The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter is a single-engine, supersonic interceptor aircraft which later became widely used as an attack aircraft. It was originally developed by Lockheed for the United States Air Force (USAF), but became widely used by US Allies around the world, and produced by several other NATO nations. One of the Century Series of fighter aircraft, it was operated by the air forces of more than a dozen nations from 1958 to 2004. Its design team was led by Kelly Johnson, who went on to lead or contribute to the development of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and other Lockheed aircraft.
The F-104 set numerous world records, including both airspeed and altitude records. Its success was marred by the Lockheed bribery scandals, in which Lockheed had given bribes to a considerable number of political and military figures in various nations in order to influence their judgment and secure several purchase contracts; this caused considerable political controversy in Europe and Japan.
The poor safety record of the Starfighter also brought the aircraft into the public eye, especially in German Air Force service. Fighter ace Erich Hartmann was forced to retire from the Luftwaffe due to his outspoken opposition to selection of the F-104.
The ultimate production version of the fighter model was the F-104S, an all-weather interceptor designed by Aeritalia for the Italian Air Force, and equipped with radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. An advanced F-104 with a high-mounted wing, known as the CL-1200 Lancer, was considered but did not proceed past the mock-up stage.
In 2018 a privately owned Starfighter is scheduled to help launch a group of small “cubesat” satellites into low orbit by carrying the rocket aloft.
Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the chief engineer at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, visited Korea in December 1951 and spoke with fighter pilots about what sort of aircraft they wanted. At the time, the U.S. pilots were confronting the MiG-15 with North American F-86 Sabres, and many felt that the MiGs were superior to the larger and more complex American design. The pilots requested a small and simple aircraft with excellent performance. Armed with this information, Johnson immediately started the design of such an aircraft on his return to the United States. In March, his team was assembled; they studied several aircraft designs, ranging from small designs at 8,000 lb (3,629 kg), to fairly large ones at 50,000 lb (23,680 kg). In order to achieve the desired performance, Lockheed chose a minimalist approach: a design that would achieve high performance by wrapping the lightest, most aerodynamically efficient airframe possible around a single powerful engine. The engine chosen was the new General Electric J79, an engine of dramatically improved performance in comparison with contemporary designs. The small L-246 design powered by a single J79 remained essentially identical to the L-083 Starfighter as eventually delivered.
The design was presented to the Air Force in November 1952, and they were interested enough to create a General Operating Requirement for a lightweight fighter to replace the North American F-100. Three companies replied to the requirement: the Republic AP-55, an improved version of its prototype XF-91 Thunderceptor; the North American NA-212, which eventually evolved into the F-107; and the Northrop N-102 Fang, another J79-powered design. Although all were interesting, Lockheed had an insurmountable lead, and was granted a development contract in March 1953 for two prototypes, these were given the designation “XF-104
Work progressed quickly, with a mock-up ready for inspection at the end of April, and work starting on two prototypes late in May. Meanwhile, the J79 engine was not ready; both prototypes were instead designed to use the Wright J65 engine, a licensed-built version of the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. The first prototype was completed by early 1954 and first flew on 4th March at Edwards AFB. The total time from contract to first flight was less than a year.
When the USAF revealed the existence of the XF-104, they only gave a vague description of it, similar to the secret F-117A in the 1980s. A drawing in the Popular Mechanics, August 1954 edition was very close to the actual design.
The prototype had hopped into the air on 18th February but that was not counted as a first flight. On the first official flight, it experienced landing gear retraction problems. The second prototype was destroyed a few weeks later during gun-firing trials but in November 1955 the prototype was accepted by the USAF.
Based on the XF-104 testing and evaluations, the next variant, the YF-104A, was lengthened and fitted with a General Electric J79 engine, modified landing gear and modified air intakes.
The first YF-104A flew on 17th February 1956 and with the other 16 trials aircraft were soon carrying out aircraft and equipment evaluation and tests. Modifications were made to the aircraft including airframe strengthening and a ventral fin was added. Problems were encountered with the J79 afterburner and delays were caused by the need to add Sidewinder missiles. On 28th January 1958 the first F-104A to enter service was delivered to the 83rd Fighter Intercepter Wing.
