Tag Archives: Charles Elwood Yeager

4–5 March 1944

Flight Officer Charles E. Yeager with his North American Aviation P-51B Mustang. (littlefriends.co.uk)
Flight Officer Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, with his North American Aviation P-51B-5-NA Mustang, 43-6763. (littlefriends.co.uk)

4 March 1944: Flight Officer Charles E. Yeager, United States Army Air Corps, was leading an element of White Flight, 363d Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group, 3d Bombardment Division, 8th Air Force, southeast of Kassel, Germany. Yeager was flying a North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, 43-6763, named Glamourus Glen and marked B6 Y. It was his seventh combat mission. At 13:05 British Standard Time, he observed a Messerschmitt Bf 109G fighter. He wrote (errors in original):

Leading the second element of Chambers White Flight, I was flying at 26,000 feet [7,925 meters] when I spotted a Me. 109 to the right and behind us about 2,000 feet [610 meters] below. I broke right and down. The E/A [Enemy Aircraft] turned right and down and went onto a 50° dive. I closed up fast and opened fire at 200 yards [183 meters]. I observed strikes on fuselage and wing roots, with pieces flying off. I was overrunning so I pulled up and did an aleron roll and fell in behind again and started shooting at 150 yards [137 meters]. The e/A engine was smoking and wind-milling. I overran again, observing strikes on fuselage and canopy. I pulled up again and did a wingover on his tail. His canopy flew off and the pilot bailed out and went into the overcast at 9,000 feet [2,743 meters]. The E/A had a large Red and Black “Devil’s Head’ on the left side of the ship. The E/A took no evasive action after the first burst.

A flight of three Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters, 20 July 1944. (Bundsarchive Bild 101l-676-7975-36)
A flight of three Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, 20 July 1944. (Bundsarchive Bild 101l-676-7975-36)

Flight Officer Yeager’s combat report indicates that he fired 461 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition. He was credited with one enemy aircraft destroyed. (He previously had claimed another enemy plane shot down over the English Channel, but that was not credited.)

The following day, 5 March, Yeager was again in the cockpit of Glamourus Glen. A Focke-Wulf Fw 190A 4 flown by Unteroffizier Irmfried Klotz, shot him down east of Bourdeaux, France.

In his autobiography, Chuck Yeager wrote:

. . . The world exploded and I ducked to protect my face with my hands, and when I looked a second later, my engine was on fire, and there was a gaping hole in my wingtip. The airplane began to spin. It happened so fast, there was no time to panic. I knew I was going down; I was barely able to unfasten my safety belt and crawl over the seat before my burning P-51 began to snap and roll, heading for the ground. I just fell out of the cockpit when the plane turned upside down—my canopy was shot away.

Yeager: an Autobiography, by Charles E. Yeager and Leo Janos, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, Chapter 4 at Page 26.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3, June 1942. (Imperial War Museum)

Yeager was slightly wounded. His Mustang was destroyed. Over the next few months he evaded enemy soldiers and escaped through France and Spain, returning to England in May 1944. He returned to combat with a new P-51D Mustang, and by the end of World War II was officially credited with 11.5 enemy aircraft destroyed.

Yeager remained in the Air Force until retiring in 1975 with the rank of brigadier general, and having served 12,222 days. He was a world famous test pilot, breaking the sound barrier with a Bell XS-1 rocketplane, 14 October 1947. He commanded F-86H Sabre and F-100D fighter bomber squadrons, flew the B-57 Canberra over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and commanded the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California.  General Yeager celebrated his 94th birthday 13 February 2017.

