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F-104 Starfighter

With nicknames like ‘the missile with a man in it’, ‘the flying coffin’, ‘hooligan’ and the ‘widowmaker’, the F-104 Lockheed Starfighter was an aircraft with a complex aura to it. Complete with a futuristic appearance and a Mach 2 (2,469 km/h – 1,534 mph) top speed, this single-engine, supersonic interceptor aircraft was a thunderous piece of military hardware. 

But below its sleek facade lay numerous problems which became apparent once the United States started exporting the F-104 around the world. The first combat aircraft capable of sustained Mach 2 flight was a plane that traded its searing acceleration and top speed for slack manoeuvrability and poor range. The F-104 was both a record breaker and an absolute liability.

Sometimes an aircraft comes along that redefines aviation, many of which we’ve covered here on Megaprojects, but the F-104 Starfighter was not one of those aircraft. It was the equivalent of putting an F1 engine on the back of a small go-cart and taking it out for a spin. Insanely fast – but also a vehicle that ramped the likelihood of death up a notch – or twelve. The story of the F-104 is a bumpy ride with plenty of collisions, and while it won’t go down in history, it’s still a fascinating tale to tell. 


In the early 1950s, U.S pilots were engaged in combat in the skies above Korea, one of the few instances during the Cold War when American and Soviet soldiers went head to head in real combat. The Soviet pilots, along with their North Korean and Chinese counterparts, typically flew the new MiG 15, a tenacious, agile little plane that has since gone on to become one of the most produced aircraft in history.  

The Americans countered the MiG 15 with their North American F-86 Sabre, the country’s first swept-wing fighter. But while the F-86 was no slouch, a series of interviews with pilots by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, vice president of engineering and research at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, revealed that the American pilots predominantly favoured having a smaller, faster aircraft with a higher altitude limit than the F-86. In short, they needed something more like the MiG 15, to successfully tackle the MiG 15.  


F-104A flight envelope

Once back in the U.S, Johnson and his team set about designing this new aircraft. After studying over 100 different aircraft layouts, the team went for a light 5,400 kg (12,000 lb) design with a single General Electric J79 turbojet engine. The U.S Air Force liked what they saw and invited three other companies, Republic Aviation, North American Aviation and Northrop Corporation to also submit designs for a lightweight fighter. But Lockheed was well ahead at this point, and a contract to build two prototypes was signed on 12th March 1953. 

Things moved rapidly and just shy of a year after the contract was sealed, the first X-104 took to the skies on 4th March 1954 at the Edwards Air Force Base in California. At this point, the J79 engine wasn’t ready, so the two X F-104s were instead fitted with Wright J65 engines until the more powerful engine was completed. This first flight lasted just 21 minutes, which was less than planned after the aircraft experienced landing gear retraction issues. And you’d better get used to the words issues and problems because there’s plenty more to come. 

The second prototype was destroyed soon after during a gun-firing trial when the hatch to the ejector seat blew out. As the cockpit depressurized, the pilot ejected, believing the aircraft to be a lost cause – apparently, that was not the case – but let’s not be too critical of the pilot sitting inside a faulty metallic experimental rocket. 

Let’s be honest, early testing had been patchy and along with the J79 engine swap out, the new X F104s came with modified landing gear, modified air intakes, while also being 1.68 metres ( 5 feet 6 inches) longer than the original, to accommodate the new engine. A further 17 aircraft were ordered for testing and began flying on 17th February 1956. Between then and the 28th January 1958, when the first aircraft was delivered into service, they had their airframe strengthened, a ventral fin to improve directional stability at supersonic speed added, along with a boundary layer control system (BLCS) to reduce landing speed. This futuristic speedster was ready for takeoff.  


Right side view of an F-4C Phantom II, top, and F-104 Starfighter aircraft
Right side view of an F-4C Phantom II, top, and F-104 Starfighter aircraft

When the F-104 burst onto the scene, it immediately broke several records and was the first aircraft to simultaneously hold the world speed and altitude records. On 7th May 1958, an F104 broke the world altitude record for a jet aircraft by flying to 27,811 metres (91,243 feet), while on 16th May 1958 the world flight airspeed record tumbled when a Starfighter hit 2,259.538 km/h (1,404.012 miles per hour) above Edwards Airforce Base. 

In 1959, the altitude record was again smashed with an F-104 climbing to 31,513 m (103,389 feet), followed by several unofficial flights over the following years where the aircraft was said to hit a final height of 36,800 metres (120,800 feet) – that’s 270 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other and comfortably into the atmospheric zone known as the Stratosphere.  

