Falling From the Edge of Space: Chuck Yeager’s Wild Ride

First introduced in 1954, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter looked like something out of science fiction. Designed by legendary aircraft designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, mastermind behind the U-2, A-12, and SR-71 spy planes, the F-104 was built around the powerful General Electric J79 jet engine and featured an unusually slender, needle-shaped fuselage and short, stubby wings, earning it the nickname “the missile with a man in it.” And it certainly had the performance to match, being the first production aircraft capable of achieving speeds of Mach 2 and reaching altitudes of 100,000 feet after taking off under its own power. Yet despite this, the F-104 tenure with the U.S. Air Force was surprisingly brief, being retired in 1969 after barely 11 years of service. This early retirement was attributed to the type’s low payload capacity and the Air Force’s shift towards more dedicated interceptor aircraft. But the F-104 was far more successful in foreign service, with examples being sold to 14 allied nations including Canada, West Germany, Italy, and Japan. Unfortunately, while aircraft was designed for high-altitude air superiority and interception, many nations pressed the F-104 into the all-weather low-level attack role, one for which it was particularly ill-suited. Accidents were common, leading to German pilots dubbing the F-104 “The Widowmaker”. Furthermore, in 1976 it was revealed that Lockheed had paid some $22 million in bribes to foreign officials to entice them to buy the Starfighter, regardless of its suitability for their needs. Nonetheless the F-104 soldiered on for nearly 50 years, with the last examples being retired from the Italian Air Force in 2004.

However, one operator who did put the F-104’s blistering high-altitude performance to good use was NASA, who in the early 1960s used the aircraft to train a new generation of astronauts – and nearly killed the world’s greatest test pilot in the process.

In the early days of the Space Race, the U.S. Air Force ran its own parallel space program built around military objectives. Unlike NASA, whose Mercury program used a ballistic space capsule which was launched atop rockets and splashed down in the ocean via parachute, Air Force efforts focused on more sophisticated winged space planes which could take off and land like regular aircraft. And the first such effort was the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar. Short for “Dynamic Soarer,” Dyna-Soar a small two-manned craft similar to the later Space Shuttle, designed to be launched atop a Titan missile, orbit the earth, and make an unpowered descent to a landing on a normal runway. In orbit, the Dyna-Soar would perform a variety of tasks, such as launching satellites, aerial reconnaissance, or even carrying out nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union.

The engineering challenges presented by the X-20 were immense, so in 1955 the Air Force and NASA contracted North American Aviation to design the X-15, an experimental rocket-powered aircraft to investigate the problems of high-speed, high-altitude flight. Launched from a B-52 mothership and powered by a Reaction Motors XLR99 rocket engine producing 57,000 pounds of thrust, the X-15 was the fastest manned aircraft ever built, reaching a speed of 7,374 km/hr or Mach 6.70 on October 3, 1967. Until the June 21, 2004 flight of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, it was also the highest-flying, reaching a maximum altitude of 353,330 feet – above the internationally-recognized boundary of outer space. Indeed, eight X-15 pilots were awarded their astronaut wings, while two future NASA astronauts cut their teeth on the aircraft – including Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

However, the X-15 was an extremely difficult – and expensive – aircraft to fly, and the Air Force soon began looking for a less expensive machine on which to train its future X-20 pilots. They found it in the venerable F-104 Starfighter. In 1960, the Air Force changed the name of its famous Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force in the Mojave Desert to the Aerospace Research Pilots School or ARPS in order to reflect their new spaceflight ambitions. And the man chosen to run the school was none other than Colonel Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, who on October 14, 1947 had been the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight.

At first the ARPS used unmodified F-104s to simulate the X-15 and X-20’s high-speed, unpowered landing approach, a highly-dangerous maneuver that left little room for error. Pilots were required to fly to 12,000 feet and make their descent with their engine throttled back to 80% and their flaps, landing gear, and speed brakes extended, a configuration which gave the F-104 handling characteristics which pilots likened to “a flying brick.”

But teaching future astronauts how to handle a craft in the vacuum of space, where regular aerodynamic controls are ineffective, required that extensive modifications be made to the aircraft. Lockheed was contracted to take three F-104s out of storage and convert them to Aerospace Trainer or AST configuration, with the new type being designated the NF-104 A – “N” standing for “Nonstandard.” This involved stripping out all non-essential military equipment such as guns, radar, and avionics; modifying the engine intakes for better high-speed performance, and fitting hydrogen peroxide – fuelled thrusters in the nose and wings. These would allow the pilot to control the aircraft in the thin air of the upper atmosphere, where regular aerodynamic controls would be ineffective. To get the aircraft to those altitudes, it was fitted with a Rocketdyne AR2-3 rocket engine mounted under the tail, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust for around 100 seconds.

