The Mission > home

The Mission click on the links below for more of the story...
1 Birth of a Spaceplane - 2 The Test Pilots - 3 Joint Test Program - 4 Theory to Reality - 5 World Record - 6 Surprise, Surprise - 7 Strike Two! - 8 Enduring World Record - 9 A Big Surprise - 10 Going for Broke - 11 Unwanted Record for Chuck Yeager - 12 Spin, Crash & Rescue - 13 Accident Board (Strike Three for Me!) - 14 Three Up & Three Down - 15 The End...Finis...QED - 16 Yeager's View in Review - 17 What's in the Future? - 18 Farewell, but Didn't Fare Well!-

8  Enduring World Record

I flew zoom flights on every one of the 3 airplanes as part of certifying them for use by the ARPS.  In a way they became routine to the extent that I don’t find anything memorable about every one, but that was not always the case.  The flight on which I got the highest altitude became memorable, for that reason alone.  I decided on 2.4 Mach and 35,000 feet.  It was unfortunate that I had no place to turn for any energy management or performance analyses for improvement, since we had no money appropriated and the use of the analog computers of the time were very manpower intensive.

I continued to be so busy in the cockpit on my earliest zoom flights that I had no idea what the view was out of the cockpit from the moment I started to pull up until I was under aero control again and into my dive toward earth and home.  The helmet on the full pressure suit was affixed with a metal ring, and although the pilot’s head could move within it, visual restrictions remained.  Once pull up for zoom commenced, it became impossible to look at earth, therefore all flight attitude control was by instruments, as would be the case flying in heavy clouds, except with a lot more things happening very rapidly. I might mention that the cooling system in those suits was bad and I was looking through a liquid coated glass throughout the flight.  I did not allow myself an opportunity to look away from the instruments for even a split second, so it was only after gained experience that I would allow myself a view that made the whole project a dream.

I finally had reached the confidence and competence level where I could relax enough to view the sky, if only for seconds at a glance.  It was blacker than any night sky I ever saw and seemed to hang atop the beauty of the glowing white halo upon the rounded earth.  As I rotated from nose-up to down at peak altitude on this flight, I viewed this sight at the highest I would ever fly the AST, a sight that few had beheld.

I had already begun drafting the Partial Flight Manual, which I later completed.  It was identified as partial, because it covered those systems and procedures peculiar to the AST, as an addendum to the standard F-104A Flight Manual.  Unfortunately, I had to remove any references to the design mission, maximum altitude zoom, because of an incident soon to occur, so the attached PFM does not cover that.  It included facts about the aircraft, its systems, checklists and emergency procedures, some born of my imagination, which I had developed for anticipated failures, as I gained insight into potential risks while testing.  When Jack and I started, we had no idea of what to expect.

Among conceived but real risks, for example, was canopy or heat loss during the zoom.  It was extremely rare but canopies have suddenly failed and the pressure differential on the AST canopy was greater than usual because of the virtual vacuum outside. Heater failure was more likely, with the dead engine, too.  Either failure would be extreme because the pressure suit got very hot, so my helmet visor was always covered with a water film inside, and with both it would have frozen solidly, resulting in zero vision.  Lifting the visor would mean immediate death from blood boiling, even before oxygen anoxia could do it peacefully.

Blind and uncontrolled, high-speed reentry could very well result in catastrophic structural failure. The only solution that I conceived was to hold the stick aft, and add nose-up RCS for good measure, and cross controls in hopes of inducing a tumble or spin on reentry. At that point, other immediate problems would exist. If the canopy was intact the cockpit was full of nitrogen, which had to be eliminated by feeling for and activating the cockpit dump.  At that point after opening the cockpit manual depressurization, then depressurization of the pressure suit would be an indication of lower altitude and a chance to momentarily open the pressure visor and take a look, at the altitude.

Even if the canopy remained intact, it would be very risky to try opening the visor, even for a brief peek while holding breath.  What if it would not reseal in such a cold atmosphere, or I did it above 60 or 70,0000 feet and the blood boiled, an immediate fatal occurrence.  The best choice was to remain in the blind spin/tumble and then when the pressure suit decompressed, open visor and attempt spin recovery, and/or bailout depending on altitude.  Against the alternative of a blind ejection at extreme altitude, inside a wet suit, it seemed the only viable risk.  Even descending under a chute, the decision of when to open a fouled visor could be a big one.

