One of the best looking aircraft of all time. Everything about it says "Built for speed".
The F-104 is one of those planes that seemed to have everything going for it. It's a specialized fighter, right? Aren't those supposed to be better?
Unlike most late 50s and early 60s tactical aircraft, it was specifically designed to be an air-superiority fighter. It didn't start out life as an attack aircraft like the F-4 or a nuclear interceptor like the F-106.
It was designed by the legendary Kelly Johnson, the guy who came up with everything from the P-38 to the SR-71.
Korean War fighter pilots who had tangled with enemy MiGs wanted something that was light, simple and capable of exceptional performance. As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for.
Tainted by scandal and haunted by a high accident rate, the F-104 was probably a better fighter than history gives it credit for. In skilled hands it could be deadly, but it could be just as deadly to the unwary.
F-86 pilots in the Korean War often felt outclassed by the smaller MiG-15. While the Sabre was arguably the better aircraft, the smaller MiG was a hot-rod and could out-climb and out-accelerate the F-86. The MiG pilot could pick and choose his fights. If he didn't want to stick around and play he could just climb away.
The F-86 was a more technically advanced aircraft than the crude MiG-15 but more powerful MiG could pick its fights.
Note that previous USAF claims of 10:1 kill ratios versus the MiG-15 are very likely exaggerated. More recent studies put the number at closer to 2:1 and when the MiG-15s were flown by Soviet pilots it was roughly 1:1.
The MiG-15 could escape a fight by out climbing the Sabre Jet. When flown by Soviet instructors the little MiG was at least a match for the F-86.
To give pilots the performance they wanted, Kelly Johnson took the new J79 engine and wrapped the smallest most aerodynamic airframe he could around it. He then attached a pair of incredibly thin, literally razor-sharp wings to that airframe. If the wings on the F-104 look too small it's because they are. This earned the nickname "missile with a man in it". It was also called "The Zipper" because of its high speed. It picked up a few more nicknames along the way but we'll get to that later.
The F-104 was mostly a day, clear weather fighter. It had a weak radar and no radar guided missiles.
The is a small aircraft. Not a whole lot bigger than a T-38. It's the kind of jet that you put on like a pair of pants. The Air Force Museum in Dayton has an F-104 cockpit that you can
squeeze yourself into and it's pretty "snug".
This shows just how small the F-104 was. The pilot is wearing an early pressure suit for high altitude flights.
On paper the Starfighter looks like a winner. First the name. What's cooler than "Starfighter"? That just screams 1950s Space Age. Pontiac had a "Star Chief" back then which I always thought was a cool name.
In terms of speed, climb and ceiling it was a winner. With the possible exception of the RAF's Lightning, there wasn't anything at the time that could touch it.
From the fighter pilot's standpoint it seemed like a winner as well. It was small and hard to see. It was nice and simple. Just a simple search radar, a couple of heat-seeking missiles and a gun. Visibility from the cockpit was better than most of its contemporaries. Compared to something like an F-106 or F-4 it had much better front and especially rear visibility.
Nice and simple. Just a couple of heat seeking missiles and a 20mm gun. Most US fighters had wrongly given up gun armament in favor of missiles at this time.
It's certainly a great looking aircraft. The USAF brass loves sleek pointy-nosed fighter jets that go Mach 2 and shoot down other airplanes. The Starfighter definitely fits the bill. It looks like it's going Mach 2 just sitting on the ramp.
Everything about the aircraft was optimized to reduce drag at supersonic speeds. The razor-thin wings were barely thick enough to hold the hydraulic actuators for the flight controls. Everything else was stuffed into the slender fuselage.
Sounds great, so what's the problem? It had two problems actually. First, it would kill you. Second, it couldn't turn, so someone else would probably kill you.
Any single engine fighter is inherently dangerous but the F-104 was in a class all by itself. Aircraft design was advancing so quickly in the early 1950s that we didn't quite know what we were doing yet. Think about how much had changed in the nine years since the end of WWII and the first flight of the F-104. We'd gone from propeller driven fighters to subsonic jets to supersonic jets and now to Mach 2. I can think of few eras where aviation advanced so quickly.
A short nine years separated the F-104 from WWII fighters. Imagine how futuristic this looked in 1954.
Aircraft with very short wingspans were susceptible to something called "inertia coupling". This was a problem encountered at high roll rates where the plane would yaw and pitch violently. To counter that, the Starfighter's horizontal stabilizer was mounted high up on the tail. In case you were wondering why they stuck it up there.
In aircraft design, everything is a trade-off. At high angles of attack, that T-tail could be blanked out by the fuselage, causing a violent pitch-up and stall. The F-101 also had this problem. To warn the pilot that his F-104 was approaching the limit, it had a "stick shaker" similar to what airliners are equipped with. If he ignored the "shaker" he got the "kicker" which would forcibly push the stick forward. Since nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool, the kicker could be overridden by the pilot and hilarity would ensue.