A total of 2,578 F-104s were produced by Lockheed and under license by various foreign manufacturers
The Starfighter was the first combat aircraft capable of sustained Mach 2 flight, and its speed and climb performance remain impressive even by modern standards. Equipped with razor-edge thin blade supersonic wings (visible from the cockpit only in the mirrors), it was designed for optimum performance at Mach 1.4. If used appropriately, with high-speed surprise attacks and good use of its exceptional thrust-to-weight ratio, it could be a formidable opponent. It was exceptionally stable at high speed (600+ knots) at very low level, making it a formidable tactical nuclear strike-fighter. However, when lured into a low-speed turning contest with conventional subsonic opponents (as Pakistani pilots were with Indian Hunters in 1965) the outcome of dogfights was always doubtful. The F-104’s large turn radius was due to the high speeds required for maneuvering, and its high-alpha stalling and pitch-up behavior was known to command respect. In reference to the F-104’s low-speed turn performance, a humorous colloquialism, referred to by F-104 pilots the world over, was coined by a Canadian pilot: “Banking with intent to turn”.
Takeoff speeds were in the region of 219 mph (352 km/h), with the pilot needing to swiftly raise the landing gear to avoid exceeding the limit speed of 299 mph (481 km/h). Climb and cruise performance were outstanding; unusually, a “slow” light illuminated on the instrument panel at around Mach 2 to indicate that the engine compressor was nearing its limiting temperature and the pilot needed to throttle back. Returning to the circuit, the downwind leg could be flown at 242 mph (389 km/h) with “land” flap selected, while long flat final approaches were typically flown at speeds around 207 mph (333 km/h) depending on the weight of fuel remaining. High engine power had to be maintained on the final approach to ensure adequate airflow for the BLC (Boundary Layer Control) system; consequently pilots were warned not to cut the throttle until the aircraft was actually on the ground. A drag chute and effective brakes shortened the Starfighter’s landing roll.
The F-104 series all had a very high wing loading (made even higher when carrying external stores). The high angle of attack area of flight was protected by a stick shaker system to warn the pilot of an approaching stall, and if this was ignored, a stick pusher system would pitch the aircraft’s nose down to a safer angle of attack; this was often overridden by the pilot despite flight manual warnings against this practice. At extremely high angles of attack the F-104 was known to “pitch-up” and enter a spin, from which in most cases it was impossible to recover. Unlike the twin-engined McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II for example, the F-104 with its single engine lacked the safety margin in the case of an engine failure, and had a poor glide ratio without thrust.
The J79 was a new engine that continued to be developed during the YF-104A test phase and in service with the F-104A. The engine featured variable incidence compressor stator blades, a design feature that altered the angle of the stator blades automatically with altitude and temperature. A condition known as “T-2 reset”, a normal function that made large stator blade angle changes, caused several engine failures on takeoff. It was discovered that large and sudden temperature changes (from being parked in the sun prior to getting airborne) were falsely causing the engine stator blades to close and choke the compressor. The dangers presented by these engine failures were compounded by the downward ejection seat which gave the pilot little chance of a safe exit at low level. The engine systems were subsequently modified and the ejection seat changed to the more conventional upward type. Uncontrolled tip-tank oscillations sheared one wing off of an F-104B; this problem was apparent during testing of the XF-104 prototype and was eventually resolved by filling the tank compartments in a specific order.
A further engine problem was that of uncommanded opening of the variable thrust nozzle (usually through loss of engine oil pressure, as the nozzles were actuated using engine oil as hydraulic fluid); although the engine would be running normally at high power, the opening of the nozzle resulted in a drastic loss of thrust. A modification program installed a manual nozzle closure control which reduced the problem. The engine was also known to suffer from afterburner blow out on takeoff or even non-ignition resulting in a major loss of thrust, which could be detected by the pilot—the recommended action was to abandon the takeoff. The first fatal accident in German service was caused by this. Some aircrews experienced uncommanded “stick kicker” activation at low level when flying straight and level, so F-104 crews often flew with the system deactivated. Asymmetric flap deployment was another common cause of accidents, as was a persistent problem with severe nose wheel “shimmy” on landing which usually resulted in the aircraft leaving the runway and in some cases even flipping over onto its back.
The introduction of a highly technical aircraft type to a newly reformed air force was fraught with problems. Many pilots and ground crew had settled into civilian jobs after World War II and had not kept pace with developments, with pilots being sent on short “refresher” courses in slow and benign-handling first generation jet aircraft. Ground crew were similarly employed with minimal training and experience, which was one consequence of a conscripted military with high a turnover of service personnel. Operating in poor northwest European weather conditions (vastly unlike the fair weather training conditions at Luke AFB in Arizona) and flying at high speed and low level over hilly terrain, a great many accidents were attributed to controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). German Air Force and German Navy losses totaled 110 pilots, around half of them Naval Officers.
