NF-104 Space Pilot Trainer

(site was at but ISP changed domain to

Last update: 8/5/07

NOTE: This page is under a new domain (mine!) and not all links and images are uploaded yet. I will one by one upload and update.

The official NF-104 webpage with a bio of Bob Smith, lead test pilot for the NF-104, at

Zooming NF-104
NF-104 zooming skyward, awesome photo, eh?
Check out that flame!

Back in the 20th century when service stations provided service, women dressed like women, and 4-wheel-drive vehicles were used as 4-wheel-drive vehicles, the USAF added a rocket powered airplane to its inventory. Maybe the NF-104 did not fly as fast and as high as the Mercury, Vostok, or the X-15, however, the NF-104 was far less expensive to operate. Capable of takeoff/landing from conventional runways under its own power, this aerospace plane was a low cost and quick means to skim the boundaries of space. And, it was fully reusable as a trainer for X-15 spaceplane and X-20 DynaSoar pilots (the X-20 was a small delta-wing orbital “space shuttle” that was cancelled in 1963). (Thanks to Tony Landis (contributor of photo research for the NF-104 book) for sending me the color photo above. editor)

The NF-104 is a modified F-104, with a 6,000-pound thrust liquid fuel rocket engine in addition to the conventional jet engine.

Download this large photo from
Edwards AFB gallery (click here)

This plane can reach altitudes over 120,000 feet where the atmospheric pressure is virtually a vacuum, and for all practical purposes, this is space. Control at these altitudes is accomplished with hydrogen peroxide reaction control jets for pitch and yaw, used to maneuver the craft just like the X-15 and manned space capsules orbiting the earth. When this aircraft flies a ballistic arc, and in going “over the top” the pilot experiences over a minute of weightlessness or no gravity. On November 1963, Major R.W. Smith set an altitude record of 118,600 feet. Smith also took it to 120,800 feet the following month but Guiness does not accept this as it did not exceed by 3% as required by FAI for world records.

Because it flys to the edge of space, pilots of the NF-104 have to wear spacesuits, just like “real” astronauts. Above 60,000 feet, the human body cannot tell the difference between this altitude or 100 miles; you’ll be just as dead without a spacesuit.

So where are the NF-104s these days? Serial #60762 was lost when tested by Yeager (see below), Serial #60756 was scrapped after its rocket exploded, removing half of its rudder, and Serial #60760 is mounted on a pylon by the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.

A fourth NF-104 was to be built but never got the rocket on the tail because the project was terminated. Years later, this F-104 became a old boneyard heap of junk from out of Maine, and was purchased by a team working to set a new landspeed record. They are rebuilding and modifying this airframe to travel 800 mph on the ground. Visit their website at

NF-104 at Edwards AFB Test 
Pilot School

The NF104 by the USAF Test Pilot School lacks RCS thrusters. The reason for lack of the thrusters was because they are not on the aircraft anymore. In the late seventies Darryl Greenamyer purchased and modified an F-104 that he planned to use to set several speed and altitude records. This was the famous “Red Baron” F-104. In 1978 he somehow convinced the powers that be at Edwards to “loan” him the nose and wingtips off of the NF-104 on display there with the promise that they would be returned unharmed. He was allowed to remove them and had installed them on his airplane when, in late 1978, he was forced to eject from his aircraft and the plane was destroyed.

The NF sat for several years with a standard fiberglass nose, but recently a metal nose with the long YAPS boom was installed on it and although it still has no RCS thrusters it looks much more appealing now. Website for the USAF Test Pilot School at

The X-37 will use the same rocket engine as the NF-104. Here is a quote straight from the X-37 press release: “The X-37’s on-orbit propulsion is provided by the AR-2/3, a high reliablility engine with a legacy stretching back to the 1950’s. It can produce 7,000 pounds of thrust. Hydrogen peroxide and JP-10, a grade of kerosene commonly used as jet fuel, will propel the X-37 engine.”

NF-104 Book

NF-104 book by Scott Libis

NF-104 book by Scott Libis (ISBN 0-942612-97-3) was made available in December 1999. It has very impressive photos, contributed by Tony Landis, including color. This is another in Steve Ginter’s Air Force Legends series and it is another winner. Book used to have a webpage at

This NF-104 book may be available from Aeroplane books at

NF-104 Model

Dr. Menelaos Skourtopoulos modified an 1/32 F-104 kit (Hasegawa) to a NF-104. See Advantage of having a detailed model is the opportunity to capture photos of the aircraft from different angles as seen on this webpage.

Lockheed NF-104A Specifications

NF-104A Testimony

“Cosmic Charlie’s” visual account of the NF-104 (from rec.aviation.military newsgroup):

Flying the NF-104

by Robert Smith, Lt.Col., USAF (ret.)
  1. Zoom flight plan is short-hand for the end to end process and procedure from take-off to landing for a zoom flight. There were really two types of zooms. The “max zoom,” which is what was originally intended as the prime training maneuver and was only performed or attempted by the 5 pilots that flew before Chuck’s accident.

  2. “Take-off to flight level” I must presume out of context probably referred that part 1 up to the high Mach number run-in to the zoom pull-up. That altitude was 35,000 feet for max zoom and the pull-up Mach was nominally 2.2.

