Tag Archives: Aerospace Trainer

10 December 1963

Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, wearing a David Clark Co. A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit, accompanied by Major Ralph N. Richardson of the Aviation Physiology Laboratory, Richardson, walks to a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer at Edwards Air Force base. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, wearing a David Clark Co. A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit, accompanied by Major Ralph N. Richardson of the Aviation Physiology Laboratory, walks to a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer at Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)

10 December 1963: In an attempt to set a world absolute altitude record, Colonel Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force, took a Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainer, 56-0762, on a zoom climb profile above 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) at Edwards Air Force Base, in the high desert of southern California. This was Colonel Yeager’s fourth attempt at the record.

Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

The zoom climb maneuver was planned to begin with the NF-104A in level flight at 0.85 Mach and 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The pilot would then accelerate in Military Power and light the afterburner, which increased the J79 turbojet engine’s 9,800 pounds of thrust (43.59 kilonewtons) to 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons). The modified Starfighter was to continue accelerating in level flight. On reaching Mach 2.2, the Colonel Yeager would ignite the Rocketdyne AR2–3 rocket engine, which burned a mixture of JP-4 and hydrogen peroxide to produce 6,600 pounds of thrust (29.36 kilonewtons).

When the AST reached Mach 2.5, Yeager was to begin a steady 3.5G pull-up until the interceptor was in a 70° climb. At 75,000 feet (22,860 meters), he would shut off the afterburner to avoid exceeding the turbojet’s exhaust temperature (EGT) limits. Yeager would then gradually reduce the jet engine power to idle by 85,000 feet (25,908 meters), and then shut it down. Without the engine running, cabin pressurization would be lost and his A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit would inflate.

One of the three Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainers, 56-756, in a zoom-climb with the rocket engine firing. (U.S. Air Force)
One of the three Lockheed NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainers, 56-756, in a zoom-climb with the rocket engine firing. (U.S. Air Force)

The NF-104A would then continue to zoom to an altitude where its aerodynamic control surfaces were no longer functional. It had to be controlled by reaction jets in the nose and wing tips. The pilot had to use the reaction control thrusters to pitch the AST’s nose down before reentering the atmosphere, so that it would be in a -70° dive. The windmill effect of air rushing into the intakes was used to restart the jet engine.

Yeager’s NF-104A out of control. This is a still frame from cine film shot at a distance of 20 miles (32 kilometers). (U.S. Air Force)

The 10 December flight did not proceed as planned. Chuck Yeager reached a peak altitude of approximately 108,000 feet (32,918 meters), nearly two miles (3.2 kilometers) lower than the record altitude set by Major Robert W. Smith just four days earlier.

On reentry, Yeager had the Starfighter incorrectly positioned with only a -50° nose-down pitch angle, rather than the required -70°.

The Starfighter entered a spin.

Without air flowing through the engine intakes because of the spin, Yeager could not restart the NF-104’s turbojet engine. Without the engine running, he had no hydraulic pressure to power the aerodynamic flight control surfaces. He was unable to regain control the airplane. Yeager rode the out-of-control airplane down 80,000 feet (24,384 meters) before ejecting.

The data recorder would later indicate that the airplane made fourteen flat spins from 104,000 until impact on the desert floor.  I stayed with it through thirteen of those spins before I punched out. I hated losing an expensive airplane, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. . . I went ahead and punched out. . . .”

Yeager, An Autobiography, by Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired) and Leo Janos, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, at Pages 279–281.

NF-104A 56-762 crashed at N. 35° 7′ 25″,  W. 118° 8′ 50″, about one mile (1.6 kilometers) north of the intersection of State Route 14 and State Route 58, near California City. The airplane was completely destroyed.

Chuck Yeager was seriously burned by the ejection seat’s internal launch rocket when he was struck by the seat which was falling along with him.

This incident was dramatized in the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff,” (based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same title), with Yeager portrayed by actor Sam Shepard.

Actor Sam Shepard portrayed Colonel Charles E. Yeager in the 1983 movie, "The Right Stuff", written and directed by Philip Kaufman for The Ladd Company, and based on the book by Tom Wolfe. The airplane behind Mr. Shepard is a Fokker-built F-104G Starfighter, 63-13269.
Actor Sam Shepard portrayed Colonel Charles E. Yeager in the 1983 movie, “The Right Stuff”, written and directed by Philip Kaufman for The Ladd Company, and based on the book by Tom Wolfe. The airplane behind Mr. Shepard is a Fokker-built F-104G Starfighter, 63-13269. (Warner Bros.)

56-762 was a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, one of three taken from storage at The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, and sent to Lockheed for modification to Aerospace Trainers (ASTs).

These utilized a system of thrusters for pitch, roll and yaw control at altitudes where the standard aerodynamic control surfaces could no longer control the aircraft. This was needed to give pilots some experience with the reaction control system for flight outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

The F-104A vertical fin was replaced with the larger fin and rudder from the two-place F-104B for increased stability. The wings were lengthened for installation of the Reaction Control System. The fiberglass nosecone was replaced by an aluminum skin for the same reason. The interceptor’s radar and M61 Vulcan cannon were removed and tanks for rocket fuel and oxidizers, nitrogen, etc., installed in their place. The standard afterburning General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine remained, and was supplemented by a Rocketdyne AR2–3 liquid-fueled rocket engine which produced 6,600 pounds of thrust for up to 100 seconds.

On 13 December 1958, prior to its modification to an AST, Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 was flown by 1st Lieutenant Einar K. Enevoldson, USAF, to seven Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-altitude world records at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Californa (NTD).

