Nozzle Failure at 70,000’

In 1958, being the first TAC squadron to be re-equipped with the F-104C Starfighter, the 476th TFS had to do a lot of operational testing of tactics, procedures and capabilities. These included Phase 2 nozzle tests and high altitude operations.

There had been a spate of nozzle failures in the J-79 engine fitted to the F-104C. It was found that the nozzles, being operated by the engine oil system, were failing to open or close due to sludge on the oil filters, The system was changed so that the nozzles were controlled by the engine fuel system and the problem was solved. The aircraft were being modified at the next major inspection so some squadron aircraft continued to operate with without the oil system control being modified.

For the high altitude tests we were fitted with the early “Moon suit” pressure suit which was based on the same principle as the “G Suit” but with a full body fitting. Prior to donning the pressure suit you were required to be powdered all over with talcum powder and then don long underwear, inside out, so that the seams would not cause irritation points which could not be reached while wearing the “Moon suit”. Sitting for an hour in the crew room pre-breathing oxygen was a most boring experience.

I was scheduled for a high zoom flight to 65.000’, and after the required pre-breathing I carried my portable oxygen unit out to my F-104C, 56-899, strapped in, converted to the aircraft oxygen system and departed for the high speed area “Stovepipe” up over Death Valley.

My scheduled profile was to climb to 36,000’ a level, run out to Mach 1.7 in full AB and a pull to 1.5 G. When the mach meter showed Mach 2 or better, I was to then increase to 3G for the zoom. At 38,000’ the mach meter was indicating Mach 2.1 with about 35 degrees nose up. The airplane was zooming like an angel and we rapidly passed 50.000’ where all indications were normal.

As the airplane neared 60.000’ I had to throttle back to keep the EGT within limits. The AB blew out and when the throttle was near idle I heard slight “thump” down the back end but all seemed normal. The Starfighter was still climbing but at a reduced angle of attack, about 20 degrees. As 65,000’ was reached I stop-cocked the throttle to prevent an overspeed over temp. and eased the stick forward to about level attitude. The cockpit de-pressurized and I felt the suit pressure come on. It was like being in an all-over G suit and it was difficult to move my arms or legs. The outside light was poor due to the blue/black sky and I had to pull out the instrument panel shades to help the cockpit lighting.

I thought that the aircraft would start to descend but, to my amazement, we kept climbing in a level flight attitude. As we reached 70.000’, I eased the stick forward to get a more nose down attitude. The airspeed was about 155 knots and the attitude changed but the Starfighter kept slowly climbing until it peaked at 72,300’ when it started to pitch down and descend with wings level. As the speed increased I popped the speed brakes, slowly increased the dive angle, and commenced a glorious high speed dive down to lower levels.

At 40.000’ I tried a relight without success. At 35.000’ I tried another relight procedure with same result. At 33.000’ I managed to get a relight and was delighted to see the RPM and EGT started to rise. With everything appearing normal I turned towards George passing over the base at 30,000’ prior to entering the pattern. At this stage I knew something was wrong, as an increased throttle movement produced the desired RPM but no apparent increase in thrust.

Fortunately, I was aware of the nozzle failure problem where the nozzles remain open and you have a perfectly good engine but no thrust. This was my situation then. The book indicated that level flight could be maintained at 2000’ above sea level in this configuration. With the altitude at George at 1800’ I was not about to test this theory. At 25,000’and descending I declared an emergency and requested a straight-in to Muroc Lake which was almost right in front of me. I turned so that the approach would be to the North East and at 15.000’ commenced a high key-low key dead stick approach, which I had practiced many times, on to the world’s longest runway marked out on the lake bed.

On final approach the engine was developing a little thrust but I continued the dead stick approach, dropping the gear at 250 knots and touching down well into the lake bed at about 185 knots. When I came to a stop, Edwards Tower me to vacate the airplane and await pick-up. I shut down the engine and when I descended, by hanging over the side of the airplane, I saw that the nozzles were stuck wide open. On looking around I could have been on the Moon; nothing but desert to all horizons. After about fifteen minutes, I was pleased to see a chopper coming over the horizon from the West. The rescue crew took me back to civilization and I had a pleasant time in the Officers Club before being returned to George by car that evening.

After the maintenance crew at the Test Pilot’s School had completed the engine oil/fuel nozzle control modification 56-899 flew on for some years before being destroyed in an accident in Spain in the early sixties.

Jim Flemming, Canberra in 2004

Vita of Jim Flemming, Air Vice-Marshal ret.

RAAF 75 Sqn 78 Wing, Williamtown NSW 1955-1956
George AFB from December 1957 to January1960
F-100C for about 400 hours in the 476th TFS (Ops officer)
The 476th was the first squadron to get the F-104C
First foreigner to fly the F-104C and the first RAAF pilot to get to Mach 2
479th TFW Standardization Officer and flew with the 434th TFS
About 700 odd hours in the Zipper; Starfighter No.304
May 1967 CO No 75 Squadron, Mirage to Butterworth, Malaysia
Ubon in 1968, 79 FS equipped with big engined CA-27 Avon Sabre jets at RTAFB Ubon
Last Mirage flight was on 28th November 1974 (OC Williamtown)
1975: London Royal College of Defence Studies
July 1982 Retirement

Forty one years service in the Air Force with every rank from Airman 2nd to Air Vice-Marshal.
Ended with 9400 hours mostly on fighters

Back in the fifty's Flight Lieutenant J.H. Flemming (center) led an aerobatic team flying Meteors.
They were called "The Meteorites" where he got the idea for the Starfighter markings.

The paint job was his design and Tactical Air Command paid him fifty bucks for the copyright.
All the 479th Wing birds had the same markings but in different colors for each of the squadrons.

copyright: Jim Flemming
compiled: Hubert Peitzmeier
update: May 8, 2011