Chuck Yeager’s NF-104 ejection took place while he was attempting to set a new altitude record at the edge of space but was nearly killed in a high-speed ejection after his aircraft went out of control in a flat spin.
In November 1961 the US Air Force (USAF) purchased three NF-104 aircraft (which were a sort of “special” F-104s featuring a rocket engine in the tail that permitted zoom climbs above 100,000 feet, an altitude where reaction control jets must be used instead of conventional control surfaces) to train the students at US Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) in out of atmosphere maneuvering and reentry problems.
The requirement for the NF-104 was born a month earlier, in October 1961, when the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base received the new designation of Aerospace Research Pilot School which reflected the increasing role relative to manned spaceflight. Recognizing early that a need for a vehicle to give students a realistic spaceflight training experience engineers used the X-15 program as a baseline, but they understood this new program would have additional requirements. The expense of flying an X-15-like vehicle on a routine basis would be cost prohibitive, so an alternate solution would be to modify an existing production airframe.
Former ARPS students Maj. Frank Borman, Maj. Tom McElmurry and William Schweikhard are credited with the NF-104A Aerospace Trainer (AST) idea.
Three F-104A aircraft chosen for the program, USAF serial numbers 56-0756, 56-0760 & 56-0762 which were all former test aircraft at Edwards AFB. They were delivered to Lockheed in August & September 1962 for modification work. The first NF-104A to fly was 56-0762 on Jul. 9, 1963 out of Lockheed’s Palmdale, CA facility with Lockheed pilot Jack Woodman at the controls. This was followed by 56-0756 on Aug. 10 and 56-0760 on Sep. 13.
56-0762 was destroyed in a crash while being flown by Chuck Yeager on Dec. 10, 1963, as the clips in this post featuring excerpts from the 1983 The Right Stuff epic historical drama film show. The videos show the famous sequence of Chuck Yeager’s NF-104 ejection which took place while he was attempting to set a new altitude record at the edge of space but was nearly killed in a high-speed ejection after his aircraft went out of control in a flat spin. Though seriously burned, after reaching the ground Yeager gathers up his parachute and walks to the ambulance, proving that he still has the Right Stuff.
The Right Stuff movie was adapted from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling 1979 book of the same name about the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force test pilots who were involved in aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, as well as the Mercury Seven, the seven military pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first crewed spaceflight by the US.
Here’s the excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff describing Yeager’s NF-104 ejection:
Two extraordinary pieces of equipment were being developed specifically for ARPS. One was a space mission simulator, a device more realistic and sophisticated than the Mercury project simulator NASA had on the boards. The other was the NF-104, which was an F-104 with a rocket engine mounted over the tailpipe. The rocket engine used hydrogen peroxide and JP4 fuel and would deliver 6.000 pounds of thrust. It was like a super-afterburner. The main engine plus the regular afterburner would take you to about 60,000 feet, and when you cut in the rocket, and that would take you somewhere between 120,000 and 140,000 feet. At least that was what the engineers confidently assumed. The plan was that the ARPS students would run profiles on the space mission simulator, then put on silver pressure suits, space-flight style, and take the NF-104 up to 120,000 feet or more in a tremendous arc, affording up to two minutes of weightlessness. During this interval they could master the use of reaction controls, which were hydrogen-peroxide thrusters of the sort used in all vehicles above 100,000 feet, whether the X-15, the Mercury capsule, or the X-20.
The only problem was, nobody had ever wrung out the NF-104. Just how it would handle in the weak molecular structure of the atmosphere above 100,000 feet, what the limits of its performance envelope would be, nobody knew. The F-104 had been built as a high-speed interceptor, and when you tried to do other things with it, it became very “unforgiving,” as the expression went. Pilots were already beginning to crunch the F-104 simply because the engine flamed out and they fell to the ground with about as much glide as a set of car keys. But Yeager loved the damned ship. It went like a bat. As the commandant of ARPS, he seized the opportunity to test the NF-104 as if it had his name on it.
