My climb to the top in the F-104.
- By George J. Marrett
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
Courtesy George J. Marrett
(Page 3 of 6)
If I overcorrected at the top of the zoom, I’d be uncontrollable in seconds. Lieutenant Patrick “Pat” Henry, a Navy pilot in the class just ahead of mine, lost control at the top of the zoom, entered a spin, and eventually ejected. If I were not precise in my planning and control, I’d share his fate. If the engine failed to restart as I was coming down, I’d be committed to a flameout pattern.
The tower’s call interrupted my thoughts. “Zoom 5, you’re cleared onto Runway 04 to hold.”
Sweat was dripping into my eyes, but it would be cool up where I was headed. A quick glance to my left confirmed that my chase aircraft, an F-104 with the call sign “Zoom Chase,” was in position and ready for takeoff. He’d chase me until the pull-up point and then, as I descended through about 30,000 feet, he’d rejoin in formation in order to accompany me through the traffic pattern. He’d check the airplane’s exterior, be ready to offer any assistance I might need, and help keep me clear of other airborne traffic, since I’d be focusing most of my attention on the instrument readings.
The J-79 gave its characteristic howl and roar as I eased the throttle full forward and back again to idle.
“Zoom 5, winds are calm, you’re cleared for takeoff,” the controller said.
No time for other thoughts now. I got a good afterburner light, then pushed the throttle up to maximum afterburner. The acceleration pressed me against my parachute. Control stick aft at 100 knots (115 mph), nose wheel raised at 150, airborne at 175. Landing gear up before 250 knots or I’d rip the gear doors off. Then flaps up. Passing 400 knots, I raised the nose slightly to start my climb and throttled back out of afterburner. Then I started a turn to the east and climbed at 450 knots, waiting for the Mach to build to 0.85.
The chase pilot radioed that my Starfighter looked fit to continue. Climbing toward the morning sun, I had only a few seconds to enjoy flying this beautiful aircraft. It was no time to daydream; I had to focus on the test mission. Climbing at 0.85 Mach, I leveled off at 20,000 feet, passing abeam the Three Sisters Dry Lake. It was time to dump cockpit pressurization and inflate my pressure suit. If my pressure suit failed at this low altitude, I would have plenty of time to repressurize the cockpit, abort the mission, and return to Edwards. Slowly the suit inflated. I felt like a fat man in a telephone booth.
On the way to 35,000 feet, I could see Baker’s Dry Lake in front of me. The lake bed was about 100 nautical miles east of Edwards, and my turning point for the run back in the supersonic corridor—airspace where speeds over Mach 1 were legal. I made a gradual 180-degree turn to the left, glancing over my right shoulder to confirm that my chase was still in position.
Rolling out, I pointed the nose toward the town of Tehachapi. Moving the throttle forward, I selected maximum afterburner, easing the control stick forward ever so slightly to unload the one G of level flight and help the Starfighter ease through the transonic zone. The airplane passed Mach 1.0 with no physical sensation. The Mach needle was really climbing fast now: 1.3…1.4…
I tried pushing the throttle harder against the forward stop, hoping to get every last pound of thrust from the engine. Mach 1.7
…1.8. The F-104 was at its design speed now, and the Mach number was climbing fast. At an indicated airspeed of 675 knots, I started a gradual climb to 38,000 feet. What a tremendous feeling to be going faster and faster. The chase aircraft was miles behind me now. Mach 2.1…2.15… I let the Starfighter accelerate as long as I dared—I wanted every bit of energy I could get. The more speed I built up, the more altitude I’d get over the top.
One last glance at the checklist. I had penciled a reminder for myself when I reached this point: “Check gloves.” Just before he started his pull-up, my classmate, Captain Jerry G. Tonini, had the thumb of one of his gloves start to balloon. Fortunately, he caught it in time. Had the glove popped open, he would have lost all suit pressure. If that had happened, he would have lost consciousness in a few seconds and crashed.