Wreckage of Lockheed NF-104A 56-762, 10 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of Lockheed NF-104A 56-762, 10 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 December 1963

Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer 56-756, with its Rocketdyne engine firing during a zoom-climb maneuver. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer 56-756, with its Rocketdyne engine firing during a zoom-climb maneuver. (U.S. Air Force)

6 December 1963: Air Force test pilot Major Robert W. Smith takes the Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 56-0756, out for a little spin. . .

Starting at 0.85 Mach and 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) over the Pacific Ocean west of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Bob Smith turned toward Edwards Air Force Base and accelerated to Military Power and then lit the afterburner, which increased the General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine’s 9,800 pounds of thrust (43.59 kilonewtons) to 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons). The modified Starfighter accelerated in level flight. At Mach 2.2, Smith ignited the Rocketdyne LR121 rocket engine, which burned a mixture of JP-4 and hydrogen peroxide. The LR121 was throttleable and could produce from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of thrust (13.35–26.69 kilonewtons).

When the AST reached Mach 2.5, Smith began a steady 3.5G pull-up until the interceptor was in a 70° climb. At 75,000 feet (22,860 meters), the test pilot shut off the afterburner to avoid exceeding the turbojet’s exhaust temperature (EGT) limits. He gradually reduced the jet engine power to idle by 85,000 feet (25,908 meters), then shut it off.  Without the engine running, cabin pressurization was lost and the pilot’s A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit inflated.

The NF-104A continued to zoom to an altitude where its aerodynamic control surfaces were no longer functional. It had to be controlled by the reaction jets in the nose and wing tips. 756 reached a peak altitude of 120,800 feet (36,820 meters), before reentering the atmosphere in a 70° dive. Major Smith used the windmill effect of air rushing into the intakes to restart the jet engine.

Lockheed NF-104 Aerospace Trainer zoom-climb profile. (U.S. Air Force via NF-104.com)

Major Smith had set an unofficial record for altitude. Although Lockheed had paid the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) license fee, the Air Force had not requested certification in advance so no FAI or National Aeronautic Association personnel were on site to certify the flight.

For this flight, Robert Smith was nominated for the Octave Chanute Award “for an outstanding contribution made by a pilot or test personnel to the advancement of the art, science, and technology of aeronautics.”

Major Robert W. Smith, U.S. Air Force, with a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. (U.S. Air Force)

Robert Wilson Smith was born at Washington, D.C., 11 December 1928. He was the son of Robert Henry Smith, a clerk (and eventually treasurer) for the Southern Railway Company, and Jeanette Blanche Albaugh Smith, a registered nurse. He graduated from high school in Oakland, California, in 1947. Smith studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and George Washington University.

Robert W. Smith joined the United States Air Force as an aviation cadet in 1949. He trained as a pilot at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas, and Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, United States Air Force, 23 June 1950.

Second Lieutenant Robert Wilson Smith married Ms. Martha Yacko, 24 June 1950, at Phoenix, Arizona.

Lieutenant Robert W. Smith and his crew chief, Staff Sergeant Jackson, with Lady Lane, Smith’s North American F-86 Sabre. (Robert W. Wilson Collection)

He flew the F-86 Sabre on more than 100 combat missions with the 334th and 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing during the Korean War. he named one of his airplanes Lady Lane in honor of his daughter. Smith was credited with two enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and three more damaged.

Smith graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1952 and flew more than fifty aircraft types during testing at Edwards Air Force Base and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. He was later assigned to the Aerospace Research Test Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base for training as an astronaut candidate for Project Gemini.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Smith, United States Air Force

After the NF-104A project was canceled, Lieutenant Colonel Smith volunteered for combat duty in the Vietnam War. He commanded the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, flying the Republic F-105D Thunderchief. Bob Smith was awarded the Air Force Cross for “extraordinary heroism” while leading an attack at Thuy Phoung, north of Hanoi, 19 November 1967.

He had previously been awarded the Silver Star, and five times was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Lieutenant Colonel Smith retired from the Air Force on 1 August 1969 after twenty years of service.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson Smith died at Monteverde, Florida, 19 August 2010. He was 81 years old.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 56-756 following a landing accident at Edwards AFB, 21 November 1961. (U.S. Air Force via the International F-104 Society)

56-756 was a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter. Flown by future astronaut James A. McDivitt, it had been damaged in a landing accident at Edwards following a hydraulic system failure, 21 November 1961. It was one of three taken from storage at The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, and sent to Lockheed for modification to Aerospace Trainers (ASTs). These utilized a system of thrusters for pitch, roll and yaw control at altitudes where the standard aerodynamic control surfaces could no longer control the aircraft. This was needed to give pilots some experience with the control system for flight outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer 56-756. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-104A vertical fin was replaced with the larger fin and rudder from the two-place F-104B for increased stability. The wingspan was increased to 25 feet, 11.3 inches (7.907 meters) for installation of the hydrogen peroxide Reaction Control System thrusters. The fiberglass nosecone was replaced by an aluminum skin for the same reason. The interceptor’s radar and M61 Vulcan cannon were removed and tanks for rocket fuel and oxidizers, nitrogen, etc., installed in their place. The standard afterburning General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine remained, and was supplemented by a Rocketdyne LR121 liquid-fueled rocket engine which produced 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of thrust (13.35–26.69 kilonewtons) with a burn time of 105 seconds. The fuselage “buzz number” was changed from FG-756 to NF-756.

56-756 was damaged by inflight explosions in 1965 and 1971, after which it was retired. It is mounted for static display at the Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California, marked as 56-760.

Lockheed NF-104 Aerospace Trainer 56-756, marked as 56-760, on display at Edwards Air Force Base. (Kaszeta)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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