Tag Archives: Lockheed F-104A Starfighter

16 May 1958

CAPT Walter W. Irwin lands at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 16 May 1958. The airplane is Lockheed F-104A-1-LO 55-2969. (U.S. Air Force)

16 May 1958: At Edwards Air Force Base, in the high desert of southern California, Captain Walter W. Irwin, U.S. Air Force, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 15/25 Kilometer Straight Course when he flew a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, serial number 55-2969, to 2,259.538 kilometers per hour (1,404.012 miles per hour). ¹ He made two runs over the course at an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters).

On the same day, Captain Irwin set two U.S. National Aeronautic Association time-to-altitude records by flying -969 to 3,000 meters in 41.8 seconds, and to 25,000 meters in 4 minutes, 26.03 seconds. It reached a peak altitude of 27,813 meters (91,246 feet).

Captain Irwin was part of a group of engineers and pilots awarded the Robert J. Collier Trophy by the National Aeronautic Association in 1958 for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics” because of their involvement in the Lockheed F-104 program.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon presents the Collier Trophy. Left to right, Major Walter W. Irwin and Lieutenant Colonel Howard C. Johnson; Nixon; Neil Burgess and Gerhard Neumann, designers of the General Electric J79 engine; and Clarence Leonard (“Kelly”) Johnson, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. 15 December 1959. (NASM-00142388)
Captain Walter W. Irwin, U.S. Air Force, at Edwards AFB, 16 May 1958. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

Walter Wayne Irwin was born 21 August 1924 in Washington. He was the son of John Harvey Irwin, a shoe store clerk, and Stella Mildred Barron. He enlisted as a private in the Air Corps, United States Army, at Seattle, Washington, 6 January 1942. Trained as a fighter pilot, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant 3 November 1942. Lieutenant Irwin flew 88 combat missions in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt with the Ninth Air Force in Europe during World War II. He was shot down, captured and held as a prisoner of war for a week before he escaped and made his way to friendly forces.

Captain Irwin married Lieutenant Christine Ann Stevens, Nurse Corps, United States Air Force, in a Catholic ceremony at Arlington, Virginia, 4 December 1954. Lieutenant Stevens was assigned to the base hospital at Travis Air Force Base in California. They would have four children.

At the time he set the record, Captain Irwin had just returned from an overseas assignment in Taiwan. He was a flight commander with the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, based at Hamilton Air Force Base, Novato, California.

In addition to the Collier Trophy, Major Irwin won the Thompson Trophy for his F-104 speed record.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 55-2969. The prototype Lockheed Model 188 Electra is in the photograph behind the interceptor.

Walter Irwin retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel following thirty years of service. In retirement, he was owner of a realty company in Sebastopol, California.

On 17 April 1978, Colonel Irwin was flying a rented Piper PA-28-161 Cherokee Warrior near Occidental, California. Witnesses saw the airplane maneuvering at low altitude. A wing clipped an oak tree. The airplane crashed and caught fire. Walter Wayne Irwin was killed. His ashes were spread at sea.

Formation of two Lockheed F-104A-15-LO (S/N 56-0769 and 56-0781). (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a single-place, single engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

The F-104A is 54.77 feet (16.694 meters) long with a wingspan of 21.94 feet (6.687 meters) and overall height of 13.49 feet (4.112 meters). The total wing area is just 196.1 square feet (18.2 square meters). At 25% chord, the wings are swept aft 18° 6′. They have 0° angle of incidence and no twist. The airplane has a very pronounced -10° anhedral. An all-flying stabilator is placed at the top of the airplane’s vertical fin, creating a “T-tail” configuration.

Lockheed F-104A-1-LO Starfighter 55-2969 (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed F-104A-1-LO Starfighter 55-2969 (U.S. Air Force)

The F-104A had an empty weight of 13,184 pounds (5,980.2 kilograms). The airplane’s gross weight varied from 19,600 pounds to 25,300 pounds, depending on the load of missiles and/or external fuel tanks.

Internal fuel capacity was 896 gallons (3,392 liters). With Sidewinder missiles, the F-104A could carry two external fuel tanks on underwing pylons, for an additional 400 gallons (1,514 liters). If no missiles were carried, two more tanks could be attached to the wing tips, adding another 330 gallons (1,249 liters) of fuel.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter three-view illustration with dimensions.

