Doctor of Teleocity
Ad Free Member
- Dec 2, 2003
- The Netherlands
It was in Februari 1956 that this sleek, Looking-fast-even-when-standing-still-on-the-tarmac jet first took to the air. Yet another brainchild of Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his Lockheed "Skunk works" which turned out to be their most controversial and at the same time it's most enduring.
The F-104 was developed, as legend says, when Johnson was asking USAF pilots who flew in Korea what kind of fighter the USAF really needed and that so far they hadn't gotten yet. Most of the pilots fought against the MiG-15 which had been a nasty surprise to the USAF, which were caught with their pants down. As a result of their combat against the Soviet fighter, the most recurring comments Johnson got from them were:
- It has to be light
- It has to be simple, the more basic, the better, planes like the F-86 Sabre and the F-84 Thunderjet were deemed "Too complex"
- It has to be super sonic, get to the SOB before he has any chance to react
Johnson submitted the design for approval in 1953 and got it approved later that year and with that the L-246, or as the world would come to know it the F-104 Starfighter, was born.
In 1954 the first XF-104 prototype took to the air but seeing as how much it differed from what the production version would be, I decided to name the date of the pre-production YF-104 version as being the true first flight of the F-104.
Because the YF-104 got the General Electric J-79 engine that wasn't ready yet when the XF-104 took to the skies. Fitting that engine meant a complete redesign of the fuselage, if you compare the XF-104 and the YF-104, one can clearly see that the latter has different air intakes and an elongated fuselage, the result was that the YF-104 was a completely different plane from the XF-104. In 1958 the F-104 A starfighter entered USAF service.
This picture shows yet another feature that the original XF-104 didn't have, the underbelly ventral fin which added stability.
The "Missile with a man in it" quickly made a name for itself for being a record breaker, setting times world speed records soon after it entered service. But it also made a name for itself for being a home breaker when the not very nimble "too-fast-for-its-own-good" interceptor suffered catastrophic accidents. As a result the USAF cut it's original order for 722 to just 155.
This picture, taken only minutes before the most notorious crash involving a starfighter, shows a special publicity formation of from left to right a Northrop T-38 Talon trainer, a McDonnel F-4 Phantom II a North American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, an F-104 and a Northrop F-5 Tiger. After this picture was taken, the planes were ordered to fly in a V-formation, when disaster struck.
This picture shows to good effect just how close the planes were flying in proximity of each other, seconds after this picture was taken, the F-104 got caught in the jetstream created by the Bomber's massive wing, upsetting the ballance of the jet which then began to cartwheel and struck the bomber, making both planes crash.
Apart from crashes, the main problem with its interceptor role was the fact that the thirsty J-79 engine limited the F-04's range and that the armament of a Vulcan cannon and Sidewinder missiles was not sufficient for what the USAF needed and within a year the F-104 was being replaced by the Convair F-106 Delta Dart.
The only combat the F-104 saw while in USAF service, was in Vietnam where the much improved F-104C was used as air superiority fighter. The F-104C had extra fuel tanks and refueling tube to increase its range. As a deterrent they worked accordingly, many North Vietnam pilot avoided the starfighter, although as one Chinese MiG-19 pilot proved, the F-104 was a paper tiger, it simple wasn't nimble enough to dodge an attack.
Other early users of the F-104 were Pakistan and Taiwan and in the India-Pakistan war, the F-104 was facing the MiG 21 Fishbed and came out the worse of the two.
So all in all, the F-104 was a dud, reduced to a mere footnote.
Well not really, in the early sixties the West German Luftwaffe was looking for a multirole fighter to replace their aging fleet of Canadair-made F-86 Sabres and Hawker Seahawk jets of their maritime air arm. And after reviewing among others the Dassault Mirage III and the English-Electric Lighting ended up choosing the F-104, which strangely was not even designed to be a multirole fighter. Other NATO air forces following suit.
Disclaimer: we're not supposed to talk politics but there were some underhand tactics used to seal that deal here and I'll leave it at that.
Anyway. With an order for 916 aircraft for the NATO air forces in Europe, Lockheed brought forth the most built version of the Starfighter, the F-104G, "G" standing for Germany.
The G model differs visually from the earlier models by it having a longer tail to improve agility, but it also had revised avionics, strengthened wings and an arrester hook (Just visible behind the ventral fin) so it could be operated from air bases with short runways.
In addition to Lockheed, the F-104G was being built by Fokker (Netherlands), Sacba (Belgium), Messerschmitt (Germany), Kawasaki (Japan), Canadair and Fiat (Italy) In fact despite Lockheed being prime manufacturer, only 139 F-104G's were made there, the rest being build by the licence builders.
A formation flight during a shared NATO gathering the planes are a Republic F-105 Thunderchief of the USAF, a Gloster Javelin of the RAF, a Mirage III of the French Armee De l'air and the starfighters are German, Belgian, Dutch and Canadian.
So with a hot seller on their hands all was well, right?
Well not really, you can polish a turd...
In Germany it earned several less charitable names due to its high accident rate, a common name being Fliegender Sarg ("Flying Coffin"). It was also called Witwenmacher ("Widowmaker"), or Erdnagel ("ground nail") – the official military term for a tent peg (OUCH!) in the Canadian Forces, the aircraft were sometimes referred to, in jest, as the Lawn Dart, the Aluminium Death Tube, and the Flying Phallus.
The thing was that Lockheed marketed the Starfighter as a multirole fighter which it was NOT, so it was used in roles it was never designed for and the planes themselves couldn't cope with what was demanded from them. Still it soldiered on until well into the nineties despite itself before the last European Starfighter was phased out.
So was the Starfighter just a colossal failure or did it have some redeeming qualities?
Why yes, it wasn't all bad news. The F-104 for years had been used to train astronauts at NASA since it was the only "conventional" plane which could ape the flight characteristics of space crafts like the X-15 and the Space Shuttle.
It also was used as a chase plane for missile tests, since its speed made it perfectly capable to keep up with a launched projectile.
And it it weren't for the F-104, we wouldn't have had THIS.
Because to save from development costs, the boffins at Lockheed used the Starfighter fuselage to base the U2 on.
A few years ago a converted Starfighter was used in an attempt to break the world land speed record.
These days there's an organization called "Starfighters inc." who fly a fleet of 11 aircraft for demonstrations, based on hot-rod culture.
In addition, private ventures like 4Frontiers Corporation and CubeCab were working on launching sattelites into space using Starfighters modified for that job.
No we haven't seen the last of the "Missile with a man in it" 60 years after it first took to the skies.