Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

Posted on Thursday 19th April 2012



The F-104 originated in May 1952 when Lockheed were offered a contract for the construction of prototypes of a Wright J67-powered, 16-ton interceptor, but the company, whose Advanced Design Group was already working in secret on a much simpler and considerably lighter proposal (the CL-246), declined. In 1951 Hall Hibbard, Lockheed’s chief engineer, and Clarence L. ‘Kelly’ Johnson, assistant chief engineer and chief designer, were determined to create a successful lightweight, uncomplicated jet-fighter design, especially since American fighter pilots in Korea had told Johnson this was what they required. Both men had worked on the P-80, which had been contracted by the USAAF in June 1943 and was completed in just 143 days. After returning from Korea (following a trip in 1951 to see how his F-80 performed), in November 1952 Johnson (named chief engineer at Burbank that same year) began to design a dedicated air superiority fighter, even though at this time, the USAF had no requirement for such an aircraft. Design was carried out at the famous Advanced Development Projects Section or the Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ as it was known.
On 26 January 1958 the first batch of F-104As was delivered to Air Defense Command, to the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS) at Hamilton AFB, California, which became operational on 20 February. Early in 1958 the 83rd FIS also became the first unit to receive the F-104B two-seat trainer version of the Starfighter. However, just three months after going into service the squadron’s F-104As were grounded after a succession of accidents caused by compressor stall and flameout of the J79 turbojet engine. The F-104As remained grounded for three months while a new GE-3B engine was installed. During 1958 three other ADC units were equipped with F-104As and F-104Bs. In April the 337th FIS (Fighter Interceptor Squadron) at Westover AFB received its Starfighters and in June, the 538th FIS at Larson AFB, Washington, was also so equipped. In July the 56th FIS at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, became the fourth and final Starfighter squadron in ADC. In October 1958, in Operation Jonah Able, twelve F-104As of the 83rd FIS were disassembled, crated and airlifted by USAF Douglas C-124 Globemasters, on temporary deployment to Kungkwan Air Base in Taiwan. (Although a few F-104As had been fitted with an experimental air-refuelling probe, none of the production batch was fitted with the device.) They were needed to augment the forces of General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China’s air defence during the Quemoy/Matsu Crisis with the People’s Republic of China.
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CF104D Starfighter (N104RB) Civilian display team. Ex-Royal Canadian Air Force.
The F-104A had the speed and the altitude to deter an aggressor, but the anticipated early availability of more flexible supersonic fighters and the lack of an all-weather radar capability led to a review of the entire F-104 programme. (Lockheed had tried, unsuccessfully, to install the radar sight system in the needle nose and it had proved totally inadequate in range and power – on a good day it had a radar sight range of between five to ten miles.The type of radar required for a supersonic interceptor capable of Mach 2 ,if it was to be effective, was too big and heavy for the F-104.) Deliveries of the Starfighter to Air Defense Command (later Aerospace Defense Command) continued until December 1958 when the final eight F-104As of the 153 built were delivered. That same month the USAF reduced its Starfighter procurement from a total of 722, to just 296 and they were soon phased out to make way for all-weather fighters. Only 153 F-104As were built and just 26 F-104B trainer versions, the first flying on 7 February 1957. Lockheed ultimately produced just 277 F-104A/B/C/Ds for the USAF. (F-104C/Ds were accepted by Tactical Air Command during 1958–1959). F-104As and -Bs equipped the 83rd, 56th and 337th Interceptor Squadrons for less than a year before they were handed over to the 151st, 157th and 197th Squadrons of the Air National Guard (ANG), although later some F-104As, powered by the GE-19 engine, returned to first-line service. Twenty-four F-lC4As were converted to QF-104 target drones, while three were modified to NF-104A models.
During 1960 the F-104As and F-104Bs were phased out of ADC and beginning in February 1960 were transferred to three fighter interceptor squadrons in the ANG. The first was the 157th FIS, South Carolina ANG, at Congaree Air Base. Preparation for the mobilization of ANG flying squadrons was still underway when on 13 August 1961, the Soviets and East Germans began erecting the Berlin Wall. On 1 November all three ANG F-104A fighter interceptor squadrons were activated for deployment to Europe. As their range was insufficient for the Atlantic crossing, the Starfighters were ferried in C-124 Globemasters of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) in Operation Brass Wing. The 157th FIS remained at its home base in South Carolina for the first three weeks of November before relocating to Morôn Air Base in Spain on the 24th. The 151st and 197th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons were based at Ramstein Air Base, West Germany. The 151st assumed alert duty at Ramstein on 19 December.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted on 22 October 1962 the ANG F-104s were returned to duty with Aerospace Defense Command. They equipped the 319th FIS at Homestead AFB, Florida, and the 331st FIS at Webb AFB, Texas, replacing the F-106A and the Convair F-102A respectively. The 151st FIS ANG relinquished its F-104As in March 1963 when it converted to the F/TF-102A. The 157th FIS ANG gave up its Starfighters in June 1963 when it re-equipped with the F-102 also. In May 1965 the 331st FIS deployed to Puerto Rico during the Dominican Republic Crisis. All remaining F-104A/Bs were finally phased out of US service when the 319th FIS was deactivated in December 1969. All remaining F-104A/Bs that were serviceable were delivered to Taiwan and to Jordan while all non-serviceable aircraft went into storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona.
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F-104S ASA-M Starfighter (MM6873) 9 Gruppo, 4 Stormo. Aeronautica Militare Italiana.

