Sky High in a Starfighter

My climb to the top in the F-104.

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

The compressor inlet temperature was approaching the limit: 155 degrees Celsius (311 Fahrenheit). A last check on fuel showed just under 1,200 pounds, the minimum before starting the zoom in order to recover with a safe reserve at Edwards. Go for it, I thought. Pull up. At that moment the image of Yeager wrapped in bandages flashed before my eyes.

I pulled back on the stick gently, entering the climb at a rate of 1 G per second. When the G meter reached 3.5, I kept the pressure constant, and I focused on the attitude indicator in the center of the instrument panel. As I reached 40 degrees of pitch, I began slowly easing off the backstick pressure and held 45 degrees. I monitored the exhaust gas temperature (EGT)—I didn’t want to overtemp the engine.

Quickly I glanced at the altimeter. The needles were spinning too fast to read. I’d passed 60,000 feet; EGT was at maximum: 615 degrees Celsius. I began to retard the throttle to hold EGT constant. Passing 67,000 feet, I brought the throttle back into idle cutoff. The engine shut down and started to unwind; at this altitude, if I left it running, even at idle, it would overtemp.

I held the 45-degree climb angle until the angle of attack reached eight degrees, then pushed forward on the stick. Minimum indicated airspeed over the top was 120 knots, the lowest speed at which there was still enough air flowing over the horizontal tail to ensure the tail would be effective. I felt weightlessness coming on. Even though my shoulder harness was firmly tightened and locked on the ground, I felt my pressure suit lift off the ejection seat and my helmet touch the canopy.

Just approaching the peak of the climb, I treated myself to a sweeping view of Earth. Most of the flight so far had been “head in the cockpit, fly the gauges.” The sky was very dark blue—almost black. I could see the Pacific Ocean in front of me, although still a hundred miles away. There was smog in the Los Angeles basin down to the left, and at my right I saw the San Francisco Bay area. Sightseeing was over; I had to return to business. I’d topped out at Angels 80. It was so quiet I thought I could hear my heartbeat.

I held zero G until the Starfighter had pitched over into a steep dive. I put the speed brakes out, and airspeed started to build up fast as the light brown Mojave Desert came back into view. I was now diving straight down, with Rogers Dry Lake directly below me. Passing 35,000 feet, I restarted the engine.

The EGT started to rise—I had a good light. With the engine running, I started a turn back to the Edwards runway when I was startled by a silver flash on my faceplate. Then I realized it was a drop of sweat.

I passed my landing reference point at 25,000 feet directly above Edwards’ Runway 04, where I had started the flight about a half-hour before. I’d be landing out of the same dead-stick pattern that the X-15 used: 300 knots indicated airspeed and in a 20-degree dive. Base leg altitude was 15,000 feet, but I had flown the pattern many times before and felt quite comfortable. Rolling out on high final at 6,000 feet, I had the 15,000-foot runway directly in front of me. I started the stick coming back for the flare and lowered the landing gear at 250 knots. I checked to ensure the gear was down and locked just before touchdown at 190 knots.

The tires squealed as they burned rubber on the painted white line that crossed the runway at the 10,000-feet-remaining marker. As I lowered the nose gently onto the runway and pulled the drag chute handle, my chase sped past me in a low approach.

With sweat dripping into my eyes, I looked up at the contrail my zoom had etched against the blue desert sky. I had returned safely from the edge of space.

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