The main reason he would be testing it would be for use in the school, but there was an extra dividend. Whoever was the first to push the NF-104 to optimum performance was certain to set a new world record for altitude achieved by a ship taking off under its own power. The Soviets had set the current record, 113,980 feet, in 1961 with the E-66A, a delta-winged fighter plane. The X-2 and the X-15 had flown higher, but they had to be hauled aloft by a larger ship before their rockets were ignited. The Mercury and Vostok space vehicles were lifted to altitude by automated booster rockets, which were then disengaged and jettisoned. Of course, all aircraft records were losing their dazzle now that space flight had begun. It was getting to be like setting some sort of new record for railroad trains. Yeager hadn’t tried to break a record in the skied over Edwards since December 1953, ten years ago, when he had set a new speed mark of Mach 2.4 in the X-1A and had come down in the far side of the arc in the most horrendous bout with high-speed instability any man had ever survived. Now Yeager was back on the flight line again to go for broke, out by the shimmering mirage surface of Rogers Lake, under that pale-blue desert sky, and the righteous energy was flowing again… and through that wild unbroken beast… a few volts of that righteous old-time religion… well, that would be all right, too.
Yeager had taken the NF-104 up for three checkout flights, edging it up gradually toward 100,000 feet, where the limits of the envelope, whatever they were, would begin to reveal themselves. And now he was out on the flight line for the second of two major preliminary flights. Tomorrow he would let it all out and go for the record. It was another of those absolutely clear brilliant afternoons on the dome of the world. In the morning flight everything had gone exactly according to plan. He had taken the ship up to 108,000 feet after cutting in the rocket engine at 60,000. The rocket had propelled the ship up at a 50-degree angle of attack. One of the disagreeable sides of the ship was her dislike of extreme angles. At any angle greater than 30 degrees, her nose would pitch up, which was the move she made just before going into spins. But at 108,000 feet it was no problem. The air was so thin at that altitude, so close to being pure “space,” that the reaction controls, the hydrogen peroxide thrusts, worked beautifully. Yeager had only to nudge the sidearm hand controller by his lap and a thruster on top of the nose of the plane pushed the nose right down again, and he was in perfect position to re-enter the dense atmosphere below. Now he was going up for one final exploration of that same region before going for broke tomorrow.
At 40,000 feet Yeager began his speed run. He cut in the afterburner and it slammed him back in his seat, and he was now riding an engine with nearly 16,000 pounds of thrust. As soon as the Machmeter hit 2.2, he pulled back on the stick and started the climb. The afterburner would carry him to 60,000 feet before exhausting its fuel. At precisely that moment he threw the switch for the rocket engine… terrific jolt… He’s slammed back in his seat again. The nose pitches up to 70 degrees. The g-forces start rising. The desert sky starts falling away. He’s going straight up into the indigo. At 78,000 feet a light on the console… as usual… the main engine overheating from the tremendous exertion of the climb. He throws the switch, and shuts it down but the rocket is still accelerating. Who doesn’t know this feeling if he doesn’t! The bastards are fantastic! … One hundred thousand feet… He shuts down the rocket engine. He’s still climbing. The g-forces slide off… makes you feel like you’re pitching forward…
He’s weightless, coming over the top of the arc… 104.000 feet… It’s absolutely silent… Twenty miles up… The sky is almost black. He’s looking straight up into it, because the nose of the ship is pitched up. His angle of attack is still about 50 degrees. He’s over the top of the arc and coming down. He pushes the sidearm control to bring down the nose of the ship but the nose isn’t budging. It’s still pitched up! He hits the thruster again… Shit!… She won’t go down!… Now he can see it, the whole diagram… This morning at 108,000 feet the air was so thin it offered no resistance and you could easily push the nose down with the thrusters. At 104,000 feet the air remains just thick enough to exert aerodynamic pressure. The thrusters aren’t strong enough to overcome it… He keeps hitting the reaction controls… The hydrogen peroxide squirts out of the jet on the nose of the ship and doesn’t do a goddamned thing… He’s dropping and the nose is still pitched up… The outside of the envelope!… well, here it is, the sonofabitch… It doesn’t want to stretch… and here we go!…