Identical to the Inglewood, California-built North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, this is a Dallas, Texas-built P-51C-1-NT, 42-103023. (North American Aviation, Inc.)
Identical to the Inglewood, California-built North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, this is a Dallas, Texas-built P-51C-1-NT, 42-103023. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang is a single-place, single-engine long range fighter. It is a low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear and is of all-metal construction. The fighter is powered by a liquid-cooled V-12 engine. It was originally produced for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force as the Mustang Mk.I. Two examples were provided to the U.S. Army Air Corps, designated XP-51. This resulted in orders for the P-51A and A-36 Apache dive bomber variant. These early Mustangs were powered by the Allison V-1750 engine driving a three-bladed propeller, which also powered the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

In 1942, soon after the first  production Mustang Mk.I arrived in England, Rolls-Royce began experimenting with a borrowed airplane, AM121, in which they installed the Supermarine Spitfire’s Merlin 61 engine. This resulted in an airplane of superior performance.

In the United States, the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan, had begun building Merlin engines under license from Rolls-Royce. These American engines were designated V-1650. North American modified two P-51s from the production line to install the Packard V-1650-3. These were designated XP-51B. Testing revealed that the new variant was so good that the Army Air Corps limited its order for P-51As to 310 airplanes and production was changed to the P-51B.

The P-51B and P-51C are virtually Identical. The P-51Bs were built by North American Aviation, Inc., at Inglewood, California. P-51Cs were built at North American’s Dallas, Texas plant. They were 32 feet, 2.97 inches (9.829 meters) long, with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0.31-inch (11.282 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 8 inches (4.167 meters) high. The fighter had an empty weight of 6,985 pounds (3,168 kilograms) and a maximum gross weight of 11,800 pounds (5,352 kilograms).

P-51Bs and Cs were powered by a right-hand tractor, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,649-cubic-inch-displacement (27.04-liter) Packard V-1650-3 or -7 Merlin single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine which produced 1,380 horsepower at Sea Level, turning 3,000 r.p.m at 60 inches of manifold pressure (V-1650-3) or 1,490 horsepower at Sea Level, turning 3,000 r.p.m. at 61 inches of manifold pressure (V-1650-7). (Military Power rating, 15 minute limit.) These were license-built versions of the Rolls-Royce Merlin 63 and 66. The engine drove a four-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 2 inches (3.404 meters) through a 0.479:1 gear reduction.

A Packard Motor Car Company V-1650-7 Merlin liquid-cooled, supercharged SOHC 60° V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. This engine weighs 905 pounds (411 kilograms) and produces 1,490 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. (NASM)
A Packard Motor Car Company V-1650-7 Merlin liquid-cooled, supercharged SOHC 60° V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. This engine weighs 905 pounds (411 kilograms) and produces 1,490 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. (NASM)

The P-51B/C had a cruise speed of 362 miles per hour (583 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 439 miles per hour (707 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The service ceiling was 41,900 feet (12,771 meters). With internal fuel, the combat range was 755 miles (1,215 kilometers).

Armament consisted of four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, mounted two in each wing, with 350 rounds per gun for the inboard guns and 280 rounds per gun for the outboard.

1,988 P-51B Mustangs were built at North American’s Inglewood, California plant and another 1,750 P-51Cs were produced at Dallas, Texas. This was nearly 23% of the total P-51 production.

North American Aviation P-51B-1-NA Mustang in flight. (Air Force Historical Research Agency)
North American Aviation P-51B-1-NA Mustang in flight. (Air Force Historical Research Agency)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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25 February 1975

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, USAF, made his last flight as an active duty Air Force officer aboard a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 25 February 1975. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, USAF, made his last flight as an active duty Air Force officer aboard a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 25 February 1975. (U.S. Air Force)

25 February 1975: At Edwards Air Force Base, California,  Brigadier General Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, United States Air Force, made his final flight as an active duty Air Force pilot, flying this McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II.

During his career, General Yeager flew 180 different aircraft types and accumulated 10,131.6 flight hours.

General Yeager retired 1 March 1975 after 12,222 days of military service.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 February 1923

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired), at Edwards AFB, 14 October 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his Mach 1 flight. (Photograph © 2017 by Tim Bradley Imaging. Used with permission.)

