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Aerospace Trainer

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The mighty NF-104A, the first, and only, Aerospace Trainer aircraft.
The mighty NF-104A, the first, and only, Aerospace Trainer aircraft.
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The story you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. . .

On a cold, clear afternoon at Edwards Air Force Base, another flight test for evaluating the excellence for conducting and supporting research and development is on a final countdown. Like hundreds of other tests over many years, the specifics for this particular flight is to boldly go where no pilot has ever gone before, and therefore not just a split infinitive and cliche phrase coined by a popular sci-fi television series that will make its debut a few years later. Today's flight will indeed knock on heaven's door some 100,000 feet above sea level and attempt to go much higher. To get there, however, not only requires a so-called boom-and-zoom aircraft design that can manage the stupendous feat, but also an ideally-suited test pilot who knows how to get the maximum performance from the supersonic airplane, as well as from himself. The pilot, of course, figures he has such qualities, and therein lies part of the problem for this particular test in 1963.

Major Bob Smith, another test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, and a friend walk into a cafe. They are dressed in olive-green flight suits. Jets can be heard overhead. The two take a seat. We see a portrait on a wall of President Lyndon Johnson. They order lunch and settle in for the wait, talking quietly. It's the look on Smith's face that betrays his concerns today, as well as other personal matters he bears. What's mainly on his mind is an upcoming flight test by a fellow test pilot, and he is not optimistic given the pivotal outcome. Of course, with the recent mournful loss of President Kennedy, the mood describing most Americans is somber. This President also happened to support the kind of flight-testing operations at Edwards. Indeed, the pilot chosen for today's flight is someone President Kennedy was familiar with, at least by name and reputation, the same as most people on the planet are familiar with the pilot's celebrated accomplishments over the years.

All flight tests at Edwards are unique in scope. Today's scheduled flight is even more unique, for it entails flying an Aerospace Trainer (AST) on an attempt at a world-altitude record. That being said, Smith doesn't think the test pilot can handle it. Smith has candid reasons for fostering this opinion. On three previous attempts, the test pilot pulled up too shallow, then attempted to compensate for the error by eventually pulling up to the correct climb angle, but in the process losing a tremendous amount of energy. As a result, the maximum altitude that the test pilot could ever obtain was well below what even Smith himself had flown.

Maj. Smith would consult with the test pilot on the proper flight procedures, but the test pilot respectfully brushed off the advice. All test pilots have rather oversized egos, but this particular test pilot had an ego that was larger than life. Smith got the feeling that the test pilot had the attitude he never met an airplane that he couldn't conquer. However, this wasn't an ordinary flight. And it certainly wasn't an ordinary airplane. Indeed, this specific airplane had a literal rocket in its tail, allowing a pilot to climb to altitudes 100,000 feet Mean Sea Level (MSL) and above. This heaven-bound altitude also meant the airplane would be subjected to reduced aerodynamic pressure (q), causing the flight-control surfaces to become ineffective. At this point in the flight, the airplane is acting more like a spaceship, and that's what got Smith worried this December afternoon...


The AST was a unique solution to a unique problem, which was how to train pilots to become astronauts. Specifically, how to place a pilot into as close to a space-like environment as possible, so that he can practice stability and control without using airplane controls, which is to say, by using a Reaction Control System (RCS), which are mini rocket engines. The X-15 was the obvious answer, because it actually flew into space itself; what better way for pilots to practice in a space--like environment than actual space? Until one looked at the outrageous costs involved for just one X-15 flight. There had to be a more economical way to go about it. And there was...

Some aeronautical engineering geniuses had come up with a very clever plan: stick a rocket in the tail of a badass F-104A, and put an RCS package in its nose. Voila! The NF-104A AST was born.

The AST with the rocket engine turned on. Note the rocket in the tail!
The AST with the rocket engine turned on. Note the rocket in the tail!
(Image by (Not Known) Wikipedia, Author: Author Not Given)
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When Smith first saw the AST he fell in love, and in a way non--pilots will never understand. Being an aeronautical engineer himself, he understood everything about the AST; specifically, the flight profile needed to get to its maximum theoretical altitude of 120,000 feet MSL and above. The parabolic flight would begin with a 3.5 g pull-up to a 70o climb angle, at which point the rocket would be switched on. At the end of the climb, the airplane would enter a region of low q, where it no longer acted like an airplane, but more like a spaceship. That's where his aeronautical engineering background would take over, because he would no longer be a pilot: he would be at this point an astronaut.

Maj. Smith previously took the AST to a maximum altitude of 118,860 feet MSL. However, the AST could go much higher, and an attempt at the world record was begun. So, of course, they just had to get another test pilot to attempt the record.


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Joe Maness is a High School Mathematics Teacher. He is writing a S.T.E.M. Lab textbook along with Dr. Holtzin.

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