The F-104A was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-3A engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-3A is rated at 9,600 pounds of thrust (42.70 kilonewtons), and 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 3.5 inches (5.271 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,325 pounds (1,508 kilograms).

55-2969 in General Electric colors (Pinterest)
55-2969 in General Electric colors. (Pinterest)

The F-104A had a maximum speed of 1,037 miles per hour (1,669 kilometers per hour) at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). Its stall speed was 198 miles per hour (319 kilometers per hour). The Starfighter’s initial rate of climb was 60,395 feet per minute (306.8 meters per second). The combat ceiling was 55,200 feet (16,825 meters) and the service ceiling was 64,795 feet (19,750 meters).

Armament was one General Electric M61 Vulcan six-barreled revolving cannon with 725 rounds of 20 mm ammunition. An AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile could be carried on each wing tip, or a jettisonable fuel tank with a capacity of 141.5 gallons (535.6 liters).

Lockheed built 153 of the F-104A Starfighter initial production version. A total of 2,578 F-104s of all variants were produced by Lockheed and its licensees, Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, MBB, Messerschmitt,  Mitsubishi and SABCA. By 1969, the F-104A had been retired from service. The last Starfighter, an Aeritalia-built F-104S ASA/M of the  Aeronautica Militare Italiana, was retired in October 2004.

55-2969 was one of the original pre-production Lockheed YF-104As, completed 20 August 1956. It was modified to the F-104A standard configuration and assigned to the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Hamilton Air Force Base, near Novato, California.

On 22 August 1957 the Starfighter was damaged at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. It was returned to Lockheed for repair and upgraded to F-104A-1. In May 1958, -969 and another Starfighter were sent to Edwards to attempt setting several speed and altitude records. They were both then returned to the 83rd FIS.

Lockheed F-104A-1-L) Starfighter 55-2969 with a General Electric J79 turbojet engine, circa 1960. General Electric)
Lockheed F-104A-1-LO Starfighter 55-2969 with a General Electric J79 turbojet engine, circa 1960. (General Electric)

From August 1958 to August 1961, -969 was loaned to General Electric to test improvements to the J79 turbojet engine. While there, it was given the name Queenie, which was painted on the nose along with three playing cards.

In 1964 55-2969 was again returned to Lockheed for conversion to a QF-104A remote-controlled target drone. It was damaged by a AIM-9 Sidewinder missile on 28 September 1968, but was recovered, repaired and returned to service. On its 25th drone mission, 26 January 1971, Queenie was shot down by an experimental XAIM-4H Falcon air-to-air missile fired by an F-4E Phantom II.

Lockheed QF-104A 55-2969
Lockheed QF-104A 55-2969 at Eglin Air Force Base circa 1969

¹ FAI Record File Number 9063

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 May 1958

MAJ Howard C. Johnson prepares for his record flight, with Lockheed test pilot Willam M. ("Bill") Park (center) and Jack Holliman. YF-104A Starfighter 55-2957 is in the background. (Lockheed)
Major Howard C. Johnson, U.S. Air Force, prepares for his record flight, with Lockheed test pilot Willam M. (“Bill”) Park (center) and Jack Holliman. F-104A Starfighter 55-2957 is in the background. (Lockheed Martin)

7 May 1958: Major Howard C. Johnson, United States Air Force, the operations officer of the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, based at Hamilton Air Force Base, California, zoom-climbed a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, serial number 55-2957, to an altitude of 91,243 feet (27,811 meters) over Edwards Air Force Base, establishing a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) altitude record. ¹

Major Howard C. Johnson seated in the cockpit of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. (Johnson Family Collection)
Major Howard C. Johnson, U.S. Air Force, after his record-setting flight. (U.S. Air Force)

Using techniques developed by Lockheed aerodynamicists, Major Johnson climbed to 41,000 feet (12,497 meters) and accelerated to the Starfighter’s maximum speed in level flight. He then started to climb, maintaining a steady 2.5 G load, until he reached the optimum climb angle. A piece of masking tape applied to the side of the cockpit canopy at the predetermined angle gave Johnson a visual reference during his climb. At approximately 77,000 feet (23,470 meters) the F-104’s J79 turbojet engine had to be shut down to prevent overheating in the thin high-altitude atmosphere. The interceptor continued from that point on a ballistic trajectory until it reached the peak altitude. On the descent, the engine was restarted and Johnson flew the Starfighter back to Edwards Air Force Base.

