NF-104A December 10, 1963

3251Aerial image of the crash site. CLUI photo

Col. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, famous for breaking the sound barrier 15 years earlier, was selected to set a new altitude record of 120,000 feet, with a modified Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. On the second of two preparatory flights he lost control, and the plane fell into a flat spin at 65,000 feet. He attempted to restart the engine, and managed to pitch the nose down by deploying a drag chute, but the nose pitched up again and the spin continued. After 13 revolutions, Yeager ejected just 5,000 feet above the ground. Falling through the sky, the smoldering ejection seat was briefly snared in his parachute lines and struck him, damaging his helmet and burning his face. He landed near the burning wreckage of his plane, a few miles north of the town of Mojave, and was picked up by Air Force rescue personnel from Edwards. Investigators later determined that the accident was not caused by mechanical failures, but by decisions made by the pilot, based on insufficient training and preparation on the part of test program managers.

U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo

The NF-104A was a production Starfighter, a Mach 2 interceptor plane, heavily modified with the addition of a liquid-fuel rocket engine at the base of the tail, and reaction-control thrusters to enable maneuvering at extremely high altitudes. Such zoom flights were developed for training pilots in the new Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards, part of the emerging manned space program. Yeager’s crash was heroically depicted in the film The Right Stuff. (During filming  in 1983, the stuntman playing Yeager falling through the sky died when his parachute failed to open.) Three NF-104A aerospace trainers were built. One survives on static display in front of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot school at Edwards. 

Tracking cameras at Edwards filmed the plane as it flew, spun, then fell, capturing the deployment of the parachute to attempt to stop the spin, followed by Yeager’s ejection.  Video courtesy of Peter Merlin/NASA.