seat cant and a five-degree angle of attack, left the pilot reclined at an angle of about 85 degrees. You couldn’t see the ground from that position, so all zoom maneuvers were made on instruments. On one flight, Smitty tried an angle of 85 degrees, but he lost control and tumbled, going over the top upside down. The aircraft entered a spin but he recovered. Smitty was fearless.

Yeager had taken the NF-104 up three times to get a feel for it, and on December 10, 1963, he was scheduled to fly two zoom flights in preparation for an all-out record attempt the next day. During the morning flight he reached 108,700 feet, but Yeager felt the Starfighter could be taken much higher.

On the afternoon flight, Yeager’s test profile called for him to accelerate to Mach 1.7 at 37,000 feet, light the rocket engine to accelerate to Mach 2.2 at 40,000 feet, and then climb at 70 degrees. As the aircraft passed through 70,000 feet, ground control informed Yeager that he had less than the desired angle of climb. He applied the reaction controls to get back on the flight path, a technique he had used before. But on this flight he was at a lower altitude (101,595 feet) and the reaction controls were not yet effective. There was a higher dynamic pressure on the control surfaces, meaning the horizontal tail would have been more effective. Then, when he attempted to lower the nose at the peak of his climb, he found that neither the aerodynamic controls nor the reaction controls could reduce the angle of attack enough to prevent a spin. Soon he was gyrating in all directions, and nothing would stop it. A mile above the desert and falling like a manhole cover, he ejected.

As his parachute opened, he was struck in the face by the base of his rocket seat. His helmet’s visor broke and burning residue from the rocket entered the helmet. Pure oxygen for breathing was flowing to the helmet, igniting a flame that started to fry his neck and face. As he descended, Yeager removed a glove and used his bare hand to try to put out the fire around his nose and mouth, charring two fingers and a thumb. The aircraft hit the ground in a flat attitude, and Yeager landed a short distance from the wreckage. Within a few minutes a helicopter and flight surgeon arrived. Yeager had second-degree burns on the left side of his face and neck and on his left hand, and a cut on one eyelid.

The loss of an NF-104 was not the only bad news that day: Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced the cancellation of the X-20. The Air Force lost a manned space program, Yeager was injured and wrapped in bandages, and the Air Force had put a hold on his spending.

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