The Crash of Chuck Yeager's NF-104A
December 10, 1963
"To err is human, to forgive is divine; neither of which is Air Force policy." -Unknown
The Lockheed NF-104 aerospace trainer was a modified F-104A airplane, incorporating a liquid fuel rocket engine in addition to the conventional turbojet engine. The modification was done to allow flight in regimes and under conditions not obtainable with available operational airplanes. The aircraft was used to provide space flight training at a fraction of the cost of fully rocket-powered research aircraft.
The first NF-104A was delivered on October 1, 1963, with the other two following a month later. They were operated by the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB, which was commanded at that time by Colonel Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager.
To the left, is an impression of Yeager's ejection from his NF-104 #762 in 1963, as drawn by noted aviation artist Barry Munden at Boom and Zoom Graphics.
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“On December 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104A rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, he narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after vainly battling to gain control of the powerless, rapidly falling craft. In this incident he became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights.” (from the biography of Gen. Yeager click here).
Read about Yeager's experience, in his own words
The aircraft was destroyed in the ensuing crash. An investigation later showed that the cause of the crash was a spin that resulted from excessive angle of attack and lack of aircraft response. The excessive angle of attack was not caused by pilot input but by a gyroscopic condition set up by the J79 engine spooling after shut down for the rocket-powered zoom climb phase.
The crash is depicted in the movie "The Right Stuff." However, the director/writer changed most of the facts/events surrounding the crash. About the only thing they got right was that an F-104 did crash and it was piloted by Yeager.
However, in recreating the ejection for the film, the stunt man playing Yeager during the freefall, perished.
Sam Sheppard as Chuck Yeager, as depicted after the F-104 crash in the movie, "The Right Stuff"
The Crash Site Today
Unlike the crash sites of the XB-70 or the B-1A, this site is small. We went to the area three times before locating it (although we were finding shattered debris).
The first two times we came within 20 yards of the site and didn't see it. On our third try, we located the end of a debris field and followed it for about 100 yards before locating the crash site crater.
The photo above left is a composite of the photo on the right and the crash site photo. We wanted to see if you could locate the exact point from which the photo was taken. The two photos blended together perfectly. It is amazing how little the bush in the photo has changed over the years.
Here is another photo of the site where the main fuselage came to rest. About 15 yards from the tail.
As with most crash sites, small parts of the aircraft can be found laying on the surface of the ground.