When Angels Fall from Heaven: Chuck Yeager Shoots for the Stars

Chuck Yeager in the cockpit of a F-104 | Courtesy of Business Insider

Chuck Yeager was one of the best to ever push the limits of aerospace flight. Despite his own modest claims that he did not possess the proverbial “Right Stuff,” Yeager was crucial to the process of training potential astronaut recruits. In 1962, NASA was plucking the best pilots from all service branches of the armed forces. President John F. Kennedy had just given his 1961 speech “we choose to go to moon,” at Rice University in Houston Texas. Pilots with the itch to reach for the stars benefited from learning from the best, Chuck Yeager. In World War II, Yeager shot down thirteen German aircraft, making him an “Ace.” Yeager later earned the title “Fastest Man Alive” when he became the first pilot to ever fly at the speed of Mach 1, breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947. The evening before the historical flight, Yeager fell from a horse and broke two ribs. These were some of the exploits and achievements that made Chuck Yeager a legend.1

The “Space Race” had begun, and test pilots were a fading star in the aerospace narrative. The best and brightest wanted to float in capsules and orbit the moon. Flying jets stuck to the confines of earth had become old hat. Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he was taught to fly the X-15 to the edge of space by then-Colonel Chuck Yeager.2 And before Frank Borman was a member of the ill fated Apollo 13 crew, he was stationed at Edwards Air Force base in California from 1960 through 1962.3 Like many other pilots, Borman was there to learn from the best, because NASA only took the best. When Borman received news of his selection to NASA, he went straight to tell his commander. Yeager had only one response for him, “Well Borman, you can kiss your Air Force career goodbye.4

Chuck Yeager in the cockpit of “Glamorous Glennis” the Bell X-1 | Courtesy of Forbes.com

So, if Chuck Yeager was one of the best pilots to take to the skies, why did NASA overlook him? The simplest answer is that Chuck Yeager did not meet the qualifications to be an astronaut. Yeager only had a high school education; and only men with college degrees had the smarts to be strapped to a rocket and be launched into the heavens.5 Yeager did not have any ambitions to become an astronaut, because he did not equate being strapped to a rocket as “flying.” Yeager was fascinated by the thought of space flight; he just wanted to do it from a plane he could control. The Russians had beaten the United States into space, and NASA needed funding to catch up. It was out of this need that NASA implemented a monumental public relations campaign to get the country behind the program. Test pilots were left behind despite their understated value to the space program. Without test pilots pushing the envelope everyday, space flight would never get off the ground. This is why the Air Force created the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School.6 The new school would develop the first space flight simulator, a technology way ahead of its time. The simulator was an invaluable tool, but it lacked the ability to simulate weightless flight. The only way to achieve weightless flight was to fly a jet at tremendous speeds and altitudes not yet achieved by the United States. The current record for highest altitude achieved by a jet aircraft under its own power was 113,980 ft.7 It was a record held by the Russians, who set the mark in 1961. The boys at NASA were trying everything to beat the Russians to the moon. Breaking any Russian-held record would be a huge shot in the arm for the ole NASA public relations campaign. In an attempt to both beat the Russian-held altitude record and develop a low-cost way of simulating weightlessness, Chuck Yeager would attempt to chase down another “demon.”

In order for Yeager to chase down that “demon” and break the record for highest altitude reached in a jet aircraft, he needed the wings of a new angel to get him there, not to mention a lot of money. Yeager was not well known outside of the United States Air Force. However, his accolades were well known by all his superior officers. Yeager seized upon the opportunity to beat on the doors of his superiors at the Pentagon to ask for the proper funding needed. The X-15 was an aircraft capable of beating the Russian-held altitude record, but it was launched via a B-28 Bomber. But the record needed to be beaten by an aircraft that could do it under its own power. The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter had shown promise, but it was not quite capable of accomplishing this feat on its own. Originally designed and built for the purpose of being the Air Force’s fastest and highest flying combat jet, it still needed some additional help. When Lockheed added an additional rocket thruster, the F-104 looked like it could be the angel Chuck Yeager needed to catch the Russians.8

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter Specs | Courtesy of warhawkairmuseum.org

On November 1, 1963, three upgraded F-104’s arrived at Edwards AFB slated for the purpose of training pilots in a “zero G” flight environment. The F-104’s were powered by the J79-GE after-burning turbojet engine, which delivered a massive 15,800 pounds of thrust at full afterburner. Even though the F-104 was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in a vertical climb, it needed an extra boost despite its massive engine.9 Fitted with a newly attached rocket booster on top of its main engine, the F-104 was finally ready to race for the edges of space under its own power. The retro-fitted rocket boosters cost the Air Force a whopping $4,000,000, allowing pilots to fly in a parabolic arc that would simulate weightlessness. It is the same principle that was used by the “Vomit Comet,” or NASA’s KC-135A.10