One contributing factor to this was the operational assignment of the F-104 in German service: it was mainly intended for the fighter-bomber use, as opposed to the original design of a high-speed, high-altitude fighter/interceptor. This not only meant providing for the usual low-level missions, but also led to the installation of additional avionic equipment in the F-104G version, such as the inertial navigation system, the additional weight of which hampered the flying abilities of the plane even further and was said to add far more distraction to the pilot. In contemporary German magazine articles highlighting the Starfighter safety problems the aircraft was portrayed as “overburdened” with technology, which was considered a latent overstrain on the aircrews.
In 1966 Johannes Steinhoff took over command of the Luftwaffe and grounded the entire Luftwaffe and Bundesmarine F-104 fleet until he was satisfied that problems had been resolved or at least reduced. In later years, the German safety record improved, although a new problem of structural failure of the wings emerged. Original fatigue calculations had not taken into account the high number of g-force loading cycles that the German F-104 fleet was experiencing, and many airframes were returned for depot maintenance where their wings were replaced, while other aircraft were simply retired. Towards the end of Luftwaffe service, some aircraft were modified to carry a flight data recorder or “black box” which could give an indication of the probable cause of an accident. Erich Hartmann, the world’s top-scoring fighter ace, commanded one of Germany’s first (post-war) jet fighter-equipped squadrons and deemed the F-104 to be an unsafe aircraft with poor handling characteristics for aerial combat. In Navy service it lacked the safety margin of a twin engine design like the Blackburn Buccaneer. To the dismay of his superiors, Hartmann judged the fighter unfit for Luftwaffe use even before its introduction.
The causes of a large number of aircraft losses were the same as for any other similar type. They included: bird strikes (particularly to the engine), lightning strikes, pilot spatial disorientation, and mid-air collisions with other aircraft. A particularly notable accident occurred on 19th June 1962 when a formation of four F-104F aircraft, practicing for the type’s introduction-into-service ceremony, crashed together after descending through a cloud bank. Three Germans and one American pilot were killed, and the four aircraft destroyed. This accident was explained as probable spatial disorientation of one of the (trainee) wingmen, and formation aerobatic teams were consequently banned by the Luftwaffe from that day on.
The safety record of the F-104 Starfighter became high-profile news, especially in Germany, in the mid-1960s. The Federal German Republic initially ordered 700 (instead of the French Mirage), and later another 216, a total of 916 aircraft. Deliveries started in early 1962 and before the end of January, the first of no less than 262 German F-104s had crashed. In June 1962 four F-104 crashed on the same day. 116 German pilots died during peacetime between 25 January 1962 and 11 December 1984. Grieving widows sued Lockheed from 1969, and by 1975 more than thirty of them had received 3 million DMs each. Hence the F-104 became known as Witwenmacher (“The Widowmaker”) in West Germany. Some operators lost a large proportion of their aircraft through accidents, although the accident rate varied widely depending on the user and operating conditions; the German Air Force and Federal German Navy lost about 30% of aircraft in accidents over its operating career, and Canada lost 46% of its F-104s (110 of 235). The Spanish Air Force, however, lost none.
The Class A mishap rate (write off) of the F-104 in USAF service was 26.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours as of June 1977, (30.63 through the end of 2007), the highest accident rate of any USAF Century Series fighter. By comparison, the rate of the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger was 14.2/100,000 (13.69 through 2007), and the mishap rate for the North American F-100 Super Sabre was 16.25 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
Notable U.S. Air Force pilots who lost their lives in F-104 accidents include Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., and Captain Iven Kincheloe. Civilian (former USAAF) pilot Joe Walker died in a midair collision with an XB-70 Valkyrie while flying an F-104. Chuck Yeager was nearly killed, in December 1963, when he lost control of an NF-104A during a high-altitude record-breaking attempt. He lost the tips of two fingers and was hospitalized for a long period with severe burns after ejecting from the aircraft.