13 February 1923: Brigadier General Charles Elwood Yeager, United States Air Force (Retired), was born at Myra, West Virginia.

Who is the greatest pilot I ever saw? Well, uh. . . Well, let me tell you. . . .

The following is from the official U.S. Air Force biography: (Photographs from various sources)

“The world’s first man-made sonic boom told the story. On Oct. 14, 1947, over dry Rogers Lake in California, Chuck Yeager rode the X-1, attached to the belly of a B-29 bomber, to an altitude of 25,000 feet. After releasing from the B-29, he rocketed to an altitude of 40,000 feet. Moments later he became the first person to break the sound barrier, safely taking the X-1 he called Glamorous Glennis to a speed of 662 mph, faster than the speed of sound at that altitude. His first words after the flight were, ‘I’m still wearing my ears and nothing else fell off neither.’

Captain Chuck Yeager on Rogers Dry Lake with the Bell X-1, 1948.
Captain Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, USAF, at Rogers Dry Lake with the Bell X-1, 1948.

“Yeager was born in February 1923 in Myra, W. V. In September 1941, he enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps. He was soon accepted for pilot training under the flying sergeant program and received his pilot wings and appointment as a flight officer in March 1943 at Luke Field, Ariz.

Aviation Cadet Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

“His first assignment was as a P-39 pilot with the 363rd Fighter Squadron, Tonopah, Nev. He went to England in November 1943 and flew P-51s in combat against the Germans, shooting down one ME-109 and an HE-111K before being shot down on his eighth combat mission over German-occupied France on March 5, 1944. He evaded capture by the enemy when elements of the French Maquis helped him to reach the safety of the Spanish border. That summer, he was released to the British at Gibraltar and returned to England. He returned to his squadron and flew 56 more combat missions, shooting down 11 more enemy aircraft.

Second Lieutenant Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Forces, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, Glamorous Glenn II, at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
First Lieutenant Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, Glamorous Glenn II, at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

“Returning to stateside, Yeager participated in various test projects, including the P-80 Shooting Star and P-84 Thunderjet. He also evaluated all the German and Japanese fighter aircraft brought back to the United States after the war. This assignment led to his selection as pilot of the nation’s first research rocket aircraft, the Bell X-1, at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.). After breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yeager flew the X-1 more than 40 times in the next two years, exceeding 1,000 mph and 70,000 feet. He was the first American to make a ground takeoff in a rocket-powered aircraft. In December 1953 he flew the Bell X-1A 1,650 mph, becoming the first man to fly two and one-half times the speed of sound.

Captain Charles E. Yeager, USAF with a North American Aviation F-86A Sabre, Los Angeles, 21 January 1949. (© Bettman/CORBIS)
Captain Charles E. Yeager, USAF with a North American Aviation F-86A Sabre, Los Angeles, 21 January 1949. (Bettman/CORBIS)
Major Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of the Bell X-1A rocketplane. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of the Bell X-1A rocketplane. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Charles E. Yeager, USAF, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, 1958. (Stars and Stripes)
Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, 1st Fighter Day Squadron, with North American Aviation F-100F-15-NA Super Sabre, 56-3950, George Air Force Base, California, 1958. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, 1st Fighter Day Squadron, 413th Fighter Day Wing, with North American Aviation F-100F-15-NA Super Sabre, 56-3950, George Air Force Base, California, 1958. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Colonel Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, United States Air Force, 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, 1958. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Yeager became Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, 23 July 1962. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, USAF, commanding the 405th Fighter Wing, with crew chief TSGT Rodney Sirois, before a combat mission with a Martin B-57 Canberra during the Vietnam War. (Stars and Stripes)

“After a succession of command jobs, Yeager became commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School (now the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School), where all military astronauts were trained.

Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 4 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Charles E. Yeager, USAF, in the cockpit of a Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 4 December 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

“On Dec. 10, 1963, he narrowly escaped death while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer. His aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after battling to gain control of the powerless aircraft. He thus became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. Yeager has flown more than 200 types of military aircraft and has more than 14,000 hours, with more than 13,000 of them in fighter aircraft.