The Lockheed F-104 with its specially designed rocket booster used to achieve the “arc profile” needed to simulate weightless flight | Courtesy of theaviationgeekclub.com

Using only the main engine, the F-104 could reach an altitude of 60,000 feet before even using its additional 6,000 pounds of thrust from its extra rocket booster.11 Once the secondary rocket was ignited, the F-104 would pitch up and race to an altitude of around 125,000 feet. At that altitude, the atmosphere was too thin for the F-104’s conventional flight controls to be useful. To overcome this obstacle, propellant nozzles that sprayed hydrogen peroxide were used to control the aircraft, just like a space capsule would have done in space. Traditionally, the United States designed their jet aircraft with a delta-wing platform design, the benefits of which produced a more stable flight. The reason the F-104 was designed with smaller wings in the first place, was because pilots were concerned that the Air Force needed an aircraft to keep up with the Russian MiG-15.12

Lockheed XF-104 (S/N 53-7786, the first XF-104) on Rogers Dry Lake, Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California The XF-104 is easily distinguished by the lack of inlet shock cones and the short fuselage | Courtesy of the United States Air Force

Yeager had once flight tested the F-104 in 1954 when it was still just a prototype aircraft in development. He recalled some of the initial problems he encountered with the F-104.

“The airplane had a bad pitch-up problem. Flying it at a thirty-degree angle of attack, its short, thin wings blanketed its T-shaped tail, causing the nose to suddenly rise dramatically. The next thing a pilot knew he was in a flat spin toward earth, pushing the throttle forward as far as it would go, high engine rpms being the only way to recover a 104 out of a flat spin.”13

No one knew exactly where the edge of the performance envelope was on the F-104. Before Yeager attempted to chase down the altitude record, he test flew the F-104 a few times to put it through its paces. Yeager wanted to learn the extent of the aircrafts capabilities, so he could pass that knowledge on to his students. It was important for Yeager to know at what altitude the aerodynamic forces were too much for the propellant thrusters to work effectively. As the Commander of the school, the lives of his students weighed heavily on his mind.

Then Colonel Chuck Yeager, Commander of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School, in the cockpit of the F-104 Starfighter | Courtesy of chuckyeager.com

On the cold 30-degree morning of December 12, 1963, Chuck Yeager scheduled two test flights for the F-104.14 It had not yet been more than a few weeks since President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy had set the United States on a course to land on the moon before the end of the decade. In order to achieve that mission, a lot of different things needed to go right, including these test flights. The early morning flight went off without a hitch. Yeager reached 108,000 feet of altitude in the first flight. The thin atmosphere made it possible for the propellant thrusters to safely maneuver the F-104 back down for landing. Before going up again in the afternoon, Yeager and his wife Glennis enjoyed lunch with his mother who was in town to visit. Yeager did not even bother taking off his bulky orange pressure suit in-between flights. Once you were out of them, it was almost impossible to put them back on.15 As soon as the ladies left, Yeager was back out at the flight line getting ready for flight number two. The day had warmed up to 47 degrees, and a very mild wind was coming out of the southwest at 3 mph.16

You could not ask for a better day to fly. Wasting no time at all, Yeager was back in his F-104. For safety reasons, no test flights were ever conducted without a chase plane trailing the aircraft being tested. The first hitch in the mission came when the chase plane experienced a maintenance issue and was grounded. Despite not having a chase plane, Yeager continued to taxi to the runway for takeoff. Fortune soon smiled upon Yeager, as a close friend and fellow pilot Bud Anderson was returning to Edwards AFB from another flight. Anderson radioed Yeager to inform him that he would give chase, allowing the test flight to proceed as planned. Colonel Chuck Yeager took off from Edwards AFB climbing up to 30,000 feet. Already one hundred miles out from Edwards AFB, Yeager was now over the San Joaquin Valley headed towards Rodgers Dry Lake. Yeager was now at 37,000 feet and running at full afterburner, just above Mach 2 (1,320 mph.) The time had come to chase down that “demon.” Yeager reached for the switch to ignite the thruster rocket for his ascension into the heavens.17

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in a rapid ascent to heavens, its main engine shut off to keep from overheating, and the booster rocket lit pushing the aircraft to the edge of the performance envelope | Courtesy of the United States Air Force