On 2nd November 1959, an F-104 crashed into a house in suburban Dayton, Ohio, killing two young girls and critically burning their mother; the pilot had ejected to safety a half-mile away from the crash site
The basic armament of the F-104 was the 20 mm (.79 in) M61 Vulcan Gatling-mechanism autocannon. This weapon frequently had shell ejection problems due to linked ammunition resulting in avionic problems and crashes. A linkless ammunition feed system was developed for the upgraded M61A1 installed in the F-104C and later models. The Starfighter was the first aircraft to carry the new weapon, which had a rate of fire of 6,000 rounds per minute. The cannon, mounted in the lower part of the port fuselage, was fed by a 725-round drum behind the pilot’s seat, giving only a continuous 7+ second burst of fire. It was omitted in all the two-seat models and some single-seat versions, including reconnaissance aircraft and the early Italian F-104S; the gun bay and ammunition tank were usually replaced by additional fuel tanks. The gun’s location was advantageous as gun-flash was not in the pilot’s line of sight, therefore not robbing him of night-adjusted vision. Two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles could be carried on the wingtip stations, which could also be used for fuel tanks. The F-104C and later models added a centerline pylon and two underwing pylons for bombs, rocket pods, or fuel tanks. The centerline pylon could carry a nuclear weapon; a “catamaran” launcher for two additional Sidewinders could be fitted under the forward fuselage, although the installation had minimal ground clearance and made the seeker heads of the missiles vulnerable to ground debris. The F-104S models added a pair of fuselage pylons beneath the intakes available for conventional bomb carriage. The F-104S had an additional pylon under each wing, for a total of nine.
The F-104A initially served briefly with the USAF Air Defense Command / Aerospace Defense Command (ADC) as an interceptor, although neither its range nor armament were well-suited for that role. The first unit to become operational with the F-104A was the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron on 20th February 1958, at Hamilton AFB, California. After just three months of service, the unit was grounded after a series of engine-related accidents. The aircraft were then fitted with the J79-3B engine and another three ADC units equipped with the F-104A. The USAF reduced their orders from 722 Starfighters to 155. After only one year of service these aircraft were handed over to ADC-gained units of the Air National Guard, although it should be noted that the F-104 was intended as an interim solution while the ADC waited for delivery of the Convair F-106 Delta Dart.
During the Berlin Crisis of 1961 President John F. Kennedy ordered 148,000 United States National Guard and reserve personnel to active duty on 30th August 1961, in response to Soviet moves to cut off allied access to Berlin. 21,067 individuals were from the Air National Guard (ANG), forming 18 fighter squadrons, four reconnaissance squadrons, six transport squadrons, and a tactical control group. On 1st November 1961, the USAF mobilized three more ANG fighter interceptor squadrons. In late October and early November, eight of the tactical fighter units flew to Europe with their 216 aircraft in “Operation Stair Step”. Because of their short range, 60 F-104As were airlifted to Europe in late November, among them the 151st FIS and 157th FIS. The crisis ended in the summer of 1962 and the personnel returned to the United States.
The subsequent F-104C entered service with USAF Tactical Air Command as a multi-role fighter and fighter-bomber. The 479th Tactical Fighter Wing at George AFB, California, was the first unit to equip with the type in September 1958. Although not an optimum platform for the theater, the F-104 did see limited service in the Vietnam War. Again, in 1967, these TAC aircraft were transferred to the Air National Guard.
Commencing with the Operation Rolling Thunder campaign, the Starfighter was used both in the air-superiority role and in the air support mission; although it saw little aerial combat and scored no air-to-air kills, Starfighters were successful in deterring MiG interceptors. Starfighter squadrons made two deployments to Vietnam, the first being from April 1965 to November 1965, flying 2,937 combat sorties. During that first deployment, two Starfighters were shot down by ground fire. One was shot down by a Shenyang J-6 when the F-104 strayed into Chinese airspace, and two F-104s were lost to a mid-air collision while searching for the missing jet. The 476th Tactical Fighter Squadron deployed to Vietnam from April 1965 to July 1965, losing one Starfighter; and the 436th Tactical Fighter Squadron deployed to Vietnam in July 1965 through October 1965, losing four.
Starfighters returned to Vietnam when the 435th Tactical Fighter Squadron deployed from June 1966 until July 1967, in which time they flew a further 2,269 combat sorties, for a total of 5,206 sorties. Nine more F-104s were lost. The Starfighter units transitioned to F-4 Phantoms in July 1967, having lost a total of 14 F-104s to all causes in Vietnam. F-104s operating in Vietnam were upgraded in service with APR-25/26.
The USAF was less than satisfied with the Starfighter and procured only 296 examples in single-seat and two-seat versions. At the time, USAF doctrine placed little importance on air superiority (the fighter-to-fighter mission), and the Starfighter was deemed inadequate for either the interceptor (meaning fighter-to-bomber) or tactical fighter-bomber role, lacking both payload capability and endurance in comparison with other USAF aircraft. The F-104’s U.S. service was quickly wound down after 1965. The last F-104As in regular USAF service were fitted with more powerful and more reliable J79-GE-19 engines in 1967. The last USAF Starfighters left service in Regular Air Force in 1969, but the aircraft continued in use with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard until 1975 when it was replaced in that organization by the A-7 Corsair II.