To instruct pilots on the finer points of flying the F-104, Lockheed produced these crude but effective illustrations.
The tiny wings made takeoff and landing difficult. To get the approach speeds down from ludicrous to simply insane, the F-104 was equipped with "boundary layer control", sometimes just called "blown flaps".
Drag chutes were standard on most fighters of that era and the Starfighter definitely needed one.
How did it work? Bleed air from the engines was piped across the flaps to lower the stalling speed of the aircraft. I'm not an aeronautical engineer, but basically it keeps the air flowing smoothly over the wing and flaps without going turbulent. A few other aircraft like the Royal Navy's Buccaneer and early models of the F-4 used it. It requires a power-on approach to keep the bleed air going. Chop the power to idle and you come down right now.
Landing the F-104 was a tricky business. It was very unforgiving at traffic pattern speeds. The T-38 was actually designed to teach you how to fly an F-104.
A bleed air failure on one wing could be fatal. If one doesn't blow, then over you go.
Even with the blown flaps approach speeds were in the 190 knot range! That's 20 knots faster than a no-flap approach in a T-38. Smokin!
Another problem with the Starfighter was that it got very "draggy" at high angles of attack. This was common with most supersonic aircraft but it was really pronounced on the F-104. At slow speeds those tiny wings were working so hard to produce lift that a tremendous amount of induced drag was produced. This puts you into what's called the "region of reverse command". The slower you go the more thrust is required just to break even. Get too slow and you'll drop like a rock long before you actually stall the wing.
But hey, at least you could eject, right? Well not so fast. The early ejection seats couldn't clear that F-104's tall tail so they installed a downward ejection seat. Presumably built by the Acme corporation. It worked about as well as it sounds.
Once improved upward ejection seats became available the chances of survival improved somewhat but it always had a reputation as being a "widow maker". I told you we'd get to its other nicknames.
Remember how I said this was exactly the kind of plane the Air Force loves? Turns out it really wasn't. They gave some to Air Defense Command for duty as interceptors but it wasn't really what ADC wanted. The F-104 didn't have much of a radar and couldn't (at the time) carry a radar-guided missile. If the Soviet bombers had showed up on a cloudy day the F-104 would have had a tough time. ADC really wanted an "all weather" interceptor like the F-106.
OK, so it's not a great interceptor. Let's send them to Vietnam, where they can do their primary job as air superiority fighters.
The Starfighter's record in Vietnam was less than impressive. One strayed into Chinese airspace and got shot down by a MiG-19 (Shenyang J-6 actually but who cares). Two others ran into each other while looking for it. MiGs 3 Starfighters 0.
Crude but effective. The MiG-19 could beat most US fighters in a turning fight.
Two others were shot down by anti aircraft fire while performing Close Air Support. F-104s did about as well at Close Air Support as you would expect. It was much too fast and it couldn't carry much air to ground ordnance.
Five others were shot down by surface-to-air missiles or AAA and four others just crashed. That brings the total to fourteen losses for not a whole lot accomplished. Less than 300 Starfighters were ever in USAF service and by 1969 the remainder were relegated to the Air National Guard. The type was completely retired from Air National Guard service by 1975. Not a very long run when you consider that other "Century Series" fighters served with the National Guard up through the late 1980s.
So what do you do if you're Lockheed and the US Air Force doesn't like your jet? Go back to the drawing board and design a better one, right?
No silly! You'll never make CEO thinking like that! You bribe politicians in other countries to buy it for their Air Forces!
From Ben Rich, director of Lockheed's "Skunk Works":
Lockheed executives admitted paying millions in bribes over more than a decade to the Dutch, to key Japanese and West German politicians, to Italian officials and generals, and to other highly placed figures from Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia, in order to get them to buy our airplanes. Kelly Johnson was so sickened by these revelations that he had almost quit, even though the top Lockheed management implicated in the scandal resigned in disgrace.
Did it work? Of course it did, silly! I guess you're just not management material. Lockheed sold over 2000 Starfighters to other countries including Japan, West Germany and the Netherlands. Some countries, like Canada and Turkey, didn't even need to be bribed to buy them. Canada needed something
to defend their airspace after the Avro Arrow
was cancelled and they purchased a mix of F-101s and F-104s for the job.
Soon after these countries started flying Starfighters they noticed that they crashed - a lot.
West Germany had a particularly high loss rate, partly from attempting to use the F-104 as a low-level strike aircraft. The West Germans lost about 30% of their F-104s over the years, killing 110 pilots in the process. German nicknames for the aircraft include "Flying Coffin", "Widowmaker" and "Ground Nail (Tent Peg)". If you wanted an F-104, the joke went, just buy a piece of land and wait.