Add to this some quite astonishing time to climb records, culminating in a 30,000-meter (98,400 ft) record of 904.92 seconds in 1959, you might be forgiven in thinking that the greatest aircraft the world had ever seen had finally arrived – but as we’ll come to shortly, speed is definitely not everything. 

THE F-104

Lockheed F-104A
Lockheed F-104A

This merciless speed demon came with an airframe constructed of duralumin, along with some stainless steel and titanium. It had a rather radical trapezoidal wing design, a straight-edged and tapered wing layout that was swept back 26 degrees. The tips of these wings ended with a razor-sharp 0.41 mm (016 in) edge that proved so dangerous for ground crews that the U.S Air Force mandated that protective guards be installed as soon as the aircraft landed. The thickness of the wings was also the reason that the fuel needed to be carried within the fuselage and why the plane’s landings were initially at speeds that would terrify even the most seasoned of pilots – around 287 to 296 km/h (178 to 184 mph). It wasn’t until the addition of the BLCS that this monster was brought under some resemblance of control while landing. 

It had a wingspan of 6.63 metres ( 21 ft 9 in) and a total length of 16.66 metres (54 ft 8 in) making it a considerably small fighter compared with modern examples. The General Electric J79 turbojet came with 10,000 lbf thrust dry and 15,600 lbf with afterburner – which is much less than what we have today, but as we’ve seen, easily enough to shatter speed records left, right and centre. Thanks to the aircraft’s excellent thrust-to-drag ratio, the F-104 was capable of well exceeding Mach 2 (2,459 km/h -1,528 mph) but had a nasty habit of overheating the engine so its operational speed limit was set at Mach 2. 

The F-104 was the first aircraft to use the 20 mm (0.79 in) M61 Vulcan autocannon, with a 6,000 rounds per minute firing rate – meaning the F-104 would be out of ammo after just seven seconds of continuous fire. The aircraft could also carry two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on the wingtip stations, though it was later modified to include underwing pylons for additional armaments and a centerline pylon capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.    

Another radical design feature of the F-104 was the ejector seat. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always assumed that an ejecting pilot would fly upwards, but not with the early versions of this revolutionary little aircraft. Its downward-firing ejection seat did exactly as it sounds, which, as you might imagine, caused all manner of problems for low-level ejections. This format was used because there were limitations of the available ejection seat catapults at the time and an astonishing 21 USAF pilots failed to escape safely because of this, including Iven Kincheloe Jr, the first person to perform a suborbital spaceflight when his Bell X-2 rocketplane reached 38,470 m (126,200 feet) in 1956, before being killed after ejecting from an F-104 in 1958. Not long after, the aircraft was fitted with the Lockheed C-2 upward-firing seat instead and the concept of downward ejector seats fell completely out of fashion.  


When the F-104 entered full service in 1958, it immediately experienced problems, namely with the J79 engine and M61 cannon. These were deemed so significant that the entire fleet was grounded just three months into their fledgling careers. New J79-GE-3B engines and three additional ADC units were installed – these small air data computers were used to compile data from the aircraft’s pitot-static system to determine the calibrated airspeed, Mach number, altitude and much more. While these upgrades didn’t fix all of the F104’s problems, they certainly made the aircraft easier to fly.   

But while the F-104 was receiving a much needed structural face-lift, the U.S Air Force was already having second thoughts. Just to show how quickly the times changed regarding military technology, the trend was already beginning to shift towards aircraft with much further range that could carry considerably more weaponry. The F-104, with its fairly limited Arsenal and a paltry combat range of 680 km (420 miles), had neither, and before it had even had a chance to dance, it was being ditched for younger, better models. The initial USAF order of 722 was slashed to just 170, while after less than a year in service, the F-104s were transferred from the Fighter Interceptor Squadrons to the three squadrons of the Air National Guard – the equivalent of playing for Yankees one day and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders the next. If you’ve never heard of them – that’s exactly my point.  

Despite the F-104 appearing to be on the brink of an early extinction, it was used in several roles sporadically until 1969. In 1958, they were used during the Taiwan Straits Crisis, when several F-104s flew back and forth between Taiwan and mainland China as a way of flexing U.S muscle and also lending support to the breakaway island.

Three years later, they were once again used in a deterrent manner when they took part in manoeuvres during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, in which Soviet leaders delivered an ultimatum for all NATO troops and aircraft to leave the German capital. Not one to back down from a fight, JFK ordered more aircraft to the city, with the USAF said to be pleasantly surprised by the performance of the F-104, which outperformed every aircraft in the vicinity. Suddenly, there was hope for the Starfighters. 