Major Johnson had broken the altitude record set just 17 days earlier by Lieutenant Commander George C. Watkins, U.S. Navy, flying an experimental Grumman F11F-1F Tiger. The Lockheed F-104 beat the Grumman F11F by 4,362 meters (14,311 feet). ²

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 55-2957.

The Daily Independent Journal reported:

Hamilton Jet Pilot Sets World Altitude Record

     A 37-year-old Novato father of two today holds the world altitude record for flight in a powered aircraft.

     Maj. Howard C. Johnson of the 83rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Hamilton Air Force Base yesterday nosed a jet-powered F104 Starfighter to an altitude of 91,249 feet above the Mojave desert.

     His mark eclipsed by 2.1 miles an unofficial record of 80,190 feet claimed last Friday by a French Trident 06 at Istres, France.

     Major Johnson, operations officer of the 83rd FIS, first Starfighter-equipped unit of the Air Force, took off at 9:40 a.m. from the Palmdale (Los Angeles County) facility of the Lockheed Aircraft Corp., manufacturer of the plane.

     He sent the missile-like Starfighter upward on a 55-to-60 degree angle as it swept over the heavily instrumented range at Edwards Air Force Base. Then he pulled up sharply into a high angle climb, and zoomed out into the thin atmosphere over the desert—more than 17 miles above sea level.

     Just 27 minutes later, he touched down again at Palmdale.

     Describing the flight at a Los Angeles news conference today, the curly-haired major said he flew at 35,000 feet to Santa Barbara, went into a climbing turn at 40,000 feet and gave the jet full power about 10 miles from Mojave. Over Mojave, he went into his climb.

     He said he had no trouble controlling the plane. With colder air, he thought, he could have gone higher. The temperature outside the plane at the peak of his climb was minus 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside it was 70 degrees above zero.

     In the past week he had made six practice flights prior to yesterday’s record breaker.

     What does the sky look like at such altitudes?”

     I was so busy on most of my flights I didn’t notice,” he said. “On one flight I did and it was sort of a dark purple.”

     Johnson estimated he was at his maximum altitude 10 to 15 seconds and was going 622 miles per hour at the top of his climb.

     Johnson said he didn’t “feel like I was in outer space.”

     “But this obviously is a transition from the atmosphere is a transition from the atmosphere we have known,” he said. “We are on the threshold of space—a step up the ladder.”

     Back in Novato, his wife, Doris Jean, was at home at 1260 Cambridge street. Their children, Theodore 10, and Carol, 4, were at school.

     Mrs. Johnson knew her husband was out after the record, but she wasn’t worrying, she said today.

     “We’ve been married for 16 years and all of that time he has been in the Air Force,” she said, “so I’ve learned not to worry too much.

     “He had oxygen and a suit to protect him. But I do wish he’d stay a little lower.”

     Mrs. Johnson’s telephone rang soon after 10 o’clock. It was her husband, calling to say he had been successful in setting a new altitude record.”

     That’s about all he said,” reported Mrs. Johnson.

     The record is subject to review by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale before it goes down in the books as official.

      Plane altitude records have been zooming since the adoption of the jet engine. The altitude record for a propeller-drive plane is 56,046 feet, set ‘way back in 1946 by Maj. F. F. Ross, pilot, and Lt. D. M. Davis, flying from Harmon Field on Guam.

     An experimental rocket plane has gone higher than Johnson’s Starfighter, but the feats are not comparable. The rocket craft was launched from a mother plane high in the air, while the Starfighter took off from the ground.

     A balloon piloted by Maj. David G. Simons ascended to approximately 100,000 feet last Aug. 19 and 20, according to the World Almanac.

     Major Johnson is a native of Knoxville, Tenn. He has been in the Air Force since April 1, 1942, and has logged 4,600 hours flying time, including 1,800 hours in jets. He has been stationed in California, at Castle Air Force Base, Merced, and then at Hamilton, for five years.

The Daily Independent Journal, Vol 98, No. 40   Page 1, Columns 5–8, and Page 12, Column 3

Lieutenant Colonel Johnson was part of a group of engineers and pilots awarded the Robert J. Collier Trophy by the National Aeronautic Association in 1958 for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics” because of their involvement in the Lockheed F-104 program.

