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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!-

13  Accident Board: Strike Three for Me!

After Chuck’s accident a lot of things changed.  I had been test pilot and flight manual writer for all procedures and pilot instructions with a team consisting of two crew chiefs and one part time assistant, a young 2nd lieutenant assigned as flight test engineer.  Unfortunately, even an experienced engineer, would not have had time to perform data analyses between flights, if we were to finish the testing in any reasonable time period.  This was still the age of the slide rule and not digital computing.  We could have collected data on the aircraft instrument recorder, but no one was willing to pay the price for reduction and analysis.  We never had the benefit of data evaluation, before or after a single one of my 14 maximum zoom flights, and I certainly could have benefited from them. The school, our customer, had no funding for that, as I said, the school didn’t even want us to fly the tests.

After Yeager’s accident, all of the resources of the Engineering Directorate were at the disposal of the Accident Board.  My one-man effort to write the Flight Manual, where no one cared or read it before, was now facing a review board chaired by the colonel who was Director of Engineering.  Engineers, led by our best, Bob Hoey, were reducing Chuck’s flight data on his last two zooms, including the accident.  They began providing charts for the manual, and suddenly, Clendon Hendrickson was personally interested, if not very contributory. Clen was the supervisor of the young 2nd Lt. engineer, who had responsibility but no means to report on our prior tests. We even had an English language expert reviewing every word.  On occasion, I had to dispute her rewordings of my report, “for syntax and grammar” that was causing misstatement of technical and safety instructions.  This new attentiveness lasted until the accident board was finally closed, and it lasted far longer than a dual fatality and much more costly and vital crash of the XB-70, which occurred at Edwards a couple of years later.  And the XB-70 board had to face Congressional scrutiny of both military service committees.

The fully recovered on-board data from both of Chuck’s flights on the day of his accident were corroborated by the tracking data that day and on his previous flights, where he always made those same errors, and I had cautioned him on the risk, from the ground tracking of his zoom on prior efforts.  Chuck Yeager was an exceptionally confident and independent man.

In Summary, not one sign of a failure of any sort in the airplane or any of its systems was revealed in the flight data; to the contrary everything functioned normally.  The onboard data system recorded all zoom systems status and the motions of the AST.  Chuck Yeager’s accident was strictly and fully pilot error, but the President of his Accident Board, Col. Guy Townsend, lacked the courage or integrity to call it that way and risk Chuck’s wrath and the potential for trouble from higher levels: Jackie Cochran and her husband acting through the A.F. Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay.  Chuck’s Autobiography provides a lesson in how vindictive he was to those who refused to support him.

When all was said and done, Townsend, by that time second only to General Branch for Test Operations, appears to have orchestrated results with one primary goal of self-protection, and to assure that he did not attribute any responsibility to “Pilot Error”, which would have entailed harsh retribution from Chuck Yeager, a master at retaliation.  The flight data from Chuck’s last two flights, including the accident proved there was not a single system failure on either his first flight that day or during the entire accident flight.  The data was undamaged in the accident, due to the low impact falling in a flat spin, with virtually no fuel on board and no resulting fire in the airplane.  The aircraft had performed flawlessly!

Instead Guy Townsend decreed I was responsible as Instructor Pilot for allowing Chuck to fly without assessing his flight data between each of his flights. First, I was never on orders as an F-104 I.P. in my career; an Air Force directive for all such assignments.  Second, it was in fact Townsend, as Deputy for Test, who failed to provide any budget on the project to reduce our data, thus I never had benefit of any in all my testing on AST, until max zooms were no longer allowed, i.e., after Chuck’s crash!  No Air Force zoom flight ever resulted in data evaluation before his accident.

The facts are clear.  Chuck Yeager proved incapable of doing the job.  He was totally outside his element.  He was a natural pilot who had learned by experience and feel, but never really understood stability, just ‘sensed’ how airplanes would act, but aerodynamics and space dynamics are night and day.  If he was to fail, I expected it to be outside the aerodynamics region.

But not even that can excuse his accident, which was his fault, alone and was an error of bad pilot technique during normal, aerodynamic flight.  His shortcoming was inability to gain and maintain the 70 degree climb angle.  That required strict and delicate airplane control.  No more and no less.