Their performance in Berlin led to a call up a few years later during the Vietnam War, where they were used in air superiority and air-support roles. Essentially they were there to protect other aircraft, in particular, the F-105 Thunderchief and the EC-121D Warning Star airborne early warning aircraft. The F-104s performed admirably in South-East Asia, but were rarely involved in aerial combat and left Vietnam without any recorded air-to-air kills, with a loss of 14 Starfighters. This was the last U.S combat operation that they were involved in, and in 1967, their units began to be replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. Two years later, the last F-104 left the U.S Air Force, eleven years after their introduction. 


While the use of the F-104 under the Stars and Stripes had been fairly limited, it saw considerably wider use when it was exported abroad – and considerably higher levels of controversy. A consortium of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy, along with manufacturers within each country, signed a contract to begin constructing a modified F-104 for the European crowd. This new aircraft, the F-104G, consisted of a more powerful engine, additional skin panels, and reinforced landing gear with larger tires and improved brakes. It also came with a more advanced radar system, electric de-icing equipment for the air intake inlets, a larger drag chute and an increased weapon capacity, now at 1,400 kg (3,000 lb). In total, seventeen separate companies were involved in manufacturing the F-104G in Europe. 

And this is where the story of the F-104 begins to take a nosedive. Things started about as bad as they possibly could in Germany when in June 1962, four F-104Gs crashed in formation while practising for an air display, destroying all the aircraft and killing all four pilots. And sadly, that was just the start. 

Much has been said about just why accident rates in Europe were so high. Was it because of the bad weather compared to the frequent clear sky climate that many pilots trained in Arizona? Was it because European pilots had not kept pace with jetfighter developments? Or was it simply because the F-104 could be a maniacal bucking bronco? The reason was almost certainly a combination of all three, which led to a staggering 292 crashes and 116 German pilots lost to F-104 accidents. 

Germany, Belgium and Canada all experienced between 32% and 46% losses of their F-104s during their decades in service – which is shocking, but they were the extremes. Denmark, Japan and Norway suffered losses of between 14% and 24% – while the Spanish Airforce came out with a perfect record of 0 losses. It’s not immediately clear why there were such disparities between loss rates, but what was clear was that the Starfighter had the ignoble honour of having some of the highest loss rates of any aircraft in history. 

And here’s the final kicker. In 1976, news broke that Lockheed had paid $22 million (that’s around $190 million today) in bribes to foreign officials as part of the F-104G deals in Europe. Things worsened when it was revealed that in 1962 documents relating to the transaction had all been destroyed in Germany, where officials were said to have taken $10 million ($85 million today) bribes in return for signing contracts for 900 F-104Gs in 1961.

As the scandal erupted, officials in Japan, Italy, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia were also implicated, leading to Lockheed chairman of the board Daniel Haughton and president Carl Kotchian resigning on 13th February 1976. The aircraft, that the German public had dubbed ‘the widow maker’, for quite obvious reasons, now found itself at the centre of one of the largest scandals in aviation history. 


So what can you say about the F-104? If you just started watching this video in the last couple of minutes you might well assume that this was the worst aircraft of all time, but that would certainly be going too far. The F-104 was incredible with certain aspects of flying, namely acceleration, top speed and altitude limit, but far from exemplary when it came to its large turn radius, short-range, small armament capacity, erratic pitch behaviour and the requirement for it to remain at full speed while landing. 

This was a combination of positives and negatives that didn’t particularly fit well together and when you take into consideration the huge demand it often placed on inexperienced pilots, it’s not hard to see why this ferocious little plane caused so much carnage. The F-104 seemed to have different problems throughout its life. From oscillations causing uncontrolled dives, T-tail fluttering which occasional tore of the tail and problems with the brand new engine in the early days, to issues with the variable thrust nozzle that could cause a sudden loss of thrust, afterburner blowout and problems integrating into different Air Forces, later on, this was an aircraft that was plagued from the very start.     

But as we saw earlier, this was also an aircraft that shattered records when it broke onto the scene. The F-104 may not hold a place in the hallowed aviation hall of fame, but it unquestionably played its role in the development of aviation. Sometimes you need to learn what not to do before the right path becomes clear. 

The runaway drone that caused a Cold War air battle – BBC Future

The F-104 Starfighter was supposed to be the Air Force’s fastest, highest-flying combat jet (airforcetimes.com)

F-104 Starfighter | Lockheed Martin

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – Wikipedia   

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