One of my maximum zooms came as close as anytime in my life to being absolutely deadly, missing only by split seconds.  To a reasonable extent the maximum zoom mission was becoming routine, or at least very comfortable for me. I was on one and had just reached Mach 2.2 with full jet and afterburner power and 100% rocket thrust and was literally a split-second from starting the 3.5 g pull-up.  At the moment I started to move the stick to begin ascent I was suddenly suffocated, like a giant had grabbed my face, precisely at a time that I had fully exhaled. I could not inhale one iota!  It was the most startling moment I can remember and instinctively I rolled inverted and pulled full g’s into a vertical dive, opening the manual cockpit pressure dump valve to clear out the nitrogen as quickly as possible.  I didn’t even use speed brake because I knew I had just a short time before I couldn’t stand the pain of not being able to breath, already with no oxygen in my lungs.  It was excruciating to be on empty in the lungs and not able to do anything about it.  If I opened the visor, my only option, a few deep breaths of pure nitrogen from the cockpit would stop the pain, permanently, so I had to allow as much time as possible to dissipate it through the small orifice of the dump. 

I throttled back only later because I had to lose altitude with all speed.  Finally I could stand no more of it.  I opened my visor and took a full breath, the most wonderful one in a lifetime.  I quickly expelled it and repeated the process to get the newest and freshest air into my lungs as the cockpit was picking it up by rapidly replacing air.  By 20,000 feet, I knew I had made it and was slowing down. 

The afterthoughts when I was back on the ground recognized that had I even barely begun the pull-up before I was smothered, I would have had only the choice of opening my visor to die easily in seconds from anoxia, or dump the cockpit also and the result would have been boiling of the blood, a fate which befell a student test pilot in a standard F-104 zoom, when his pressure suit glove came off.

The cause of the suit failure in this case proved to be a tiny one-way valve in the small oxygen feed line, which metered oxygen in and exhaled air out.  The one possible, but unrecognized failure point had failed!

We had the best group of professionals in our physiology organization, under Major Ralph Richardson, who ran the lab, including training and qualification in the pressurization chamber.  They maintained our gear and had vast experience with years of high altitude testing, including the X-15 program.  Among them was Airman, Richard Coe, who was a whiz with the suits.  There had never been a case of such a failure anywhere and the suits had been considered to have no single points of failure.  Not so, thereafter.

I sometimes wondered, after that flight, if it happened seconds later, whether the accident investigators would have guessed at pilot error or aircraft malfunction, suspecting the former more likely. It is unlikely in a crash from above 35,000 feet with full power on at the moment of that event there would be enough to find the cause.  In fact, de-bonding of a tiny plastic washer which was inset and bonded to the seat of the small metal plunger, which served as valve for the oxygen port, had never occurred in testing or use of a full pressure suit. Would anyone have searched there even if the assembly survived, had I crashed … two unlikely events?  No chance, but my ghost would be hanging around to haunt the board members, if that had happened!

I was not requested to present an AST test plan, nor did anyone show great interest in the tests, only curiosity about the peak altitude on early flights.  I was the pilot, and Test Director, since I enjoyed no aid and had no direction from anyone on it.  I figured I was about in the middle of my test program, since no limits had been dictated and optimization of maximum altitude could now be gradually determined with incremental increases in climb angle, the only feasible variable.

Stability margins are decreased at high mach, and especially as angle of attack is increased, which was necessary for a 3.5 g pull-up to max zoom.  This would be the limiting condition for maximum speed at pull-up so in an effort to expand the performance, at least for a world record which I was presumed by most everyone to be headed for. I contacted the best Lockheed aerodynamics engineer to find what limit I might go to above 2.2 and safely make the pull-up.  I was told that it could be done without loss of stability and structural failure at 2.4 Mach, but only so long as the aircraft’s automatic stability augmentation system (SAS) did not to fail or disconnect during the pull up. The system had a low failure rate and the period of time was short enough for me to accept that.

On 6 December 1963I made a flight with that set of conditions and achieved 120,800 feet, gaining almost 2000 over previous best. When I would fly to beat the Russian record, and we all thought that was a certainty, it was important for America to gain the greatest margin.  There was no way to know at the time, that the altitude I reached that day, if it had been sanctioned, would remain the official world record even today, almost 40 years later, since it has never been exceeded by the 3% necessary to replace it.  Unfortunately, the Russians have held that record from before that time until the present.

previous section next section