Take the fastest and highest flying jet of the day, then strap a rocket engine to it. Most trainer aircraft are meant to be docile and forgiving. The NF-104A surely was not. It was a space trainer, meant to zoom climb to the edge of the atmosphere using mixed power, simultaneously burning its jet and rocket engines. Once at an altitude of more than 120,000 ft, it gave future Air Force astronauts an opportunity to emulate a spacecraft, using reaction control system thrusters in a near-vacuum environment.
Even today, it remains a simple fact: it’s easy to get yourself in trouble in a rocket plane. The first NF’s rocket engine exploded in flight. Chuck Yeager nearly met his end during the loss of NF ship three. NF-104A 56-0760 was the second of three ever built (pictured above). She remains the only surviving example from the program, mounted proudly in front of the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base. Her reaction control system was loaned to Darryl Greenamyer and installed on his F-104 which was lost on a civilian altitude record setting attempt. Thus, even the surviving NF had some of her parts destroyed in a crash. Thankfully, in all said incidences, no human being was lost.
The aircraft stands as a reminder to all who walk through the doors of the USAF Test Pilot School of the glorious trials, tribulations and sacrifices of all who have trod before them. These adventures epitomize the golden age of flight test and the pioneering spirit that flies over the High Desert of California.