Vice President Richard M. Nixon presents the Collier Trophy. Left to right, Major Walter W. Irwin and Lieutenant Colonel Howard C. Johnson; Nixon; Neil Burgess and Gerhard Neumann, designers of the General Electric J79 engine; and Clarence Leonard (“Kelly”) Johnson, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. 15 December 1959. (NASM-00142388)

Howard Carroll Johnson was born at Knoxville, Kentucky, 2 February 1920. He studied at the University of Louisville. Soon after the United States entered World War II, on 1 April 1942, Johnson enlisted as a private in the Air Corps, United States Army. He was accepted s an aviation cadet 7 April 1942.

Aviation Cadet Johnson married Miss Donna Jean Holder, a classmate at the University of Louisville, at the Presbyterian Church, McAllen, Texas, 4:30 p.m., February 20, 1943. They would have two children. Mrs. Johnson died in 1986.

Colonel Howard C. Johnson, United States Air Force.

After completing flight training, Cadet Johnson was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), 20 March 1943. He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant 27 June 1944.

Gunnery inst,

Capt air-res (inactive) 13 Nov 46

Rel’d active duty 12 Jan 47

1LT AC 19 June 47, dor 20 Mar 46

P-51 Korea 87 combat missions

1954-55 F-94B

1961 F-84F Germany

1966-67 F-105 SEA  DO 388th TFW, 117 combat missions

 

Republic F-105D Thunderchiefs, Southeast Asia, 1966.

Ret 1 Oct 1972

Cattle ranch, TX

live-aboard boat Palm Beach

Married Ms. Elena Rova O’Brien, a widow, April 1990. Mrs. Johnson died in 2016.

Colonel Johnson just celebrated his 100th Birthday in Palm Beach, Florida.

The landing gear are retracting as Major Howard C. Johnson takes off with the Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, 55-2957, 7 May 1958. (U.S. Air Force)

The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a single-place, single engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

The F-104A is 54.77 feet (16.694 meters) long with a wingspan of 21.94 feet (6.687 meters) and overall height of 13.49 feet (4.112 meters). The total wing area is just 196.1 square feet (18.2 square meters). At 25% chord, the wings are swept aft 18° 6′. They have 0° angle of incidence and no twist. The airplane has a very pronounced -10° anhedral. An all-flying stabilator is placed at the top of the airplane’s vertical fin, creating a “T-tail” configuration.

The F-104A had an empty weight of 13,184 pounds (5,980.2 kilograms). The airplane’s gross weight varied from 19,600 pounds to 25,300 pounds, depending on the load of missiles and/or external fuel tanks.

Internal fuel capacity was 896 gallons (3,392 liters). With Sidewinder missiles, the F-104A could carry two external fuel tanks on underwing pylons, for an additional 400 gallons (1,514 liters). If no missiles were carried, two more tanks could be attached to the wing tips, adding another 330 gallons (1,249 liters) of fuel.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter three-view illustration with dimensions.

The F-104A was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-3A engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-3A is rated at 9,600 pounds of thrust (42.70 kilonewtons), and 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 3.5 inches (5.271 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,325 pounds (1,508 kilograms).

The F-104A had a maximum speed of 1,037 miles per hour (1,669 kilometers per hour) at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). Its stall speed was 198 miles per hour (319 kilometers per hour). The Starfighter’s initial rate of climb was 60,395 feet per minute (306.8 meters per second) and its service ceiling was 64,795 feet (19,750 meters).

Armament was one General Electric M61 Vulcan six-barreled revolving cannon with 725 rounds of 20 mm ammunition. An AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile could be carried on each wing tip, or a jettisonable fuel tank with a capacity of 141.5 gallons (535.6 liters).

The Lockheed F-104 was armed with an electrically-powered General Electric T-171E-3 (later designated M61) Vulcan 6-barrel rotary cannon, or “Gatling Gun.” The technician has a belt of linked 20 mm cannon shells. (SDASM)

Lockheed built 153 of the F-104A Starfighter initial production version. A total of 2,578 F-104s of all variants were produced by Lockheed and its licensees, Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, MBB, Messerschmitt,  Mitsubishi and SABCA. By 1969, the F-104A had been retired from service. The last Starfighter, an Aeritalia-built F-104S ASA/M of the  Aeronautica Militare Italiana, was retired in October 2004.