Action in Vietnam
In April 1965 twenty-five F-104Cs of the 436th TFS, 479th TFW, were dispatched to Da Nang AB, South Vietnam to fly MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP) missions. Detachments were also sent to Kung Kuan, Taiwan. To protect strike aircraft from the MiGs of the NVNAF, the F-104Cs were armed with their single M61A1 20mm Vulcan cannon and four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. On the night of 20 September 1965, Major Philip E. Smith tried to relieve another F-104C pilot who had been flying a MiGCAP on station over the Gulf of Tonkin in bad weather. Smith’s navigation system failed and he was forced to seek lower altitude in an effort to establish his position. Instead, two People’s Republic of China F-6 (MiG-19) fighters intercepted Smith. One of these, piloted by Gao Xiang, destroyed the Starfighter at low altitude over Hainan Island with cannon fire. Meanwhile, two other F-104Cs, who were flying RESCAP (Rescue Combat Air Patrol) this night, had tried unsuccessfully for two hours to find Major Smith. Returning to Da Nang, they had a mid-air collision and both pilots were killed. Smith, meanwhile, had ejected safely but had been captured and taken prisoner. Smith, who was the only F-104 pilot in South East Asia to be shot down and captured, was held in China until his release in 1973. A week after the loss of the three F-104Cs, a fourth Starfighter was lost in Vietnam when it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. F-104Cs (and Northrop F-5As) did not possess the range and carried too few weapons for the MiGCAP mission and the McDonnell F-4C Phantom II soon assumed this role. In November 1965 the remaining F-104Cs of the 436th TFS were rotated back to George AFB, California. In Vietnam the Starfighter had flown some 506 combat sorties, totalling 1,706.9 combat hours,with the loss of four F-104Cs.
Beginning in May 1966 the first F-104Cs of the 479th TFW were sent to South East Asia, to be based at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) in Thailand where they came under the control of the 8th TFW. This time the F-104Cs, which by now were camouflaged, flew low-level, close-support strikes against North Vietnamese lines of communication. By June 1967 all four squadrons were in action but the Starfighter’s short range, even with in-flight refuelling, was insufficient for the majority of missions in South East Asia, and in July the 479th TFW was rotated back to George AFB for the last time. They were replaced in South East Asia by the F-4D Phantom. In thirteen months the F-104Cs had flown a total of 2,269 combat sorties, totalling 8,820 combat hours. Losses now totalled eight Starfighters missing in action (two to Soviet-built SA-2 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and six to AAA) and another six were destroyed in operational accidents. In the summer of 1967 the surviving F-104C/Ds in the USAF inventory were transferred to the 198th TFS of the Puerto Rico ANG where they replaced the F-86H Sabre.
David L. Bashow, a very experienced Canadian CF-104 pilot, recalls the experience of flying the F-104:
It was the most beautiful aircraft to ever grace the skies. The durable love affair started in the early 1960s when I first saw this striking machine with its pencil-thin fuselage and tiny canard-like wings and was consummated in 1972 when I first flew the jet. It endures to this day, nearly 2,400 flight hours later. The Americans and Germans liked to call the F-104 the ‘Zipper’or the ‘Zip’. We would occasionally refer to it in jest as ‘the aluminium death tube’, or ‘the Flying Phallus’, but more often than not, we would just call it ‘the 104’ or by its given name, ‘the Starfighter’. Somehow it seemed so appropriate – an elegant name for an elegant aircraft. I never heard anyone in the pilot community call it ‘the missile with the man in it’. That was pure press hype. Perhaps more to the point, I never heard a pilot call it ‘the widow maker’and I don’t know a self-respecting 104 pilot who would. This is because none of us who flew her blamed her for the relatively high accident rate incurred during 104 operations, especially during the early transition days. For the most part, the demanding role of the 104 garnered a reputation over time as a ‘killer’ aircraft. In fact, it was an extremely honest aircraft and as long as it was flown within the boundaries of its flight envelope and was treated with respect, it was utterly dependable. The Canadian accident rate is comparable to that of the other NATO members who operated the 104. Although 113 of the 238 CF-104s produced were destroyed in accidents during its Canadian service, it must be remembered that this record represents 25 years of continuous service in a very demanding environment. Thirty-seven Canadian pilots forfeited their lives on CF-104 operations. Needless to say, this record says a great deal for the escape system of the aircraft and there were a great many successful ejections, even in marginal conditions. The biggest accident cause factor was the role to which the jet was exposed – the high-speed, low-level arena where opportunities to err are legion.
Since the jet was only equipped with one engine, if you lost that engine at low altitude, you were in a world of hurt... It wasn’t a devious airplane. It just demanded respect and punishment for a major transgression was often swift and fatal. By and large, 104s did not kill pilots. Pilots killed pilots and 104s. In the spring of 1986, the Canadian Armed Forces retired the Starfighter from its inventory. One thing was certain; many genuine tears were shed into many a beer when the old gal’s wheels were chocked and her big turbine wound down for the last time.
Thanks for the memories, Kelly Johnson.

