Fantastic footage released by Edwards Air Force Base History Office shows the famous Dec. 10, 1963 “Zoom Flight” incident depicted in “The Right Stuff”.
It’s December 10th, 1963.
Col. Chuck Yeager, Aerospace Research Pilot School Commander, wearing a full pressure suit, straps in the cockpit of a an NF-104A Starfighter (#56-0762) serving as a low-cost “manned spacecraft transition trainer” for test pilots destined to fly the X-15 at Edwards Air Force Base, California, home of the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School, later renamed U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.
The NF-104A is one of three heavily modified Starfighters that has just entered service and reach altitudes of about 125,000 feet. It features a 6,000-pound thrust rocket engine at the base of the vertical tail, nose and wingtips’ reaction control thrusters, a larger vertical tail, increased wingspan, as well as tanks to store the rocket propellants, provision for a full pressure suit, a cockpit hand controller to operate the reaction control thrusters, and modified cockpit instrumentation.
The NF-104A is used to perform “Zoom” flights: a typical flight profile sees a level acceleration to Mach 1.9 at 35,000 feet; the rocket engine ignition and on reaching Mach 2.1, a 50-70 degree climb at 3.5 g. The J79 afterburner would start to be throttled down at approximately 70,000 feet followed shortly after by manual fuel cutoff of the main jet engine itself around 85,000 feet. From that point, the pilot began a parabolic arc to the peak altitude, where he would experience zero “g” (or “weightlessness” for about one minute) and use hydrogen peroxide reaction control to handle the aircraft around the pitch, roll and yaw axis, before descending back into denser air where the main engine could be restarted using the windmill restart technique for recovery using a conventional landing. A standard mission would last about 35 minutes from taxi to touchdown.
Today, Yeager was attempting to reach an altitude record.
The mission goes as planned until the rocket-propelled NF-104A reaches 101,595 feet and goes into an uncontrollable yawing and rolling motion. Yeager tries all what he can to recover the plane that is falling back towards the desert below in a flat spin
At 8,500 feet, he decides to eject from the uncontrollable Starfighter.
During the separation from the ejection seat he’s struck in the face by the rocket nozzle while the combination of the red hot nozzle and oxygen in his helmet produced a flame that burned the left side of his neck and set several parachute cords on fire.
Yeager will be hospitalized for two weeks, but he’s alive.
The whole scene is filmed from the ground and the footage has now been released by Edwards Air Force Base History Office:
It was later determined that the unrecoverable flat spin was caused by the execessive angle of attack that “was not necessarily pilot input but a gyroscopic condition set up by engine rotation after shut-down for the zoom.”
The scene is depicted also in the book (and film of the same name) “The Right Stuff”, although most of the facts surrounding the crash have been changed (BTW, the aircraft in the movie is an F-104G…).
Anyway, you can read about Yeager’s experience, in his own words here.
Back to the NF-104A as we explained in a previous article on this subject, another flight almost ended in disaster on June 15, 1971, when Capt. Howard Thompson experienced a rocket engine explosion while trying to lit it at 35,000 feet and Mach 1,15. Thompson was able to perform a safe lading to Edwards AFB using the normal jet engine. Few months later, in December 1971, the last NF-104A flight was performed: the program was terminated as it had been decided that the aerospace training mission would be carried out by NASA.
The first NF-104A #56-0756 is currently on display at Nevada County Air Park, Grass Valley, California wearing the markings of “56-0751. The second NF-104A #56-0760 is mounted on a pole outside the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.