The ship snaps into a flat spin. It’s spinning right over its center of gravity, like a pinwheel on a stick. He pushes the sidearm control again. The hydrogen peroxide is finished. He has 600 pounds of fuel left in the main engine but there’s no way to start it up. To relight the engine you have to put the ship nose down into a dive and force air through the intake duct to and start the engine windmilling to build up the rpms. Without rpms there’s no hydraulic pressure and without hydraulic pressure you can’t move the stabilizer wings on the tail and without the stabilizer wings you can’t control this bastard at the lower altitudes… He’s in a steady-state flat spin and dropping… He’s whirling around at a terrific rate… He makes himself keep his eyes pinned on the instruments… A little sightseeing at this point and it’s vertigo and you’re finished… He’s down to 80,000 feet and the rpms are dead zero… He’s falling 150 feet a second… 9,000 feet a minute… And what do I do next?… here in the jaws of the Gulp… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – The damned beast isn’t making a sound… just spinning around like a length of pipe in the sky… he has one last shot… the speed brakes, a parachute rig in the tail for slowing the ship down after a high-speed landing…
The altimeter keeps winding down… Twenty-five thousand feet… but the altimeter is based on sea level… He’s only 21,000 feet above the high desert… The slack’s running out… He pops the speed brake… Bango! – the chute catches with a jolt… it pulls the tail up… He pitches down… The spin stops. The nose is pointed down. Now he only has to jettison the chute and let her dive and pick up the rpms. He jettisons the chute… and the beast heaves up again! The nose goes back up in the air!… It’s the rear stabilizer wing… The leading edge is locked, frozen into the position of the climb to altitude. With no rpms and no hydraulic controls he can’t move the tail… The nose is pitched way above 30 degrees… Here she goes again… He has no rpms, no power, no more speed chute and only 180 knots airspeed… He’s down to 12,000 feet… 8,000 feet above the farm… There’s not a goddamned thing left in the manual or the bag of tricks or the righteousness of twenty years of military flying… Chosen or damned!… It blows at any seam! Yeager hasn’t bailed out an airplane since the day he was shot down over Germany when he was twenty… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – I’ve tried C!… 11,000 feet, 7,000 feet from the farm… He hunches himself into a ball, just as it says in the manual, and reaches under the seat for the cinch ring and pulls.
He’s exploded out of the cockpit with such force it’s like a concussion… He can’t see…
Wham… a jolt in the back… It’s the seat separating from him and the parachute rig… His head begins to clear… He’s in midair, in his pressure suit, looking out through the visor of his helmet… Every second seems enormously elongated… infinite… such slow motion… He’s suspended in midair… weightless… The ship had been falling about 100 miles and hour and the ejection rocket had propelled him up at 90 miles an hour. For one thick adrenal moment he’s weightless in midair, 7,000 feet above the desert… The seat floats nearby, as if the two of them are parked in the atmosphere… The butt of the seat, the underside, is facing him… a red hole… the socket where the ejection mechanism had been attached… it’s dribbling a charcoal red… lava… the remains of the rocket propellant… It’s glowing… it’s oozing out of the socket… In the next moment they’re both falling, he and he seat. His parachute has a quarter bag over it and on the bag is a drogue chute that pulls the bag off so the parachute will stream out gradually and not break the chute or the pilot’s back when the canopy pops open during a high-speed ejection. It’s designed for an ejection at 400 or 500 miles an hour, but he’s only going 175.
In this infinitely expanded few seconds the lines stream out and Yeager and the rocket seat and the glowing red socket sail through the air together… and now the seat is drifting above him… into the chute lines!… The seat is nestled in the chute lines… dribbling lava out of the socket… eating through the lines… An infinite second… He’s jerked up by the shoulders… it’s the chute opening and the canopy filling… in that very instant the lava – it smashes into the visor of his helmet… Something slices through his left eye… He’s knocked silly… He can’t see a goddamned thing… The burning snaps him to… His left eye is gushing blood… It’s pouring down inside the lid and down his face and his face is on fire… Jesus Christ!… the seat rig… The jerk of the parachute had suddenly slowed his speed, but the seat kept falling… It had fallen out of the chute lines and the butt end crashed into his visor… 180 pounds of metal… a double layer visor.. the goddamned thing has smashed through both layers… He’s burning!… There’s rocket lava inside the helmet… The seat has fallen away… He can’t see… blood pouring out of his left eye and there’s smoke inside the helmet… Rubber!…
It’s the seal between the helmet and the pressure suit… It’s burning up… The propellant won’t quit… A tremendous whoosh… He can feel the rush… he can even hear it… The whole left side of his helmet is full of flames… A sheet of flame goes up his neck and the side of his face… The oxygen!… The propellant has burned through the rubber seal, setting off the pressure suit’s automatic oxygen system… The integrity of the circuit has been violated and it rushes oxygen to the helmet, to the pilot’s face… A hundred percent oxygen! Christ!… It turns the lava into an inferno… Everything that can burn is on fire… everything else is melting… Even with the hole smashed in the visor the helmet is full of smoke… He’s choking… blinded… The left side of his head is on fire… He’s suffocating… He brings up his left hand… He has on pressure-suit gloves locked and taped to the sleeve… He jams his in through the hole in the visor and tries to create and air scoop with it to bring air to his mouth… The flames… They’re all over it… They go to work on his glove where it touches his face… They devour it!… His index finger is burning up… His goddamned finger is burning!… But he doesn’t move it… Get some air!… Nothing else matters… He’s gulping smoke… He has to get the visor open… It’s twisted… He’s encased in a little broken globe dying in a cloud of his own fried flesh… The stench of it!… rubber and human hide… He has to get the visor open… It’s that or nothing, no two ways about it… It’s smashed all to hell… He jams both hands underneath… It’s a tremendous effort… It lifts… Salvation!…