With the rocket booster lit, and Yeager screaming for the heavens, there was no longer any chance for Bud Anderson to keep up in his T-33. All Anderson could do now was maintain some sort of visual contact of Yeager during the ascent.18 Yeager’s F-104 was now at a steep seventy-degree angle zooming through the 60,000 foot mark. The main engine flamed out as expected from being oxygen deprived at this altitude. The engine would not be able to re-light until the decent at around 40,00 feet. It was now up to the rocket booster to get Yeager to the top of the parabolic arc, the danger being that the rocket booster itself could overheat due to the steep angle of attack Yeager was at. The F-104 came over the top of its arc at 104,000 feet, a whole 4,000 feet less than the profile he had flown earlier in the morning. The F-104’s nose began to pitch up as it reached an angle of attack of twenty-eight degrees. Yeager began to use his thrusters to nose down his aircraft to avoid a stall. However, the 4,000 foot altitude difference from earlier that morning was more than enough to render the propellant thrusters ineffective. The air density at 104,000 feet was much thicker than at 108,000 feet. Yeager’s F-104 nose was still pitched up, removing any chance of utilizing the rushing air during his decent to re-ignite the main engine.

“The damned thrusters had no effect. I kept those peroxide ports open, using all my peroxide trying to get that nose down, but I couldn’t. My nose was stuck high, and the damned airplane finally fell off flat and went into a spin.”19

The main engine provided both the thrust and hydraulic pressure needed for stable flight. With the rpms dropping off, Yeager was now in a deadly flat-spin over the California desert. Yeager had survived flat-spins before; it came with the territory of being a test pilot. But, the F-104 had small wings built for speed, and when the engine flamed out the aircraft had no glide whatsoever. With no engine power, all hope of regaining control was gone. Yeager felt hopeless in his situation. Falling at one-hundred and fifty feet per second, Yeager had done it; he had found the outside of the envelope!20

Bud Anderson recalls that Chuck Yeager liked to say that Bud was always around when he was forced to bail out. The first time had been on a training mission somewhere over Wyoming. During World War II, Anderson was there when Yeager was shot down over the skies of France in his P-51. It seemed Yeager had a point, and this was now the third time Anderson witnessed Yeager on the brink of death. Anderson looked up at an awful sight; the F-104 was falling like an autumn leaf off a tree, flatter than any aircraft he had ever seen in a flat-spin. Falling from 104,000 feet, Yeager tried everything he knew to get the engine to come back to life, but it was no good. Yeager knew that if he looked out of the cockpit, he would become disoriented by the rapid rate of his spin, a mistake that would surely cost him his life. Yeager kept his head down and his eyes upon his altimeter, seeing that he was passing through 21,000 feet. Yeager opened up his speed break and deployed a chute to slow down his decent. It was a move that would extend his odds of potentially seeing his wife again. At 14,000 feet, Anderson called out over the radio to tell Yeager that it was time to eject. The flight recorder data would later show that the F-104 performed fourteen full rotations in its  flat-spin decent; Yeager bailed out on the thirteenth.21

The Lockheed C-2 Ejection Seat used in the F-104 flown by Chuck Yeager | Courtesy of ejectionsite.com

