NASA research pilot Tom McMurtry advanced the throttle of the sleek F-104 as it streaked across Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, barely a few hundred feet above the lakebed. With hundreds of employees gathered atop the main administration building and the ramp area, McMurtry piloted NASA 826 toward NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, with the airspeed indicator reading 450 knots.
That was the scenario on Feb. 3, 1994, 20 years ago this week at NASA Dryden. After 1,415 flights, NASA 826, one of three F-104G aircraft obtained by NASA from the German Luftwaffe in 1975, had flown its last. It would soon be retired and placed on display outside the center than had been its home for the preceding 19 years. It remains on exhibit today.
McMurtry's final flyover in NASA 826, which was preceded by a high-altitude pass at supersonic speed with a window-rattling sonic boom followed by a low-level flyby at a fairly pedestrian – for an F-104 – 275 knots, brought to an end 38 years of service by 11 F-104s at NASA Dryden. It was a fitting tribute.
"The sky cleared up just in time for F-104 826's last flight," reads the anonymous entry in NASA Dryden's Flight Operations log for the date. "Tom put on a beautiful show with a high, supersonic flyover, and two low, high-speed passes over Bldg. 4800."
Originally designed by Kelly Johnson and his team at Lockheed's "Skunk Works" as a day fighter/interceptor for the U.S. Air Force, the F-104 Starfighters later found other uses as low-level, high-speed fighter-bombers in the air forces of several nations. NASA acquired its first F-104A from the Air Force in August 1956, and the versatile high-performance aircraft soon proved to be ideal for both research, mission support and pilot training, becoming the workhorses in NASA's small stable of high-speed research aircraft.
Early on, a modified F-104 tested the reaction control thrusters for the hypersonic X-15 rocket plane. The F-104's short wings and low lift-to-drag ratio enabled it to simulate the X-15's landing profile, which pilots often undertook in F-104s before X-15 flights to acquaint them with the rocket plane's landing characteristics. This training role continued with the lifting bodies. NASA's F-104s were also used for high-speed research after the X-1E was retired. Lockheed built three of the aircraft specifically for NASA's requirements, and they were given the F-104N designation.
Two of NASA's F-104s were lost in crashes, including one that cost the life of the center's chief pilot Joseph Walker, following a mid-air collision with an XB-70 in 1966.NASA 826, officially registered as N826NA, accomplished a wide-range of research activities, including tests of the Space Shuttle's Thermal Protection System tiles during its 19 years at the center. But its days were numbered.
Difficulty in maintaining and obtaining parts for the aging F-104 fleet led NASA to make the decision to retire the last of the aircraft in favor of newer, more maneuverable F-18s and F/A-18s, early models of which had become available from the Navy's test fleet. Over the course of almost 38 years, from August 1956 through February 1994, the 11 F-104s flown by NASA had accumulated over 18,000 flights at NASA Dryden in a great variety of missions ranging from basic research to airborne simulation and service as an aerodynamic test bed.