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Chuck Yeager and the NF-104 Starfighter crash

Chuck Yeager and the NF-104 Starfighter crash

Oct. 3, 1963: Col. Chuck Yeager, commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, poses for Times photographer Larry Sharkey with one of three new NF-104 rocket-assisted Lockheed Starfighters being delivered to the school.

This photo, along with a profile of Yeager and the Aerospace Research Pilot Flight School by Times aerospace editor Marvin Miles, was published Oct. 14, 1963.

Two months later, on Dec. 10, Yeager and one of the NF-104 aircraft crashed. The next morning, Marvin Miles reported in The Times:

Col. Charles (Chuck) Yeager, first man to fly faster than sound, fought a jet fighter through a 16-mile flat spin Tuesday before bailing out 6,000 ft. above the Mojave Desert.

The veteran Air Force pilot suffered burns on his face and neck, apparently from the ignition of pure oxygen in his mask, but otherwise was not injured seriously.

His rocket-boosted NF-104 Starfighter smashed to earth near the intersection of U.S. 6 and U.S. 466, one of the most heavily traveled points in a desert area otherwise free of traffic or habitation.

Yeager was picked up nearby by a USAF helicopter and flown the few miles to the hospital at Edwards Air Force Base where he was treated and held for observation.

The famed flier, now commander of the Aerospace Research Pilot School at the desert base, was flying the souped up Starfighter for the fifth time…

After his afterburner and jet engine flamed out in the thin air, Yeager continued his skyrocket climb on the 6,000-lb. thrust of a tail rocket in  the Starfighter and hit a peak of about 90,000 ft. where he shifted to space controls.

The stub-winged ship swung into a flat spin turning in an almost horizontal attitude as it plunged dawn the far side of a high ballistic arc.

Riding far forward toward the nose of the Starfighter the pilot whirled on the outside of the circle, unable to control the spin, but determined to ride the ship down into heavier air where he could recover with an engine re-light.

Apparently the forces involved in the flat-spin prevented a re-light which could have given him power to break his whirling fall.

He rode the ship dangerously low before giving up the fight and ejecting from the cockpit for a 6,000-ft parachute decent….

The renowned pilot’s most famous flight was made on Oct. 14, 1947, when he flew the X-1 rocket plane at a speed of 700 m.p.h. to become the first man to spear through the then feared wall of sound.

The NF-104 crash was adapted for Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, “The Right Stuff,” andwas depicted in the 1983 movie based on the book.

This previous From the Archive post, “A Day at the Office for Chuck Yeager,” covers a 1950 Yeager-piloted Bell X-1 flight.

No photos of the actual crash are in The Times archives.

Photo on right: A rocket-boosted NF-104 Starfighter heads to 120,000 feet as part of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School crew training program at Edwards Air Force Base.  The modified Starfighter has a 6,000-pound thrust rocket mounted in the tail. Photo released Aug. 11, 1965. Credit: Lockheed Aircraft Corp.


  1. February 28, 2012, 12:08 pm

    When you guys will realize that white text on black background is painfully difficult to read? Also, white on white (email entry box) is unreadable.

    By: Alex
  2. February 28, 2012, 12:45 pm

    "Sir, over there! Is that a man?"

    "You damned right it is!"

    By: AC Delco
  3. February 28, 2012, 2:45 pm

    Hey Ridley…You got any Beeman's?…..Well loan me some will ya?….I'll pay you back later.

    By: backdraft4750
  4. February 28, 2012, 3:31 pm

    Lord, a genuine legend! The “Pilot’s Pilot” in every sense of the word, Mr Yeager epitomized professionalism in aviation and stands along with Bob Hoover as probably the greatest pilots in the world.

    “We are not worthy” indeed, thanks for this wonderful pic and story.

    By: Raoul Duke (Dr)
  5. February 28, 2012, 8:39 pm

    Yeager was the example of the "Right Stuff". But the crash of the NF-104 was all his fault as she did not know how to fly the plane to those extreme heights and fly the plane as a space oriented aircraft. All his prior flight in the NF-104 were not up to par and his over confidence was the factor causing the crash. His fame was a factor for not having him held responsible for the crash. Check web site

    By: mustang5171
  6. September 22, 2016, 3:55 pm

    Got a feeling you have no idea what you are talking about, bud. It was his 5th flight, and as the article clearly states, his afterburner and jet engine flamed out.

  7. February 28, 2012, 10:44 pm

    104 Starfighter… 50's generation technology… and still faster that any of our front line fighters today. Met both Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager at the Proud Bird resturant next to LAX. Great food, Great company.

  8. December 16, 2016, 12:31 pm

    mustang 5171 I respectfully submit that you are dead wrong in stating "…crash of the NF-104 was all his (Yeager's) fault." Yeager had over 40 flights in that aircraft and was test pilot on development of the F-104. He knew the aircraft had a pitch up problem. Cause of the flat spin was apparently failure of one of the dual nose thrusters. These thrusters were used to properly orient the aircraft for landing, keeping adequate air flow through the jet engine to maintained hydraulic pressure and allowed engine restart. Without hydraulic pressure, pitch, yaw, and roll could not be stabilized. It was Yeager's consummate knowledge of "the systems" that enabled him to survive.

    By: Jim Smith

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