The F-104 had many different egress systems during its service in the United States Air Force. The original ejection seat used in the F-104 was a downward firing ejection seat. It was designed that way out of the fear of pilots hitting the tall vertical stabilizer at the rear of the aircraft upon ejecting. The Air Force moved away from the original ejection system after proving to be unreliable. Too many pilots lost their lives while attempting to eject out of the F-104 in that manner. On December 12, 1963, Chuck Yeager rode the Lockheed C-2 ejection seat out of his falling F-104. The egress system is the only system on an aircraft that can not be “ops-checked” prior to flight. The only way to know if the ejection system is going to work, is to use it. When Bud Anderson saw Chuck Yeager ejecting from his F-104, he was relieved to think that his friend was out of danger. An explosive on the seat-pan of the ejection seat fired, kicking Yeager away from the seat as designed. A small drogue chute deployed, pulling the main parachute free. After the seat kicked Yeager free, the seat flew up into the lines of the deploying parachute. With fire still pouring out from the nozzle of the ejection seat rocket, the possibility of Yeager’s parachute lines being burned away was a new life-threatening reality. Suddenly the parachute opened up fully and yanked Yeager upward, freeing the ejection seat from the parachute lines. Yeager then watched as the ejection seat fell towards him. The bottom of the ejection seat smashed into Yeager’s helmet, the impact dazing him. At one-hundred and eighty pounds, the ejection seat smashed through two layers of protective visors on Chuck Yeager’s helmet. A lava like substance poured out of the underside of the ejection seat nozzle, and began to pour into Yeager’s suit. Blinded by both smoke and blood, Yeager was no longer able to see. The seal between his helmet and pressure suit had melted away, causing the pure oxygen system from his suit to flood into his helmet. What was meant to save his life was now feeding the inferno, engulfing his entire neck and face. Yeager was now suffocating and desperate for life. Instinctively, Yeager shoved his left hand into the helmet in an attempt to catch some breathable air. Now Yeager’s hand was on fire, melting together with his glove. The air reeked of Yeager’s dying flesh and burnt rubber. There was only way left for Yeager to shut off his emergency oxygen system; he had to lift up his helmet visor. In a last ditch effort, Yeager put his other hand into the breach, and pulled with all that he had left. The helmet visor lifted, and Yeager was delivered from the raging inferno. Yeager floated down closer toward the desert floor, but now the adrenaline was wearing off. The pain in his left hand was unbearable, and still he was unable to see out of his left eye. Out of his right eye he noticed that he was not far from Highway 466. Overhead, Bud Anderson had Yeager’s location and started to circled him. Yeager gave a wave of the hand, Anderson thinking that his friend is alright, he headed back to base. Yeager looked back down at his chute and noticed that some of the parachute lines had been severed by the fire. Over the horizon someone came running up to him; a passerby from the Highway had seen him come down. The young kid reached him, and Yeager could not help but notice the horror on the kid’s face.22

“Are you all right? I was in my car and saw you coming down.” The look on the kids face! Christalmighty! “Listen,” says Yeager. “You got a knife?”

The pain in Yeager’s finger was killing him, to the point of passing out. The kid gave Yeager the knife, and hastily Yeager started to cut his hand out of the glove. Anything to relieve the pain, he was desperate to be free of it. The knife cut through the glove and into the finger. Yeager pulled the glove off, but not without taking his own flesh off as well. Now that it was melted, it all ran together. The “Good Samaritan” could not take it anymore and started to vomit sick. Off in the distance, the sound of the rescue helicopter filled the air. Once it was on the ground, the medics rushed to Yeager. The only thing that Yeager wanted was Morphine. The pain was still too much to bear. The metal ring that connected Yeager’s helmet and pressure suit would not budge. The medics did not dare to remove the pressure suit with Yeager’s neck and face in such a horrible condition. The medics were forced to give him the Morphine injection through the pressure suit. Yeager arrived at the base hospital, and the Morphine started to kick in. Yeager started to doze in and out of consciousness, but the doctor needed Yeager to stay awake. The fire had turned the blood that ran over Yeager’s face into a glass-like substance. The doctor wanted to clear it up before letting Yeager finally lose consciousness. He kept asking Yeager if he could see anything while shaking him awake, followed by continual digging. Suddenly, Yeager saw light pouring into his eye. The baked blood over Yeager’s eye saved his eyesight, an ability that had made Yeager such a great fighter pilot in World War II: his 20/10 vision.23

Actor Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager in the film “The Right Stuff.” Here he is depicted as Yeager burnt up after crashing the F-104 | Courtesy of theaviationgeekclub.com

While on a IV drip, Yeager would slip in and out of consciousness, hardly noticing the visitors that came to visit him. Glennis Yeager, Chuck’s wife recalls seeing her husband for the first time at the base hospital.

At the hospital, Doctor Bear met me and said, “Basically he’s pretty good considering he has first-,second-, and third degree burns.” I asked to see Chuck and he hesitated. “He looks pretty bad.” Heck, I had seen plenty, but when I walked inside and saw them trying to saw through his neck ring, I had to steel myself. It was horrifying. And I saw that he saw me. I said, “How do you expect to be asked to dance, looking like that?” I got a smile, but I didn’t know what to say.24

After a few days, Yeager’s head was still swollen after experiencing the intense inferno. The doctor came in at one point and gave Yeager a bit of good news. There was no lung damage as a result of the smoke inhalation. But not all of the news was good news. Doctor Bear had no choice to put Yeager into more pain. A new but painful technique had been developed to treat burns. Every four days Yeager was subjected to the most intense pain of his life as Doctor Bear gradually scraped and peeled away the scabs forming with a scalpel. This procedure went on for a grueling month, but in the end, it worked. Yeager walked away with only a few telling injuries. His face healed smooth with only a few scars on his neck, but his fingertips on his left hand would be a little shorter. Yeager would never again take to the skies to attempt to break a record. After making it through his terrifying ordeal, Yeager knew he had got off light. The Russians would just have to hold on to their altitude record a little while longer. Despite falling short, Yeager got to keep his life and go on to breaking through other barriers. Yeager would eventually earn a promotion to Brigadier General despite not have a college degree.25 General Chuck Yeager would go on to live a full life, breaking the sound barrier once again at the ripe old age of 89.  On December 7, 2020, at the age of 97 years old, Chuck Yeager passed away and ascended to the heavens one last time.