His failure to do that made the space flight moot.  He made the mistake, not once but on each of his four zooms, exaggerated on each until his accident was inevitable long before he departed his familiar flying region His failing started at the moment he began a 3½ g pull up to the required 70 degree climb.  He never once made his immediate angle close to 70 degrees thus losing so much energy that he could not fly high enough to stay out of trouble.  Worse yet, he repeatedly started climb at a lower angle, then pulled the nose up later losing energy even faster and making the situation far more critical.  He needed time outside the atmosphere to use the reaction controls to nose over and he denied himself that time with poor piloting in his element of expertise, aerial flight.

In effect, what he did was climb far too shallow and then pulled up very steep in aerodynamic flight to a hammerhead stall, which in any F-104 meant an irrecoverable pitch-up and likely spin.

Whether he would have been able to deal with space controls and dynamics had he ever made it out of the aero region will never be known because he never flew a profile high enough, but it is such a change from airplane control that is seems to me doubtful.  Jack Woodman flew an excellent profile and got high enough for RCS control (118,400 feet) but lost control with the RCS.  Like Chuck Yeager, Jack had never studied the theory and engineering of space dynamics and control, which have no similarity to flying an airplane.  Unlike Yeager, Jack flew the aerial part of the flight very well.

Also, it was necessary to get high enough to be out of the sensible atmosphere long enough to get the nose pointed down 70 degrees before falling back into atmosphere, otherwise the uncontrollable pitch-up would be likely.  The correct piloting necessitated 140 degrees of carefully controlled nose over, using only the reaction controls, in the minute or so, between leaving atmosphere and reentry.  The RCS were too ineffective at 100,000 feet to help Chuck’s problem. The RCS thrusters were designed for space.  Chuck’s misunderstandings of the technology are confirmed in his personal assessment of the events, along with flight data, thus he placed himself in double jeopardy.  Yeager’s first mistake might have been overconfidence, but his biggest was the drive to reacquire the limelight that had escaped him in that era.  Ironically, the media attention because of the NF-104 accident triggered a resurgence in Yeager's public profile and led to a period of TV commercials.

As a result the usefulness of the AST was lost; others were blamed for mistakes, not of their making; and ultimately the project died after we wasted money and a year in my flying over 100 added test flights after the accident.  Those were of limited value, except to distance the Board President, Colonel Guy Townsend, from any future AST accidents, while avoiding Chuck’s wrath by exonerating him.  To further avoid any career impacts, the president put the AST back into operation with a restrictive program, which offered no realistic training but avoided the political risks.  In addition to the tests, he directed costly and ineffectual modifications, for over a year, before approving AST for training on profiles so limited that the intent to learn space flying had been overridden.

The remaining two ASTs were finally delivered to the school and until one of them was lost resulting in cancellation of the project, without fanfare, without any beneficial achievements, and without making any waves!

In regard for the efforts of some great folks assigned to serve on that board, there was new information developed when the colonel opened the base coffers for data analysis, a belated decision.  Unfortunately, none were permitted to be significant. The most valid and enlightening outcome was the work of Bob Hoey, an outstanding engineer, who was extremely well versed in all aspects of flight engineering, especially stability and control.  He got busy and put together an analog simulator that enabled analysis of why Yeager was unable to recover from a flat spin, and how it might be done in the future.  I flew the simulation, my introduction to Bob, as it progressed until Bob was able to ascertain a seemingly reliable recovery for a flat spin.  Flying his program convinced me of that and I attempted to add a flat spin to the program, in order to provide a way to reopen the project if we could demonstrate that important safeguard.

An even more far-reaching benefit would have been to provide the knowledge to the thousands of F-104 fighter pilots in America and overseas that they could recover safely, with only the help of their standard drag chute and nothing new but a fight tested emergency procedure.  Without that I knew AST was doomed, and more important would have been the saving of pilots and airplanes in the pitch-ups and spins of subsequent F-104 accidents.