A typical flight profile required the pilot to climb to 35,000 feet and accelerate to Mach 1.9 before igniting the rocket engine. Upon reaching Mach 2.1, the pilot would then pitch up to a climb angle of 50-70 degrees and zoom-climb. At 85,000 feet the jet engine would be manually shut down, leaving the pilot to climb on rocket power alone until the fuel was exhausted. At apogee the pilot would experience several minutes of weightlessness as he coasted through a parabolic arc, during which he would use the control thrusters to keep the aircraft stable until it descended into thicker air and the jet engine could be restarted.

If the pilot followed the proper zoom-climb profile, the NF-104 could theoretically reach altitudes in excess 120,000 feet. Though the mission of the ARPS was to train future astronauts, every trainee knew that reaching such altitudes would constitute a new world record, smashing the previous record of 113,891 feet set by Soviet pilot Georgi Mosolov on April 28, 1961. This goal proved irresistible, and on December 6, 1963, Major Robert W. “Smitty” Smith piloted the NF-104 to an altitude of 120,800 feet. Unfortunately this was only an unofficial record, as the aircraft was not fitted with official International Aeronautical Federation measuring equipment.

Not to be outdone, on December 10 Colonel Yeager decided to have a go at piloting the NF-104 to its maximum altitude. Yeager had flown the aircraft several times before to get a feel for its climb profile, only to discover that he was not up to the task. Despite being a natural pilot and a legend in the aviation community, Yeager was relatively uneducated for a test pilot, having only completed the first half of his test pilot course before breaking the sound barrier in 1947. Indeed, during the NF-104 program the commander of Edwards Air Force Base, General Charles G. Boyd, discovered that Yeager was technically unqualified to fly experimental test flights, and forced him to complete a six-month stability and control course before returning to duty. Despite this, Yeager’s lack of theoretical aerospace knowledge made him unsuited to the NF-104’s particular foibles. Controlling a spacecraft in a near-vacuum is nothing like controlling a regular aircraft in the atmosphere, rendering Yeager’s “stick-and-rudder” instincts useless. This did not bode well for his attempt on the world altitude record.

Yeager booked two flights on December 10 – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first flight was a disappointment, with Yeager failing to maintain the proper climb angle and consequently only reaching 100,000 feet. The second flight went slightly better, with Yeager clearing 108,000 feet. Suddenly, however, everything started to go very wrong. As in his previous flight Yeager struggled to maintain the proper climb angle, and as he reached the top of his climb he pulled up too sharply, causing the aircraft to stall and begin wobbling violently. Despite his best efforts Yeager was unable to wrestle the aircraft back under control, and the wobble spiralled into an unrecoverable flat spin. His engine dead and his aircraft plummeting rapidly to earth, Yeager fought the NF-104 all the way down to one mile in altitude before deciding to “punch out” and fire his ejection seat. A small rocket engine in the seat ignited and propelled him out of the cockpit.

Though now clear of the doomed aircraft, Yeager wasn’t out of trouble yet. Ordinarily when a pilot ejects, aerodynamic forces separate them cleanly from the ejection seat. But the NF-104 was falling straight downward, and so Yeager and his seat fell together. This resulted in the seat striking the helmet on his pressure suit, cracking the faceplate and allowing flames from the still-burning rocket engine to enter and ignite the rubber lining. In the pure oxygen environment of the suit the rubber burned fiercely, filling the helmet with smoke and severely burning his face. Still free-falling through the sky, Yeager removed his suit gloves, opened his faceplate, and tried to smother the flames with his bare hands, severely burning them in the process. Then his parachute automatically deployed and he landed several minutes later not far from the wreckage of the NF-104.

Major Robert Smith, who rushed to the scene of the crash in a rescue helicopter, described what happened next:

“Chuck started to walk toward us in his pressure suit, but with helmet in hand. I jumped down and ran to him and was shocked by his condition.  One half of his face was solidly charred into a deep black, with a few strips of blood red.  It appeared to me that his skin had literally been burned off, with only some pieces of flesh hanging on. I started assisting him the short distance to the chopper, when he suddenly turned and said he wanted his kneeboard (used for test notes by the pilots) then he said he had taken it off and placed under the windshield before he bailed out.  I tried to dissuade him, but couldn’t and sure enough it was right where he said.  He didn’t have to climb, just step up and reach in without any landing gear between belly and ground.  His having that recall of his actions at such a moment was a memory I have never forgotten, because it characterized Chuck Yeager under duress.”

