Tag Archives: Lockheed F-104A Starfighter

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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13 December 1958

NASA test pilot Einar K. Enevoldson in the cockpit of a NASA/Lockheed F-104N, N811NA, in 1984. (NASA)
NASA test pilot Einar K. Enevoldson in the cockpit of a NASA/Lockheed F-104N, N811NA, in 1984. (NASA)

13 December 1958: First Lieutenant Einar Knute Enevoldson, U.S. Air Force, set seven Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-climb records in a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, serial number 56-762,¹ at Naval Air Station Point Mugu (NTD) (located on the shore of southern California), including Sea Level to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in 41.85 seconds; 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) in 58.41 seconds; 9,000 meters (29,528 feet) in 1 minute, 21.14 seconds; 12,000 meters (39,370 feet) in 1 minute, 39.90 seconds; 15,000 meters (49,213 feet) in 2 minutes, 11.1 seconds; 20,000 meters (65,617 feet) in 3 minutes, 42.99 seconds; and 25,000 meters (82,021 feet) in 4 minutes, 26.03 seconds.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 56-762 being prepared for a record attempt at NAS Point Mugu. (F-104 Society)
Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 being prepared for a record attempt at NAS Point Mugu, California. (International F-104 Society)

Lieutenant Enevoldson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for these accomplishments.

The Distinguished Flying Cross
The Distinguished Flying Cross

FAI Record File Num #9107 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 3 000 m
Performance: 41.85s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9106 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 6 000 m
Performance: 58.41s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9105 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 9 000 m
Performance: 1 min 21.14s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9104 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 12 000 m
Performance: 1 min 39.90s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9103 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 15 000 m
Performance: 2 min 11.1s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9102 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 20 000 m
Performance: 3 min 42.99s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9080 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 25 000 m
Performance: 4 min 26.03s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 on the runaway at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, December 1958. (International F-104 Society)
U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 on the runaway at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, December 1958. (International F-104 Society)

Einar Enevoldson later flew as a civilian test pilot for NASA from 1968 to 1986 and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He holds numerous FAI world records.

Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 climbing under Southern California's overcast coastal skies. (International F-104 Society)
Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 climbing under Southern California’s overcast coastal skies. (International F-104 Society)

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).

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.

The same type aircraft as that flown by Einar K. Enevoldson, this is a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, 56-761. It is carrying both wingtip and underwing fuel tanks. (U.S. Air Force)
The same type aircraft as that flown by Einar K. Enevoldson, this is a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, 56-761. It is carrying both wingtip and underwing fuel tanks. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ 56-762 was one of three F-104As later converted to an NF-104A rocket/turbojet Advanced Aerospace Trainer. It is the same Starfighter that crashed when Chuck Yeager had to eject after it went into an uncontrolled spin during a zoom-climb altitude record attempt, 10 December 1963.

© 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 at Edwards Air Force Base in 1956. He flew more than fifty aircraft types during testing there and at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. In 1962 he was assigned to the Aerospace Research Test Pilots School at Edwards 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 fuselage “buzz number” was changed from FG-756 to NF-756.

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.

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)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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