The engineers also added an interesting training flight profile for lower altitude zooms, which were designated Cn beta flights.  Those were a series of tests that I enjoyed, but not the learning experience or the challenge of a max zoom.  They involved testing the AST dynamic stability at high Mach between 80,000 and 90,000 feet at various angles of attack to ascertain the conditions where it would lose stability and become uncontrollable.  The Cn Beta flights were constrained within the new AST limits, which had been established by the board, notably a maximum climb angle of 50 degrees and minimum dynamic pressure (q) of 20 pounds per square foot for all flights subsequent to the accident.  Limits never rescinded.  Though interesting to fly, these bore no benefits to training for space flight since the climb angle and minimum q limits eliminated zooming anywhere near the space region, thus as space control.

The Townsend Board, and let it be said that was not a democratic voting affair, having declared that the accident was due mostly to a bad design, began to impose flight restrictions to prove it!  An official board wouldn’t make unnecessary changes?  If you said yes, guess again.  First, the AST profile was modified to such an extreme that it could go very little higher than the standard F-104 zooms flown at the Test Pilot School. That and the restriction to dynamic pressure no lower than 20 pounds per square foot, totally negated the primary purpose of acquiring AST to train by experience in space stability and control.  In order to play this charade, there were costs and risks with absolutely no benefit to training.  This was a no-win proposition, because performance remained in the environment of standard F-104 zooms but with significantly higher operating costs and dangers of handling and flying with hydrogen peroxide in large quantities.

Guy directed a modification of both remaining ASTs to include useless and costly modifications, none of which had any relevance to the Yeager accident and had they existed could have had absolutely no bearing on the outcome of any of our three flights that went out of control.  I made over 105 more test flights with those modifications installed, flying all the newly restricted mission profiles and I never found or could reasonably perceive any likely advantage to a single one of them.  Not surprisingly, for this orchestrated scheme, neither of the program’s test pilots, Jack nor I, who flew maximum zooms and knew the AST well, was ever asked for opinions on the modifications, or the new profiles, or for that matter on the accident evaluation and the findings.

Guy Townsend, who was promoted to Director, when Col. Clayton Peterson left Edwards during that board investigation period, added 15 months of testing to the AST, testing that I alone was authorized to fly, taking my total to 126 AST flights when completed. Quite a number of these add-ons were potentially more hazardous to me than my14 max zooms.  For example, I had to make heavyweight landings at speeds above the safe limits of tires and landing gear, just to prove that one modification could be operated in flight.  A tire or landing gear failure on landing would probably have been fatal, in a fully fueled airplane speeding at 240 knots, when it crashed.

That modification added an explosive cannon to fire the drag chute out of its canister, mounted above the jet exhaust.  Yet the standard system had no history of unreliability and even more germane, Yeager’s standard F-104 chute worked properly under the most trying conditions of a long established flat spin of nearly 80,000 feet descent!  And to what avail when the airplane would pitch right back up into a flat spin every time the chute was released …it did that with Chuck … it did that in simulations, and the new recovery technique of Bob Hoey, was not even included in the procedures, anywhere.  Even more to the point, Townsend refused to deal with a real need throughout the Air Force for a spin recovery in all F-104 airplanes but he went through this façade.  Obviously Yeager demonstrated that the standard chute deployed and stopped a spin.  Thus no modifications were required, but had they been deemed so for the AST why didn’t his board recommend the mod for all F-104s, especially those in the Test Pilot School that continued to risk spins in their zoom flights?

Conversely, the accident confirmed that the drag chute would stop a spin, but procedures were necessary to safely exit from the resulting dive and separation of the drag chute.  Bob Hoey demonstrated through simulation that it could be done.  That important finding was not pursued on the matter of operational F-104 spin recovery. To do so would have entailed spin tests during Townsend's tenure, a career risk he was unwilling to take!

Zooms in standard F-104s had more chance of spin & crash than the newly restricted AST zooms, yet they lacked those modifications or capabilities.  But who would ever look back to the Townsend board and note such dichotomies?  Nobody would, as demonstrated a couple of years later when one of the standard F-104 zooms met that fate, at the cost of a student’s life!