  3. Afterburner just adds burning fuel to the jet exhaust right at the exhaust exit, which has special nozzles, called the Afterburner nozzle. It opens wide when the “burner is lit” and closes in “military power,” which is 100% (full) jet power.

  4. In a max zoom, which means a 70 degree climb angle with the jet engine in full power and afterburner, plus the rocket AR2-3 at full throttle. The afterburner will go over its temperature limit with serious consequences at about 70,000 feet so watching the temperature the pilot bring burner back to maintain temperature until he must finally shut it down. Shortly thereafter he must monitor the main jet and do the same at about 86,000 feet. The rocket engine continues to burn until all of the oxidizer (jet fuel JP-4 is the fuel) which is Hydrogen Peroxide H204 available to it is used at which point is just shut down itself. The H204 used by the twelve ACS motors is in a separate tank (Attitude Control System) since that system must be functional to recover from the space portion of the flight.

  5. Ignite Rocket Motor. One of the most simple parts of the flight. Just move the rocket throttle forward and it ignites very smoothly, like fluid drive!

  6. The max zoom profile really requires an annotated diagram to describe it, in any detail, since it is a very busy time for the pilot, so there are a lot of annotations necessary, for example the engine shut downs I described are a couple.

  7. The drag chute is strictly a one-time parachute that can be deployed by the pilot with a control lanyard after the airplane has landed to slow down and decrease the landing distance. It is housed just below the vertical stabilizer. There was never an intention to use it in flight as some sort of a drogue chute.

Yeager’s near-fatal flat spin in the NF-104

This flight is depicted in the movie The Right Stuff was a perfectly legitimate test mission rather than under the decidedly romanticized circumstances shown in the movie.

Editor’s Note: This is one explanation. Another will follow.

Nominal re-entry profile is to force the nose down with the hydrogen peroxide thrusters, the altitude controllers, so the aircraft enters the atmosphere nose first. Air starts to go through the intake ducts, and once into thicker air, can re-start the engine.

Yeager couldn’t get the nose down when the aircraft came into the atmosphere, and it was pitched up and went into a flat spin. When the aircraft is in a flat spin, there is no air going through the intake ducts, the engine stops and no longer have hydraulic pressure to run the horizontal stabilizer, the aileron or the rudder. A no-win situation.

Yeager’s account was he couldn’t get the nose down because a thruster failed (

Another Explanation of Yeager’s Crash

The following is from William Haynes, grad of the USAF TP School, class of 1956. A classmate, Robert Smith, was pilot of the NF-104 and still holds the world altitude record for ground launched aerospacecraft. Regarding the above explanation, the most egregious is the lack of mention of Bob Smith as primary pilot and the inaccurate description of Yeager’s narrow escape.

Col. Haynes (USAF ret) was involved in the DynaSoar space glider project at the time of Yeager’s bailout, and was shown what happened by Bob Hoey, then Deputy Flight Test Engineer for Edwards.*

*Bob Hoey has written Testing Lifting Bodies at Edwards at

NF-104 Perspective

Mark “Forger” Stucky, a NASA Aerospace Research Pilot from 1993 to 1999, has been researching the NF-104 and X-15 programs for another program he is working on. Below is his account of the 1963 NF-104 event:

Editor’s Note: It is difficult to criticize Gen. Yeager considering that he has made many contributions to aviation in addition to flying combat missions over Vietnam when he could have easily chosen less hazardous flying assignments.

NF-104 Links

NF-104 webpage:

Early 1960’s USAF News Release for the NF-104 at

NF-104 USAF Museum Archives at

Lockheed NF-104A and its tail rocket (USAF Museum) at from

Yeager, the ARPS, and the Lockheed NF-104A at

Edwards AFB page on the planes that Yeager flew at

This is what you need to wear when flying a NF-104: David Clark spacesuits at

Pictures of the Lockheed F104 Starfighter including the NF-104 at

NF104 in french at

Lockheed NF- 104 moving parts and animated edition from (password required)

Chuck Yeager taxis the NF104 in this photo at
Chuck Yeager in the NF104 in this photo at

Lockheed NF-104 Starfighter by Joe Baugher at

Landspeed Record Attempt with a F-104 at

NF-104 Artwork

Aviation artist Lou Drendel paintings include the NF104 at

NF104 painting by Robert Karr at

NF-104 Rocket Pilot painting by Lou Drendel, published in Century Series, at

Aviation Art By Douglas Castleman
USAF Test Pilot School, NF-104 (, Watercolor - image size:16x24 - $450.00

NF-104 pilots

Note: About 80 pilots have flown the NF-104, below is a small list.

Maximum zoom flights (altitude, number) for test pilots in order of their first flight:

Brig. Gen. Alton D. Slay was an energetic and hands-on AFFTC commander from Dec. 6, 1968 to July 13, 1970. During his tenure here, he frequently took a hand in demonstrating the capabilities of the Centerís aircraft. On June 4, 1970, he zoom-climbed an NF-104 to 104,000 feet, thus becoming the first Air Force general officer to fly above 100,000 feet.

Probably the last flight of the NF-104 was in 1971.

NF-104 Legacy

by Robert Smith, Lt.Col., USAF (ret.)

Feedback is desired (suggestions, comments, errors, gripes, whatever) Michael Wright, email address

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