 

Actual footage of Chuck Yeager’s F-104 crash

 

Animation of Chuck Yeager’s F-104 crash

  1. “Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier,” World History Project, accessed March 17, 2021, https://worldhistoryproject.org/1947/10/14/chuck-yeager-breaks-the-sound-barrier.
  2. David J Darling, The Rocket Man: And Other Extraordinary Characters in the the History of Flight (London: OneWorld, 2013), 104.
  3. “Veteran Tributes,” accessed March 17, 2021, http://veterantributes.org/TributeDetail.php?recordID=426.
  4. Jeffrey Kluger, “Why Chuck Yeager Claimed He Had No ‘Right Stuff,’” Time (Time USA, LLC, December 9, 2020), https://time.com/5919303/yeager-obit-right-stuff/.
  5. Jim Clash, “Chuck Yeager, Who Tweets, Says Sam Shepard’s ‘Right Stuff’ Character Was Right-On,” Forbes, accessed March 14, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimclash/2017/01/23/chuck-yeager-who-tweets-says-sam-shepards-right-stuff-character-was-right-on/.
  6. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 337.
  7. “NF-104 Crash,” chuckyeager.org, accessed February 13, 2021, http://www.chuckyeager.org/nf-104-crash/.
  8. Carl O. Schuster, “The F-104 Starfighter Was Supposed to Be the Air Force’s Fastest, Highest-Flying Combat Jet,” Air Force Times, December 14, 2017, https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2017/12/13/the-f-104-starfighter-was-supposed-to-be-the-air-forces-fastest-highest-flying-combat-jet/.
  9. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 355.
  10. Terry McDonald- JSC, “NASA – Zero-Gravity Plane on Final Flight,” Feature Articles (Brian Dunbar), accessed March 14, 2021, https://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/preparingtravel/kc135onfinal.html.
  11. “NF-104 Crash,” chuckyeager.org, accessed February 13, 2021, http://www.chuckyeager.org/nf-104-crash/.
  12. DesignWorks Creative Inc, “Lockheed F-104 Starfighter | Warhawk Air Museum, Nampa, Idaho,” Warhawk Air Museum, accessed March 14, 2021, https://warhawkairmuseum.org/explore/aviation-collection/f-104-starfighter/.
  13. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 355.
  14. “Edwards, CA Weather History | Weather Underground,” accessed March 6, 2021, https://www.wunderground.com/history/daily/us/ca/edwards/KEDW/date/1963-12-10.
  15. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 356.
  16. “Edwards, CA Weather History | Weather Underground,” accessed March 6, 2021, https://www.wunderground.com/history/daily/us/ca/edwards/KEDW/date/1963-12-10.
  17. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 356.
  18. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 358.
  19. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 356-357.
  20. “NF-104 Crash,” chuckyeager.org, accessed February 13, 2021, http://www.chuckyeager.org/nf-104-crash/.
  21. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 358.
  22. “NF-104 Crash,” chuckyeager.org, accessed February 13, 2021, http://www.chuckyeager.org/nf-104-crash/.
  23. “NF-104 Crash,” chuckyeager.org, accessed February 13, 2021, http://www.chuckyeager.org/nf-104-crash/.
  24. Chuck Yeager, Yeager: An Autobiography (Toronto; New York, NY: Bantam, 1986), 363.
  25. “NF-104 Crash,” chuckyeager.org, accessed February 13, 2021, http://www.chuckyeager.org/nf-104-crash/.

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12 Responses

  1. i thought that this article was a great read, definitely well written. I did not know who Yeager was prior to reading this article but im glad that i was introduced to him by this article. I was able to learn so much about him such as his motivation, resilience, and accomplishments. HIs crash did not set him back but instead he continued to push forward and continue flying. Great job!

  2. This was a fantastic article to read! It’s the first time I’ve heard of Chuck Yeager, so I’m amazed by his near-death experience and even more so by the fact that he survived the ordeal with only minor injuries. Chuck Yeager’s contributions to aerospace flight will be remembered for a long time.

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