The last use of the F-104 Starfighter in U.S. markings was training German pilots for the West German Air Force, with a wing of TF-104Gs and F-104Gs based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Although operated in USAF markings, these aircraft (which included German-built aircraft) were owned by Germany. They continued in use until 1983.
According to both Western and Soviet military analysts, the MiG-21 won the much anticipated air combat between the MiG-21 and the F-104 Starfighter; 4 F-104 Starfighters of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) were shot down by MiG 21FLs of the Indian Air Force (IAF), with zero loss of any MiG-21FLs, in the first direct combat between the two planes which occurred during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The first was lost on December 12th, 1965, when MiG-21FLs of the IAF’s No. 47 Squadron shot down a PAF F-104 over the Gulf of Kutch. The next three F-104s of the PAF were all shot down on December 17th; two by MiG-21FLs of No. 29 Squadron of IAF over Uttarlai, Rajasthan, and the third F-104 was shot down by another MiG 21FL of No.29 Squadron of IAF later the same day.
At dawn on 6th September 1965, Flight Lieutenant Aftab Alam Khan of Pakistan claimed an Indian Dassault Mystère IV over West Pakistan and damaged another, marking the start of aerial combat in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. It is claimed as the first combat kill by any Mach 2 aircraft, and the first missile kill for the Pakistan Air Force. Indian sources dispute this claim. The Starfighter was also instrumental in intercepting an Indian Air Force Folland Gnat on 3rd September 1965. F-104s were vectored to intercept the Gnat flying over Pakistan, returning to its home base. The F-104s, closing in at supersonic speed, caused the Gnat pilot, Squadron Leader Brij Pal Singh, to land at a nearby disused Pakistani airfield and surrender. Indian Air Force disputed PAF’s claim of forced landing and stated that the landing was an error of the pilot, who made an emergency landing thinking it to be an Indian airstrip. The IAF Gnat is now displayed at the PAF Museum, Karachi.
During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, India claimed that it shot down two F-104As. One of the F-104s was shot down over the Gulf of Kutch. It was flown by Wing Commander Mervyn Middlecoat, who safely ejected over shark-infested waters, but was never found. Post war sanctions forced an early retirement of F-104s from PAF due to lack of maintenance support.
On 13th January 1967, four Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-104G aircraft engaged a formation of 8 MiG-19s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the disputed island of Kinmen. Major Hu Shih-lin and Captain Shih Bei-puo each shot down one MiG-19. This marked the first uncontested F-104 combat victory in the world. One F-104 did not return to base and its pilot was listed as MIA.
At the same time that the F-104 was falling out of U.S. favor, the German Air Force was looking for a foreign-designed multi-role combat aircraft to operate in support of a missile defense system. The Starfighter was presented and reworked to convert it from a fair-weather fighter into an all-weather ground-attack, reconnaissance, and interceptor aircraft, as the F-104G. This was chosen over the English Electric Lightning, Grumman F11F Super Tiger, and Northrop N-156. The aircraft found a new market with other NATO countries, and eventually a total of 2,578 of all variants of the F-104 were built in the U.S. and abroad for various nations. Several countries received their aircraft under the U.S.-funded Military Aid Program (MAP). The American engine was retained but built under license in Europe, Canada, and Japan. The Lockheed ejector seats were retained initially but were replaced later in some countries by the safer Martin-Baker zero-zero ejection seat.
The so-called “Deal of the Century” produced substantial income for Lockheed. However, the resulting Lockheed bribery scandals caused considerable political controversy in Europe and Japan. In Germany, the Minister of Defence Franz Josef Strauss was accused of having received at least US$10 million for West Germany’s purchase of the F-104 Starfighter in 1961. Prince-consort Bernhard of the Netherlands was accused of having received more than US$1 million in bribes. He resigned as Inspector-General of the Dutch Armed Forces.
The international service of the F-104 began to wind down in the late 1970s, being replaced in many cases by the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, but it remained in service with some air forces for another two decades. The last operational Starfighters served with the Italian Air Force, which retired them on 31st October 2004.
In 2011, 4Frontiers Corporation and Starfighters Inc (a private F-104 operator) began working together on a project to launch suborbital sounding rocket from F-104s flying out of Kennedy Space Center. First launches were expected to occur in 2012. According to their website the project seems to be stalled.
In early 2016, another venture, CubeCab, was working on a rocket system that would launch CubeSats from F-104s. The company said it planned to begin providing launch services “around 2018”.
Hobbymaster 1/72nd scale F-104 Starfighters available from stock or pre-order at Flying Tigers.
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