Milt Thompson’s Wild Ride
Ominous black smoke rose over California's high desert on a crisp, cold December morning in 1962, and there was no sign of a parachute. Della Mae Bowling, the pilot's office secretary at NASA's Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, was crying as fire trucks raced across the vast expanse of Rogers Dry Lake toward the crash scene. But Bowling and others were to learn that what might have been a terrible tragedy turned out instead to be a triumph of piloting skill.
Several years earlier, NASA had acquired a production Lockheed F-104A for use as a research aircraft. On April 13, 1959, Neil Armstrong ferried the supersonic jet from Lockheed's Palmdale, Calif., facility to NASA's Flight Research Center, where it was equipped with special instrumentation and re-designated as a JF-104A. It initially served as a launch platform for parachute test vehicles and experimental sounding rockets. Later, it was used for mission support, pilot proficiency and as a chase plane for other research aircraft. In all, seven NASA pilots flew the airplane 249 times.
On Dec. 20, 1962, NASA research pilot Milton O. Thompson was scheduled to evaluate weather conditions over Mud Lake, Nev., in preparation for the launch of an X-15 rocket plane over that area a few hours later. Weather flights were critical because go/no-go decisions were based on real-time observations made along the planned flight path.
Thompson strapped himself into the JF-104A cockpit, taxied to the runway, took off to the northeast and climbed to cruising altitude. Visibility was clear all along his route. Upon returning to Edwards, Thompson configured the airplane so he could practice simulated X-15 landings on the clay surface of Rogers Dry Lake.
During his first approach he cut throttle, extended speed brakes and began a steep, descending turn toward a runway marked on the lakebed's surface. Decelerating, he lowered the flaps and held 300 knots indicated airspeed as he dove toward the airstrip. The jet lost altitude at a rate of 18,000 feet per minute until he leveled off at 800 feet, lit the afterburner and climbed away.
During his second approach, Thompson noticed the airplane was rolling to the left. He applied full right aileron and rudder but failed to stop the motion. Seeing his airspeed dropping rapidly, he advanced the throttle to full and relit the afterburner. As his speed increased to 300 knots the roll ceased, leaving the airplane in a 90-degree left bank. Thompson increased his speed to 350 knots to gain more control effectiveness and began to troubleshoot the problem.
Guessing that the airplane was experiencing an asymmetric control condition – either flaps or speed brakes – he repeatedly cycled the roll and yaw dampers, flap-selector switch and speed brakes. He verified that both flaps indicated "up" and visually examined the exterior of the aircraft using his rear-view mirrors. The leading-edge flaps appeared to be up and locked but he couldn't see the trailing-edge flaps. Thompson knew he was in serious trouble and wasn't sure he could land safely. It slowly dawned on him that he might have to eject.
In a last-ditch effort, Thompson radioed NASA-1 – the Flight Operations office – and urgently asked for fellow research pilot Joe Walker, who was suiting up for his X-15 mission.
"Trouble?" Walker asked.
"Right, Joe," said Thompson, "I'm running out of right aileron."
After a brief discussion, Walker decided one of the flaps might be locked in the down position and suggested that Thompson cycle the flap lever again. Thompson tried this and immediately knew it was a mistake, as the airplane started to roll rapidly. He soon realized the situation was hopeless.
"She's going, Joe!" he called.
After four complete rolls, Thompson ejected while inverted. He felt a terrible pain in his neck as the seat's rocket motor blasted him free of the airplane. His body was whipped by air blast, and he began to tumble wildly. After rocket burnout, he separated from the seat but soon realized he was still holding onto the ejection handle. His parachute opened promptly as soon as he released his grip.
Floating gently down from 18,000 feet, Thompson saw the airplane plummet nose-first into the desert and explode on the Edwards bombing range. He was breathing rapidly and felt lightheaded and slightly breathless. After several failed attempts to activate his bailout oxygen bottle, he unfastened his mask and breathed the thin, but fresh, air. He landed softly, gathered up his parachute, and walked to a nearby road.
At NASA-1, the mood was grim. Thompson hadn't had time to inform anyone that he was ejecting and nobody saw his parachute. Their faces bearing shock and tears, NASA employees stared at the column of thick, black smoke rising in the distance.
NASA Flight Operations chief Joe Vensel hopped in a car and sped across the lakebed toward the crash site, expecting the worst. To his surprise, he found Thompson waiting calmly by the roadside, apparently unharmed.
An investigation revealed that the accident had most likely been the result of an electrical malfunction in the left trailing-edge flap. The investigating board, headed by Donald R. Bellman, gave Thompson high marks for his actions.
"Throughout the emergency," the board's report read, "the pilot showed superior skill and judgment, which contributed materially to his own safety and to the understanding of the causes of the aircraft loss."
Peter W. Merlin, Historian
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center