According to a 1967 publication from Edwards, four years after the accident, only two academic instructors had flown AST and full student training was still being planned.  But Guy was shrewd, if not trustworthy, because he took more than a year with his board and my tests to duck the wrath of Chuck Yeager and to provide the cushion of time he needed to distance himself from the potential fallout of an accident on AST in training.  And it came!  About a year later another AST was destroyed from a hydrogen peroxide explosion.  The positioning of the third on a permanent pedestal at Edwards, put an end to it.  And that one without its real nose cone, which I understand was loaned to, Daryl Gruenemyer, a civilian pilot who crashed his private F-104 trying to set a record … bet you guessed: A world altitude record for America, which still belongs to Russia.

Ironically, nothing highlighted Guy’s ‘conservatisms’ more, while showing his fallibility, than one step he took just prior to the accident when he looked for some insurance for his organization.  He decided to have Bob Rushworth, the most experienced X-15 rocket pilot fly the AST one zoom, before Yeager would fly. He figured this would validate our test program, more importantly, his involvement as leader. Ironically, Bob’s successful zoom to about 112,000 feet on his one flight in AST sealed the lie to the need for the many AST modifications and restrictions, whenever flight was made by educated test pilot/engineers, which was the case for Bob and me, and was the underlying criteria for the program from conception.  Oh, and Bob’s flight like mine, never had benefit of data reduction.

The final Class (IV) of the Aerospace Research Pilots School ended the era of ARPS classes in late 1963 when the school reverted back to Test Pilot Class ‘64a.  Not until the middle of 1967, almost four years after Yeager’s accident and two after my last test flight, was the school’s first AST flown by the Commandant Col. Buchanan on a routine checkout, after Major Pete Knight, X-15 test pilot had flown it.  Because of the restrictions on the AST, in my opinion, it became little more than an opportunity for a few instructors and the students to log “Rocket” time in their flight logs.  An interesting adventure, but at great risk and cost for so little training.  And those opportunities were brief with the loss of a second airplane and the ending of the project.  All the extra costs and risks, to advance no real gain in training were the direct results of Townsend’s lack of courage to address the accident directly, not politically.  Namely to either disband the project entirely which would have been justifiable in the case of ‘student test pilots’ on the basis of the inability of Chuck Yeager to fly it.  Or continue, as originally planned with firm restrictions on experienced test pilots who would be engineering qualified in space stability and control.  It is noteworthy that a  $5.5 million space simulator was in process at the time of the accident and was in operation before the school acquired it first AST, which in my mind would have swung the weight toward the original plan and intent for the project.

The one thing that Chuck had going for him after the accident was the assignment of a Board President who was manipulative and self-centered and whose primary concern was avoiding any personal risk from the board’s determinations.  He was chosen by General Branch, a wonderful man who was a very close friend and buddy with Chuck.

Had Colonel Guy Townsend, Board President, the courage necessary for the job the Accident Board’s finding might have read something like:

“Col. Chuck Yeager lost control of the airplane during ascent before he could achieve the prime mission of space flight training causing an unrecoverable flat spin, which resulted in loss of the AST aircraft and his own serious injury.  Detailed data on all major systems of the airplane during the accident, demonstrated that all systems were functioning properly and that the aircraft had no failures whatsoever, and no mitigating contributions to the accident.  There were no other contributing factors.

The aircraft has a higher than normal risk factor, as clearly understood in the intent of design and procurement for the special purpose of extremely sophisticated flight into near space regions and astronaut training at affordable costs, which it proved capable of doing on numerous full zoom flights.  Its systems have been proven fully capable and sufficient to perform the mission, whenever it was flown within the prescribed profile and by pilots trained for both aero and space control.  Col Yeager, an outstanding test pilot, however, did not have the technical background and training for space.

The aircraft had been proven to be capable of the intended mission, however, the recent cancellation of X-20 Dynasoar, training for which it was intended, may have left the Air Force and AFFTC without need for such training, and may no longer justify its added risks for unnecessary training.  Whatever the decision, it would be advisable to establish a spin program to prove the capability to recover any F-104 from a flat spin with the use of the drag chute, should further analysis and simulation continue to support the feasibility, of that option. Such analyses are available from this accident investigation.”