Those Maltese Crosses look sinister even to this day. West Germany lost 110 Starfighter pilots to accidents.
Not to be outdone, Canada lost 110 of their 235 CF-104s. The RCAF sometimes called it the "Lawn Dart" or the "Aluminum Death Tube".
I always thought these looked great in Canadian markings. The RCAF lost almost half their Starfighters to accidents.
The Starfighter saw combat again during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. A total of six F-104s were shot down by Indian MiG-21s
in both conflicts. Pakistan managed a single kill with the F-104, shooting down a Dassault Mystère, a Korean-War era jet roughly equivalent to an F-86.
Taiwan had somewhat better luck. In 1967 a flight of four Starfighters took on eight Chinese MiG-19s over the Taiwan Straights and shot down two of them. One F-104 didn't make it back but it's unknown whether it was shot down or just crashed.
Total combat record for the Starfighter was three kills and one Folland Gnat (I had to look that one up) of the Indian Air Force forced to land. Note that India claims the Gnat pilot just got lost. Perhaps he was just embarrassed to be flying something called a "Gnat" (yes I'm aware of the Gnat's combat record versus the F-86). MiGs claimed a total of seven Starfighters over the years with the lion's share going to the MiG-21.
Probably the best version of the Starfighter was the Italian-built F-104S. These had an improved radar and could carry radar guided AIM-7 missiles. Finally turning the F-104 into a halfway decent interceptor. I actually work with someone who flew these with the Italian Air Force. He told me that they lost a couple in traffic pattern accidents, possibly due to bleed-air failures. He said the plane rode great at low altitude "we didn't know what turbulence was" but also that it couldn't turn worth a damn. About what you'd expect.
All in all the Starfighter just couldn't make the grade. Not nimble enough to be a dogfighter it couldn't carry enough bombs to be a decent attack aircraft. The F-104 really shined at supersonic speeds, but most dogfights take place in the 400-500 knot range.
With proper tactics it could be formidable however. It's small size and great speed lent itself to surprise attacks. Come in fast, take a shot, and head for the vertical. "One pass and haul ass". By using the takeoff flaps (up to 550 knots!) it could actually turn with an early F-4. That's damning with faint praise because early F-4s weren't known for their turning ability. Properly flown by someone who knew what they were doing and it could be tough to beat by anything prior to an F-15 or F-16.
If you can ignore the Asian stereotypes this 1960s illustration shows how an F-104 would "work the vertical" against a better turning opponent.
With further development it probably could have been turned into a real contender. A slightly larger wing and automatic maneuvering flaps might have worked wonders. It potentially could have been the F-16 before the F-16. Unfortunately the USAF had lost interest by then.
Yes I find this funny and yes, I'm a bad person.
Other than museums, I've seen these up close exactly once. A flight of four German F-104s came through our base back in the 1990s. I recall thinking that they looked quite sinister in German markings. Almost like something the Luftwaffe would have been flying if WWII had lasted until 1947.
Even to this day German markings look evil.
Probably because it's such a great looking aircraft, the Starfighter has featured prominently in media. I recall one trying to intercept the Enterprise in an old Star Trek episode. Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooned the perfectly awful movie The Starfighters
, starring former Air Force pilot and right wing congressman Bob Dornan. If you're not a fan of MST3K you should be.
The Right Stuff
If ever a movie deserved the MST3K treatment it was this stinker.
featured a pretty decent re-creation of Chuck Yeager's departure from controlled flight and subsequent ejection from an NF-104. Yeager was badly burned in the incident. A burning piece of his seat's rocket motor became lodged in his oxygen-rich space helmet.
The NF-104 had a rocket motor and could climb to over 100,000 feet. Chuck Yeager had to eject from one of these.
NASA found the Starfighter useful as a chase aircraft and for high speed research. The type flew for NASA all the way to 1994.
NASA used F-104s for research and as chase aircraft.
While most F-104s have long since been relegated to "gate guard" duty outside airbases, a few are still flying in private hands and even being put to creative use. A company in Florida plans to actually use Starfighters
to launch small satellites into low earth orbit. I wonder if they're hiring? They claim that their F-104s can carry a 1500 pound payload to 100,000 feet in less than 4 minutes. Flying a ballistic profile it would release its payload at the top of the parabola. Another company reportedly plans to use its Cold War rival, the MiG-21 for similar missions.
Today there's a lot of discussion about multi-mission aircraft versus specialized aircraft. The F-104 shows that just because an aircraft is specialized doesn't mean it's good. The Starfighter killed a lot more friendlies than enemies during its career.