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!-

10  Going for Broke

That sudden notification gave me an urgency to immediately try and complete expansion of the envelope with guts, not gray matter, as Chuck’s flights were imminent and I was starting to check him out.  My zoom flights were at an end and methodically expanding the zoom envelope would not be possible. 

I had expected much more than my 40-day Air Force test program for something of such unique proportions. Under normal circumstances a period of a year would have been brief.  My plan to gradually increase the pull-up g and climb angle, and find the optimum was dead: That traditional approach to testing that Chuck Yeager used successfully in X-1A. It was obvious the ASTs were moving to the school. 

I threw caution to the wind, a very stupid decision in our business and decided off the top of my head, or maybe closer to my butt, that I would start at Mach 2.4 and climb at 85-degrees of pitch to 100,000 feet and then lower pitch angle to 70-degrees until reaching the parabolic path at 16 degree alpha, then fly a typical path to the apogee.  I felt that if I went the full distance at 85 degrees I would not have the control power with RCS to rotate 170 degrees over the top to descend safely, necessitated by an 85 angle.  I knew I was stretching, but was convinced, or maybe more correctly had hoped to have enough speed left at 100k to lower the actual climb angle to 70 and then intercept the 16-degree angle of attack, at which point my instruments would allow me to control the space portion over the peak with the reaction control system, with the standard techniques. 

Up to that intersect point I was knowingly without any indication of how rapidly I was losing energy and how much margin I was losing.  If I had approached this logically, a 75-degree angle might have been prudent, but 85 was illogical because I had to presume enough dynamic pressure would remain to actually lower the flight path by at least 15 degrees, not just the nose angle.  In retrospect, I had chosen an impossible profile and should have realized that before I experienced it. 

Looking back, Mother Nature had alerted me this was too extreme, when I got less than 2% increase in altitude with a 10% increase in Mach on my highest zoom. The urge to find the maximum in one flight had robbed me of common sense, if I had any, and not only erased judgment, but also overrode experience.

I proceeded as planned but when I tried to lower the nose of the airplane at 100,000 I wasn’t able to get down to the 70-degree climb angle.  I had used up so much energy in the extended pull-up and climb that I literally fell backward, then tumbled and rolled, falling from somewhere above 100,000, I don’t remember the exact peak any longer, although I checked it when I reviewed the radar ground track and the altitude plot after that mission.

The plot showed the usual run-in from the Pacific Ocean toward the east and pull- up as planned to perform the easterly zoom north of the base.  We used this direction to convert energy of westerly tail winds into potential energy (added height) and position ourselves for a short return to base and a possible dead stick landing.  The track showed nearly vertical, consistent with the AARS gage.  The flight path topped out and came almost straight down, of course.  What goes up, must come down, was about the only thing that didn’t surprise me on that flight.

That little pen on the ground radar system may have seen a nearly straight line down but the fall I was in was nothing like that. The airplane was out of control, with random motion in all three axes. I had intentionally flown through a tumble in the T-33, but I could look around and see the ground most of the time, and knew what to expect.  Restricted by my view from the fixed hard helmet of the suit, I could only be oriented and get some sense of motions during the periods when the nose was toward the ground.  At other times I saw only sky and had an inexact sense of the airplanes motions, between flips and rolls toward terra firma.

This motion was far outside the use of flight instruments, something like recovery of motion on the Euler angle control simulator, which was very difficult in school at ARPS. As I was trying to put the puzzle together and counter the motions, attempting to combine both RCS and aerodynamic controls, one thought plagued me. Could the airplane fall fast enough that I would have a major structural failure as I hit denser atmosphere?  If so, haste in recovery was vital.  All I could do was to keep trying to incorporate both flight control systems in my efforts to stop the motion.  Once stopped, in any nose down attitude I had a chance to fly it out of the problem. 

After a period of time, I got the motion stopped but I was inverted …… and  falling upside down, at a steep dive angle.  Were I to pull through, like the finish of a loop, I would significantly increase the rate of descent and heat load on the canopy and airplane.  I knew that staying inverted in a steep dive would be worst of all, so my only option was to try rolling out to an upright dive, before pulling out.  If successful, I would be situated near a normal zoom recovery dive. 

I applied roll controls and the airplane suddenly went out of control again. I can only surmise that I got coupling between the axes, or maybe gyroscopic coupling from the jet engine rotations, or perhaps merely by roll-coupling at high Mach, into an excess alpha. Fortunately, the out of control fall helped to slow the speed.  Once again I reacted to the motion at each point in time, finally got it stopped, this time where I could fully recover.  The rest of the descent was uneventful.

One thing the little pen drawing on the radar plot and I agreed on was that from a zoom heading east I had finally come to my pull-out headed only slightly south of a westerly path, and had invented a new acrobatic maneuver I didn’t understand, and never wanted to duplicate.

The thing that makes my pre-flight decisions and plan on that flight so incomprehensible now, even with diminished cognizance of age 75, is that I knew I would be outside the cockpit indication limits necessary to maintain control during ascent until well above 100,000 feet. This plus engineering judgment should have limited me to no more than 75 degrees.  I gave the AST no chance from the start!

Actually, my test program had a blessing and a penalty wrapped up in one. The Flight Test Center had no compelling attachment with the program and no operational command watching over us. Us, in this case were only the ground crew and one young 2nd lieutenant, who was assigned as test engineer, his first job and our only technical asset, which meant he couldn’t assist. He had a civilian boss, Clendon Hendricks, but Clen seemed to have little interest in us until a critical event, soon to occur, changed the history of the AST.  There was no way the lieutenant could analyze flight data from a flight within weeks, if he could at all, so there was no effort made, and my only learning process was what I saw and felt in flight.

I feel the AST might have had another 1000 feet in it, under ideal weather conditions and with optimum zoom angle, not much more.

Up to that point, the School did not chose to be involved with activity under the auspices of the Test Operations, as it was then and according to many, has never changed.  And very little attention was paid to my tests by operations.  Therefore, except for a couple of radar site workers, who gave me the plot and had no concern with it, no one on base was aware my 85-degree experiment even took place.  Only friends I chose to confide in after I left Edwards, had known until now.  It’s not that I hid it for the sake of pride, as I’ve done too many goofy things flying to try hiding them, as you’ll find out if you choose to read my autobiography on this web site (to be coming in installments, soon). 

I guess if anything good came out of that flight, I did use what I learned on this flight to reinforce my knowledge and respect of the control task over the top and used the experience I had gained, as much as he would listen, for Chuck Yeager in briefing him on how to reserve energy for his zooms, soon to come.

Not long ago, I watched a program on Discovery Wings (which interviewed Col. Harold “Tom” Collins, our Test Operations Chief during AST) about when he and Chuck Yeager flew in the North Korean Mig-15 that was delivered by a defector.  He told about being unable to dive it to supersonic because it would shake, vibrate and climb as it approached Mach 1, but they could never push it through.  Tom complimented Chuck on having the guts to roll inverted and dive to attempt it, which was extremely bold.  Chuck Yeager's career was loaded with demonstrations of fearlessness and self confidence that few others possess.  My favorite is his pushing the X-1A beyond its anticipated Mach 2 limit.  He took it to 2.5 Mach before it tumbled out of control and fell for more than 40,000 feet before he recovered. 

previous section next section