Another incident that happened while the accident investigation was still in process, says even more about Chuck’s power, and Guy’s acquiescence.  Shortly after medical release to fly, Chuck tore the top off a bus, North American Aviation’s Ground Data Station for the XB-70 tests, which was routinely parked in a space parallel to a taxiway.  He did it with an extended-wing model of the B-57 as he was taxiing. With little ado, it was decided that there was no pilot error, only fault of the contractor for parking the bus in plain sight where it had been for months.  Even though the aircraft had very long wings, it is doubtful any other pilot would have been quietly excused. 

I remained in test operations for almost 18 more months after Chuck Yeager’s accident flying the Aerospace Trainer, but it became clear that events and Col. Guy Townsend’s involvement in them, took full toll on my career.  The best indicators of my status were no new test assignment during that period and my unusually short notice of reassignment, within days after my last AST and F-5 tests.  The worst were, Officer Evaluations Reports so negative that they were stricken from my records a couple of years later by a senior level review board, at Air Force Headquarters. As for me and my future in test, it was Strike Three... You're out!

This postscript became necessary after I finished the above and had it on-line as the result of information recently provided to me that I was unaware of for 40 years.  According to Bob Hoey, who was associated with Yeager’s accident board, there was a report issued on performance of the NF-104 with Clendon Hendrickson and Major Robert W. Smith as authors.  I have never seen such a report, was unaware of one ever being written.  Based on Bob’s description, it included performance analyses for zoom flights that I would have cried for during the period that I was trying to expand the envelope of AST during which I had no analytical studies and no flight data reduction. Since there was no such data available to me during my zoom testing, I must conclude that document was done at the direction of Col. Townsend for the accident board. Hendrickson claimed authority for engineering management during my testing, but was never involved or available for analysis of data, thus none was ever available from the aircraft’s excellent data system, during any of my testing, prior to Chuck Yeager's accident.

According to Bob, the report reflected a huge variation in maximum altitude with environmental differences of up to 10,000 feet, which might be presumed to help exonerate Chuck’s failure to achieve more than a bit over 100,000 feet on his attempts. For that to be valid, all 14 of my zoom flights must have been under nearly perfect weather conditions (118 to 120 thousand feet actual) and Chuck’s under most adverse weather to achieve so little (103 to 108). I flew 4 maximum zooms within the week that Chuck made his four maximum zoom attempts, the last being his accident and another 3 within two weeks attempts by Chuck.  In addition, I flew 9 more within the same 118,000 to 120,000 feet levels over a period of 50 days, and Jack Woodman added another to that statistic. For that data analysis to be valid, all my flights in that extended period, including days surrounding all of Chuck’s had to be nearly ideal weather, while all of Chuck’s had to be absolutely worst conditions, either highly unlikely. But the point is made moot in Chuck’s defense because if he flew a profile, as required he would have enjoyed combined reaction and aerodynamic control, plus a far smaller angular pitch rate required at the very peak.

The fact that I had so little variation between all of my “standard” zoom flights over a period of 80 days combined with the situation above leads to serious questioning of such findings, especially in combination with the fact that I achieved only 1,940 feet higher altitude with an additional Mach 0.2 (10% speed increase) at pull-up on one test. It seems quite intuitive that such a % increase in the dynamic energy would assure much more than such a small improvement had 10,000 feet difference been possible merely from variations in the density and temperature of the atmosphere from 35,000 up. Wind shears, another source of variation performance, was not included in the analysis in question, according to Bob, but obviously was there in the real world of our flights, further invalidating such great variation due to weather, as suggested.

One other thing makes me suspicious of such a report. After the accident, all references to the maximum missions were stricken from documentation, including the mission profiles in the Pilot’s Manual. It was perfectly well understood that nothing to encourage anyone to exceed the new limits would be in print. Therefore, there would have been no purpose in pursing probability studies outside the restricted operating parameters, since they were neither pertinent to the altitude range limit of all Yeager’s flights, or to the future of the training missions!

Publication of such a report after I left Edwards, and with my name on it, would point even further in the direction of disingenuous dealings at the top of the accident board and test operations.  The "top" of both was one man, Col. Guy Townsend.

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