On December 10th, 1963, test pilot, Charles Elwood Yeager climbed into a modified Lockheed NF-104A equipped with a supplementary rocket engine and a reaction control system. The purpose for test flight was to continue the testing of RCS to compensate for normal aircraft control surfaces having little or no effect in the thin air of the upper stratosphere and when operating at extremely high altitudes.
The NF104 was powered by a General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet, producing 9,600 lbf, along with her new reaction control systems Rocketdyne AR2-3 liquid fuelled rocket engine, rated at 6,000 lbf. The Rocketdyne rocket engine burned a mixture of JP-4 jet fuel and 90% hydrogen peroxide oxidizer solution. For the flight, the NF-104 carried enough oxidizer for approximately 100 seconds of rocket engine operation.
A NF-104 test profile involved a level acceleration at 35,000 feet to Mach 1.9 where the rocket engine would be ignited, and upon reaching Mach 2.1 the Starfighter would be pitched nose up to a climb angle of 50-70° by slowly applying a G load equal to 3.5. The burners would start to be throttled down at approximately 70,000 feet followed by manual fuel cutoff at 85,000 feet to prevent fast-climbing engine temperatures from damaging the turbine stages. After silently coasting over the top of its ballistic arc the Starfighter would then descend back into lower altitudes, and denser air where the main engine could be restarted using the windmill restart technique for recovery to a normal landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
That day, Yeager was following the test profile that began with an acceleration to Mach 1.9. The Starfighter’s nose pitching up into her zoom climb, she quickly passed through 37,000 feet. At that altitude, Yeager lit the NF-104A Starfighter’s rocket engine and continue the profiled acceleration to Mach 2.2 at 40,000 feet.
Passing through 70,000 feet in altitude and climbing over twice the speed of sound, Yeager was advised by ground control that his climb profile was a little shallow. To correct, Yeager applied the reaction control system to get back on climb profile. Neither the RCS, nor the flight controls would respond to Yeagers inputs…and the Starfighter, now on a ballistic path, entered a violent spin.
High over the desert, Yeager pulled the ejection handle, and departed the out of control rocket plane as it twisted and rolled along all her axis.
The F-104 slammed onto the desert floor, with Yeager landing only a short distance away. Still in one piece, but unfortunately burned after his parachute opened. Yeager had been inadvertently struck in the face by the base of his ejection seat, breaking his helmet’s visor, and allowing burning residue from the rocket to enter the pure O2 environment inside his helmet. This sequence of events actually igniting a flame inside his visor, and as a result, Yeager suffered numerous burns to his face and hands. Moments after touching down under his canopy, a helicopter and flight surgeon arrived, and thankfully, Yeager lived to fly another day...