No other aircraft in the history of aviation has engendered more controversy or such notoriety and suffered such a high a loss rate over a short period as the Starfighter. The Starfighter was once described as ‘a delight to fly, but one mistake and it will kill you’. It is one of the world’s fastest fighters with a top speed of Mach 2.2 and a service ceiling of 58,000 feet. First delivered to the USAF in 1958 it was also sold to the German, Greek, Italian, Turkish and Italian Air Forces.
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TF-104G-M Starfighter (MM54253) 20 Gruppo. Aeronautica Militare Italiana.

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F-104A/G Starfighter (N820NA) NASA.

History of the F-104 Starfighter.

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F-104A/G Starfighter
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F-104G Starfighter
'Since the jet was only equipped with one engine, if you lost that engine at low altitude, you were in a world of hurt... It wasn’t a devious airplane. It just demanded respect and punishment for a major transgression was often swift and fatal.
(David L Bashow, Canadian CF-104 pilot)

Further Reading


Profiles of Flight - Lockheed F-104 starfighter
(Hardback - 88 pages)
ISBN: 9781848844490

Only £19.99

The Starfighter was once described as 'a delight to fly, but one mistake and it will kill you'. It is one of the world's fastest fighters with a top speed of Mach 2.2 and a service ceiling of 58,000 feet. First delivered to the USAF in 1958 it was also sold to the German, Greek, Italian, Turkish and Italian Air Forces. It could carry a variety of air to air and air to surface missiles and was powered by a single General Electric J79 turbojet that developed 17,900 lb of…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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