As it turned out, much of the damage Smith saw was simply burned rubber from the helmet lining clinging to Yeager’s skin. Nonetheless, Yeager had suffered severe third-degree burns to his face and hands, which required long and painful debridement – the scraping off of dead tissue – to treat. Miraculously, Yeager was saved from being partially blinded by the very impact that had caused his burns. When the ejection seat struck his helmet, it cut a deep gash in his forehead which bled over his face. The heat of the fire then cooked the blood in place, forming a hard layer that protected his eye.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because this incident was dramatized in the classic 1983 film The Right Stuff, with the role of Chuck Yeager played by actor Sam Shepard. The film’s version of events, however, is highly fictionalized, with Yeager depicted as having stolen the NF-104 on a whim in order to challenge the world altitude record. The real incident was only slightly less damaging to Yeager’s reputation, as it demonstrated that his intuitive piloting skills were no match for the new, highly-technical frontier of spaceflight. It was no accident that when NASA set out to select the first Mercury astronauts, it insisted that all candidates be trained engineers. The December 10, 1963 flight of the NF-104 would be the last of Chuck Yeager’s attempts to break a world record.

It also marked the end of another era, for on the same day U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara announced the cancellation of the X-20 Dyna-Soar program. Throughout the 1960s the Air Force would continue to try establishing a manned presence in space, next developing the Manned Orbiting Laboratory or MOL, a military space station designed for orbital reconnaissance. But this too would eventually be cancelled in 1969, effectively placing American manned spaceflight firmly in the hands of NASA.

Despite the loss of the NF-104, Chuck Yeager continued to serve with distinction as a test pilot and Air Force officer, commanding various air training squadrons and being promoted to Brigadier General before retiring from the Air Force in 1975. Post-retirement he toured extensively giving lectures, appeared in a cameo role in The Right Stuff, and broke the sound barrier twice on the anniversary of his historic 1947 flight – once in 1997 and again in 2012. Of the ups and downs in his long aviation career, in his 1986 autobiography, he stated: “The secret to my success is that I always managed to fly another day.”

Chuck Yeager died on December 7, 2020 at the age of 97, a legend to the end.

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Bonus Fact

The Federation Aéronautique Internationale or FAI, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, is the world governing body which administers official aviation records. The FAI has extremely strict rules regarding what counts as an official record, including that an aircraft must be fitted with official, sealed FAI recording instruments. Other rules are more esoteric, and one of these, strictly interpreted, might actually have denied the first man in space his official title.

When the Soviet Union launched its Vostok manned space program, for reasons of secrecy they decided that its cosmonauts must land in Soviet-held territory. As the Soviets did not control sufficiently large areas of ocean for an American-style splashdown recovery, this meant that the space capsules had to come down over land. Unfortunately, the Vostok spacecraft was too heavy and its parachutes too small to prevent the cosmonaut from being injured on impact with the ground, so the capsule was fitted with a fighter jet-style ejection seat, which at 20,000 feet would launch the cosmonaut from the spacecraft and allow them to land separately on his own parachute. This is how Yuri Gagarin landed on April 12, 1961 after becoming the first man to orbit the earth.

Unfortunately, the FAI rules at the time regarding manned spaceflight dictated that for a flight to count, the astronaut must land aboard his original spacecraft. This rule was a holdover from regular aviation, and was intended to discourage engineers from building dangerous, un-landable aircraft simply for the purposes of setting aviation records.  However, it effectively disqualified Gagarin’s historic feat, meaning that according to a strict interpretation of the rules, the first man in space was actually American astronaut Alan Shepard, who blasted into space on a 15-minute suborbital mission on May 5, 1961. For this reason, the Soviets concealed from the FAI the fact that Gagarin had landed separately from his spacecraft.

The truth would eventually emerge 4 months later when cosmonaut Gherman Titov, the second man to orbit the earth, admitted to ejecting and landing separately from his spacecraft. But instead of disqualifying him and Gagarin, they FAI convened a special meeting and decided to amend its manned spaceflight rules. Thus Yuri Gagarin is still officially recognized as the first man in space, his historic feat celebrated every April 12th as “Yuri’s Night”.

Expand for References

Marrett, George, Sky High in a Starfighter, Air & Space Magazine, November 2002, https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/sky-high-3270307/?page=1

Yeager’s NF-104 Crash, Sierra Hotel, https://sierrahotel.net/blogs/news/yeagers-nf-104-crash


Smith, Robert, The NF-104 Site, NF-104.com, http://www.kalimera.org/nf104/aircraft/aircraft.html


Lewis, Cathleen, Why Yuri Gagarin Remains the First Man in Space, Even Though He Did Not Land Inside His Spacecraft, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, April 12, 2010, https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/why-yuri-gagarin-remains-first-man-space-even-though-he-did-not-land-inside-his


Yeager, Chuck & Janos, Leo, Yeager: an Autobiography, Bantam, 1986


Hallonquist, Al, The MOL-Men Come Into the Light, Air & Space Magazine, December 4, 2015, https://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/mol-men-come-light-180957353/

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