55-2957 had been one of the first group of YF-104A pre-production aircraft. After the flight test program, it and the others were modified to the F-104A production standard.

The record-setting Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was later converted to a QF-104A high-speed drone. It was expended as a target 8 August 1967.

Lockheed QF-104A Starfighter 55-2957, after modification to a high-speed drone, in flight. There is no pilot aboard. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed QF-104A Starfighter 55-2957 in flight after modification to high-speed drone configuration. There is no pilot aboard. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Number 5056

² FAI Record File Number 8596

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 April 1956

The first Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, 55-2956, i stowed out of its hangar at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, 17 April 1956. (Lockheed)
The first Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, 55-2956, is towed out of its hangar at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, 17 April 1956. (Lockheed Martin)

17 April 1956: Lockheed Aircraft Corporation rolled out the very first production F-104A Starfighter, 55-2956, at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. This airplane, one of the original seventeen pre-production YF-104As, incorporated many improvements over the XF-104 prototype, the most visible being a longer fuselage.

Once the configuration was finalized, 55-2956 was the first YF-104A converted to the F-104A production standard. In this photograph, the F-104’s secret engine intakes are covered by false fairings.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 55-2956 rollout at Palmdale, 17 April 1956. (Lockheed)
Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 55-2956 rollout at Palmdale, 17 April 1956. (Lockheed Martin)

The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a single-place, single-engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. The F-104A was 54 feet, 8 inches (16.662 meters) long with a wingspan of 21 feet, 9 inches (6.629 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 5 inches (4.089 meters). It had an empty weight of 13,184 pounds (5,980.2 kilograms), combat weight of 17,988 pounds (8,159.2 kilograms), gross weight of 22,614 pounds (10,257.5 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 25,840 pounds (11,720.8 kilograms). Internal fuel capacity was 897 gallons (3,395.5 liters).

The F-104A was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-3A engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-3A is rated at 9,600 pounds of thrust (42.70 kilonewtons), and 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 3.5 inches (5.271 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,325 pounds (1,508 kilograms).

The F-104A had a maximum speed of 1,037 miles per hour (1,669 kilometers per hour) at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). Its stall speed was 198 miles per hour (319 kilometers per hour). The Starfighter’s initial rate of climb was 60,395 feet per minute (306.8 meters per second) and its service ceiling was 64,795 feet (19,750 meters).

Lockheed F-104A-5-LO Starfighter 56-737 launches two AIM-9B Sidewinder infrared-homing air-to-air missiles. (U.S. Air Force)

Armament was one General Electric M61 Vulcan six-barreled revolving cannon with 725 rounds of 20 mm ammunition. An AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile could be carried on each wing tip, or a jettisonable fuel tank with a capacity of 141.5 gallons (535.6 liters).

Lockheed built 153 of the F-104A Starfighter initial production version. A total of 2,578 F-104s of all variants were produced by Lockheed and its licensees, Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, MBB, Messerschmitt,  Mitsubishi and SABCA. By 1969, the F-104A had been retired from service. The last Starfighter, an Aeritalia-built F-104S ASA/M of the  Aeronautica Militare Italiana, was retired in October 2004.

Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter 55-2956 at NOTS China Lake. (U.S. Navy)

This Starfighter, 55-2956, was converted to a JF-104A with specialized instrumentation. It was transferred to the U.S. Navy to test AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles at Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) China Lake, approximately 55 miles (88 kilometers) north-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California. 55-2956 was damaged beyond repair when it lost power on takeoff and ran off the runway at Armitage Field, 15 June 1959.

While on loan to teh U.S. Navy for testing the Sidewinder missile, Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 55-2956 crashed on takeoff at NAS China Lake. Damaged beyond economic repair, the Starfighter was written off. (U.S. Navy)
While on loan to the U.S. Navy for testing the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile, Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter 55-2956, with Commander Herk Camp in the cockpit, crashed on takeoff at Armitage Field, NOTS China Lake. (U.S. Navy)

©2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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11 April 1975

A formation of NASA's five Lockheed F-104 Starfighters, 11 April 1975. (NASA/Bob Rhine)
A formation of NASA’s five Lockheed F-104 Starfighters, 11 April 1975. (NASA/Bob Rhine)

11 April 1975: “The only time the five ship fleet of NASA Dryden’s F-104 Starfighters was ever airborne at the same time. Pilots were: F-104N #811-Bill Dana; F-104N #812-Tom McMurtry; F-104A #818-Einar Enevoldson; F-104A #820-Gary Krier; and F-104B #819-Fitz Fulton and Ray Young. Photo taken from T-38 #821 flown by Don Mallick.”