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, United States Air Force, July 1969. (Stars and Stripes)

“Yeager retired from active duty in the U. S. Air Force in March 1975, after serving as the United States defense representative to Pakistan and director of the Air Force Inspection and Safety Center, Norton AFB, Calif.

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, made his final flight as an active duty officer aboard A McDonnell F-4C Phantom II at Edwards AFB, 25 February 1975. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, made his final flight as an active duty officer aboard a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II at Edwards AFB, 25 February 1975. (U.S. Air Force)

“Retirement was never part of his plans. He remains an active aviation enthusiast, acting as adviser for various films, programs and documentaries on aviation. He has published two books, entitled Yeager, An Autobiography and Press On: Further Adventures in the Good Life.”

Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, United States Air Force

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 December 1953

Bell X-1A 48-1384 in flight. The frost band on the fuselage shows the location of the cryogenic propellant tank. (U.S. Air Force)

12 December 1953: On its tenth flight, U.S. Air Force test pilot Major Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1A rocket plane to Mach 2.44 (1,621 miles per hour/2,609 kilometers per hour) at 74,700 feet (22,769 meters), faster than anyone had flown before.

After the rocket engine was shut down, the X-1A tumbled out of control—”divergent in three axes” in test pilot speak—and fell out of the sky. It dropped nearly 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) in 70 seconds. Yeager was exposed to accelerations of +8 to -1.5 g’s. The motion was so violent that Yeager cracked the rocketplane’s canopy with his flight helmet.

Yeager was finally able to recover by 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base.

Yeager later remarked that if the X-1A had an ejection seat he would have used it.

Bell Aircraft Corporation  engineers had warned Yeager not to exceed Mach 2.3.

Major Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, seated in the cockpit of the Bell X-1A, 48-1384, circa 1953. (U.S. Air Force)

The following is from Major Charles E. Yeager’s official post-flight report:

“After a normal drop at 31,000 feet, chambers #4, #2, and #1 were ignited and [the] airplane was accelerated up to .8 Mach number. A flight path was formed holding .8 Mach number up to 43,000 feet where chamber #3 was ignited and the airplane accelerated in level flight to 1.1 Mach number. A climb was again started passing through 50,000 feet at 1.1 Mach number, 60,000 feet at 1.2 Mach number and a push-over was started at 62,000 feet. The top of the round-out occurred at 76,000 feet and 1.9 Mach number. The airplane was accelerated in level flight up to 2.4 [2.535 indicated] Mach number where all of the rocket chambers were cut. The flight path was very normal and nothing uneventful [sic] happened up to this point. After the engine was cut, the airplane went into a Dutch roll for approximately 2 oscillations and then started rolling to the right at a very rapid rate of roll. Full aileron and opposite rudder were applied with no effect on the rate of roll of the airplane. After approximately 8 to 10 complete rolls, the airplane stopped rolling in the inverted position and after approximately one-half of one second started rolling to the left at a rate in excess of 360 degrees per second, estimated by the pilot. At this point the pilot was completely disoriented and was not sure what maneuvers the airplane went through following the high rates of roll. Several very high ‘g’ loads both positive and negative and side loads were felt by the pilot. At one point during a negative ‘g’ load, the pilot felt the inner liner of the canopy break as the top of his pressure suit helmet came in contact with it. The first maneuver recognized by the pilot was an inverted spin at approximately 33,000 feet. The airplane then fell off into the normal spin from which the pilot recovered at 25,000 feet.”