Like a sea the air carries it all away, the smoke, the flames… The fire is out. He can breathe. He can see out of his right eye. The desert, the mesquite, the motherless Joshua trees are rising slowly toward him… He can’t open his left eye… Now he can feel the pain… Half his head is broiled… That isn’t the worst of it… The damned finger!… Jesus!… He can make out the terrain, he’s been over it a million times… Over there’s the highway, 466, and there’s route 6 crossing it… His left glove is practically burned off… The glove and his left index finger… he can’t tell them apart… they look as if they exploded in an over… He’s not far from base… Whatever is with the finger, it’s very bad… Nearly down… He gets ready… Right out of the manual… A terrific wallop… He’s down on the mesquite, looking across the desert, one-eyed… He stands up… Hell! He’s in one piece!… He can hardly use his left hand. The goddamned finger is killing him. The whole side of his head… he starts taking off the parachute harness… It’s all in the manual! Regulation issue!… He starts rolling up the parachute, just like it says… Some of the cords are almost melted through, from the lava… His head feels like it’s still on fire… The pain comes from way down deep… But he’s got to get the helmet off… It’s a hell of an operation… He doesn’t dare touch his head… It feels enormous… Somebody’s running toward him… It’s a kid, a guy in his twenties… He’s come from the highway… He comes up close and his mouth falls open and he gives Yeager a look of stone horror…
“Are you all right!”
The look on the kid’s face! Christalmighty!”
“I was in my car! I saw you coming down!
“Listen,” says Yeager. The pain in his finger is terrific. “Listen… you got a knife?”
The kid digs into his pocket and pulls out a penknife. Yeager starts cutting the glove off his left hand. He can’t bear it anymore. The kid stands there hypnotized and horrified. From the look on the kid’s face, Yeager can begin to see himself. His neck, the whole left side of his head, his ear, his cheek, his eye must be burned up. His eye socket is slashed, swollen, caked shut, and covered with a crust of burned blood, and half his hair is burned away. The whole mess and the rest of his face and nostrils and his lips are smeared with the sludge of the burning rubber. And he’s standing there in the middle of the desert in a pressure suit with his head cocked, squinting out of one eye, working on his glove with a penknife… The knife cuts through the glove and it cuts the meat of his finger… You can’t tell any longer… It’s all run together… The goddamned finger looks like it’s melted… He’s got to get the glove off. That’s all there is to it. It hurts too goddamned much. He pulls off the glove and a big hunk of melted meat from the finger comes off with it… it’s like fried suet…
“Arrggghhh…” It’s the kid. He’s retching. It’s too much for him, the poor bastard. He looks up at Yeager. His eyes open and his mouth opens. All the glue has come undone. He can’t hold it in any longer.
“God,” he says, “you… look awful!” The Good Samaritan, A.A.D.! Also a Doctor! And he just gave his diagnosis! That’s all a man needs… to be forty years old and to fall one hundred goddamned thousand feet in a flat spin and punch out and make a million-dollar hole in the ground and get half his head and his hand burned up and have his eye practically ripped out of his skull… and have the Good Samaritan, A.A.D., arrive as if sent by the spirit of Pancho Barnes herself to render a midnight verdict among the motherless Joshua trees while the screen doors bang and the pictures of a hundred dead pilots rattle in their frames:
“My God!… you look awful.”
A few minutes later the rescue helicopter arrived. The medics found Yeager standing out in the mesquite, him and some kid who had been passing by. Yeager was standing erect with his parachute rolled up and his helmet in the crook of his arm, right out of the manual, and staring at them quite levelly out of what is left of his face, as if they had an appointment and he was on time.
As the hospital they discovered one stroke of good luck. The blood over Yeager’s left eye had been baked into a crust-like shield. Otherwise he might have lost it. He had suffered third – and second-degree burns on his head and neck. The burns required a month of treatment in the hospital, but he was able to heal without disfigurement. He even regained the use of his left index finger.
No one even broke the Russian mark with the NF-104 or even tried to. Up above 100,000 feet the plane’s envelope was too goddamned full of holes. And Yeager never again sought to set a world record in the sky over the high desert.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force