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20 December 1962

Milton O. Thompson with a Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, 20 December 1962. (NASA)

20 December 1962: Milton Orville Thompson, a NASA test pilot assigned to the X-15 hypersonic research program, was conducting a weather check along the X-15’s planned flight path from Mud Lake, Nevada, to Edwards Air Force Base in California, scheduled for later in the day. Thompson was flying a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, Air Force serial number 56-749, call sign NASA 749.

NASA 749, a Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter, 56-749, with an ALSOR sounding rocket on a centerline mount, at Edwards Air Force Base. Right front quarter view. (NASA)
NASA 749, a Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter, 56-749, with an ALSOR sounding rocket on a centerline mount, at Edwards Air Force Base. (NASA)

In his autobiography, At the Edge of Space, Thompson described the day:

“The morning of my weather flight was a classic desert winter morning. It was cold, freezing in fact, but  the sky was crystal clear and there was not a hint of a breeze—a beautiful morning for a flight.”

Completing the weather reconnaissance mission, and with fuel remaining in the Starfighter’s tanks, Milt Thompson began practicing simulated X-15 approaches to the dry lake bed.

X-15 pilots used the F-104 to practice landing approaches. The two aircraft were almost the same size, and with speed brakes extended and the flaps lowered, an F-104 had almost the same lift-over-drag ratio as the X-15 in subsonic flight. Thompson’s first approach went fine and he climbed back to altitude for another practice landing.

Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-749 (NASA 749) carrying a sounding rocket on a centerline mount. (NASA)
Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-749 (NASA 749) carrying an ALSOR sounding rocket on a centerline mount. (NASA)

When Milt Thompson extended the F-104’s flaps for the second simulated X-15 approach, he was at the “high key”— over Rogers Dry Lake at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) — and supersonic. As he extended the speed brakes and lowered the flaps, NASA 749 began to roll to the left. With full aileron and rudder input, he was unable to stop the roll. Adding throttle to increase the airplane’s airspeed, he was just able to stop the roll with full opposite aileron.

Thompson found that he could maintain control as long as he stayed above 350 knots (402 miles per hour/648 kilometers per hour) but that was far too high a speed to land the airplane. He experimented with different control positions and throttle settings. He recycled the brake and flaps switches to see if he could get a response, but there was no change. He could see that the leading edge flaps were up and locked, but was unable to determine the position of the trailing edge flaps. He came to the conclusion that the trailing edge flaps were lowered to different angles.

Thompson called Joe Walker, NASA’s chief test pilot, on the radio and explained the situation:

     I told him the symptoms of my problem and he decided that I had a split trailing edge flap situation with one down and one up.

     He suggested I recycle the flap lever to the up position to attempt to get both flaps up and locked. I had already tried that, but I gave it another try. Joe asked if I had cycled the flap lever from the up to the takeoff position and then back again. I said no. I had only cycled the flap lever from the up position to a position just below it and then back to the up position. Joe suggested we try it his way. I moved the flap lever from the up position all the way to the takeoff position and then back to the up position. As soon as I moved the lever to the takeoff position, I knew I had done the wrong thing.

     The airplane started rolling again, but this time I could not stop it. The roll rate quickly built up to the point that I was almost doing snap rolls. Simultaneously, the nose of the airplane started down. I was soon doing vertical rolls as the airspeed began rapidly increasing. I knew I had to get out quick because I did not want to eject supersonic and I was already passing through 0.9 Mach. I let go of the stick and reached for the ejection handle. I bent my head forward to see the handle and then I pulled it. Things were a blur from that point on.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1992. Chapter 5 at Pages 119–120.

Impact crater caused by crash of Milt Thompson's Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, 20 Decemver 1962. NASA)
Impact crater caused by the crash and explosion of Milt Thompson’s Lockheed JF-104A Starfighter, 20 December 1962. (NASA)

As Thompson descended by parachute he watched the F-104 hit the ground and explode in the bombing range on the east side of Rogers Dry Lake. He wrote, “It was only 7:30 a.m. and still a beautiful morning.”

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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