Flight test data from Yeager's 12 December 1953 flight superimposed over a photograph of the bell X-1A. (NASA)
Flight test data from Yeager’s 12 December 1953 flight superimposed over a photograph of the Bell X-1A. (NASA)

The following is a transcript of radio transmissions during the flight:

Yeager: Illegible [inaudible]—gasping—I’m down to 25,000 over Tehachapi. Don’t know
whether I can get back to the base or not.
Chase (Ridley): At 25,000 feet, Chuck?
Yeager: Can’t say much more, I got to (blurry—save myself).
Yeager: I’m—(illegible)—(Christ!)
Chase (Ridley): What say, Chuck?
Yeager: I say I don’t know if I tore anything up or not but Christ!
Chase (Murray): Tell us where you are if you can.
Yeager: I think I can get back to the base okay, Jack. Boy, I’m not going to do that any more.
Chase (Murray): Try to tell us where you are, Chuck.
Yeager: I’m (gasping)…I’ll tell you in a minute. I got 1800 lbs [nitrogen] source pressure.
Yeager: I don’t think you’ll have to run a structure demonstration on this damned thing!
Chase (Murray): Chuck from Murray, if you can give me altitude and heading, I’ll try to check you from outside.
Yeager: Be down at 18,000 feet. I’m about—I’ll be over the base at about 15,000 feet in a minute.
Chase (Murray): Yes, sir.
Yeager: Those guys were so right!
Yeager: Source pressure is still 15 seconds, I’m getting OK now.
Yeager: I got all the oscillograph data switches off. 4 fps camera off, it’s okay.
Bell Truck: Jettison and vent your tanks.
Yeager: I have already jettisoned. Now I’m venting both lox and fuel. Leaving hydrogen peroxide alone.
Bell Truck: Roger.
Yeager: I cut it, I got—in real bad trouble up there.
Yeager: Over the base right now, Kit, at 14,500 feet.
Chase (Murray): I have you.

A North American F-86E-10-NA Sabre chase plane, 51-2848, follows the Bell X-1A as it glides toward Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
A North American F-86E-10-NA Sabre chase plane, 51-2848, follows the Bell X-1A as it glides toward Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

In his autobiography, Always Another Dawn, NACA test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield wrote:

Probably no other pilot could have come through that experience alive. Much later I asked Yeager, as a matter of professional interest, exactly how he regained control of the ship. He was vague in his reply, but he said he thought that after he reached the thick atmosphere, he had deliberately put the ship into a spin.

“A spin is something I know how to get out of,” he said. “That other business— the tumble—there is no way to figure that out.”

. . . Yeager received many accolades. I didn’t begrudge him one of them. If ever a pilot deserved praise for a job well done, it was Yeager. After that X-1A episode, he never flew a rocketplane again.

Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot, by A. Scott Crossfield with Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, Chapter 19 at Pages 183–184.  

Bell X-1A 48-1384 (U.S. Air Force)

The Bell X-1A, 48-1384, was an experimental rocket-powered high-speed, high-altitude research aircraft. It was one of four second-generation X-1s (including the X-1B, X-1D and X-1E), specifically designed to investigate dynamic stability at speeds in excess of Mach 2 and altitudes greater than 90,000 feet. It was a mid-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. The airplane was 35 feet, 6.58 inches (10.835 meters) long with a wingspan of 30 feet, 6 inches (9.296 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 2.37 inches (3.261 meters). The wheelbase, measured from the nose wheel axle to the main wheel axle, was  13 feet, 5.13 inches. (4.093 meters). The main wheel tread was 4 feet, 3 inches (1.295 meters). The X-1A design gross weight was 10,668 pounds (4,839 kilograms).

The X-1A was powered by a single Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-5 rocket engine with four independent combustion chambers. The XLR11 was fueled with ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. It produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.689 kilonewtons).

The Bell X-1A made its first flight 14 February 1953 with Bell test pilot Jean Ziegler in the cockpit. It reached its highest speed, Mach 2.44 on Flight 10. Its highest altitude was 90,440 feet (27,566 meters) on its 24th flight. On 8 August 1955, while still on board its B-50 drop ship, the X-1A suffered an external explosion. The rocketplane was jettisoned and destroyed when it hit the desert floor.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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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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