The Widow Maker

During the Korean War (1950-1953), Allied pilots had the unpleasant opportunity to face the new Soviet jet fighter, the MIG 15. This new plane was fast, nimble, sturdy, and well-armed. The only thing that prevented the communists to dominate the skies in Korea was another extraordinary fighter, the F-86 Sabre, flown by well-trained American pilots.

The MIG-15 was a wake-up call, and even before the end of the war, most American aircraft companies started the development of a new generation of jet fighters, in an attempt to keep up with the surprisingly advanced Soviet aircraft industry.

Kelly Johnson, talking with USAF pilot Gary Powers, during the trials of the U2 spy plane.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the chief designer of Lockheed Corp., started his research by interviewing Allied pilots coming home from the war. What they wanted for this new airplane was pretty much what every fighter pilot ever wanted: speed, agility, and firepower.

Jonhson was in charge of a very talented team of designers, also called The Skunk Works (the reason for that name might be the subject of another post), the same team responsible for the creation of the legendary P-38 Lightning, one of the most revolutionary fighters of WWII. During the Cold War, they also created the U2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird.

By the 1950s the American aircraft companies were leaning towards multirole jet fighters, consequently, those machines were becoming larger and larger in order to store massive amounts of fuel and ordinance, and also complex radar systems. Johnson and his team chose a different approach for this new fighter, their idea was a simpler and lightweight aircraft, with exceptional performance in speed, altitude, and climbing rate.

The team came up with a simple yet revolutionary design, a long, circular fuselage with a tiny 7-foot wing, sharp as the blade of a knife.  The wings are so small that could hold neither the landing gear nor the fuel tanks.

The prototype’s first flight happened on March 04, 1954, and with the green light from the US Air Force, production began in 1958. Lockheed called it F-104 Starfighter.

It didn’t take long for the USAF to realize the airplane wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. The 2000 km range was too short, even with the addition of two external fuel tanks mounted on the tip of the wings. The payload was also not great, 4000 lbs of bombs under the wings. The fuel tanks could be replaced by two Sidewinder missiles, increasing its offensive capabilities, but hurting the plane’s range.

The highlight of the Starfighter was its performance. Powered by a single General Electric J79 turbojet engine, producing a max thrust of 14800 lbs, the F-104 was the first production aircraft to sustain speeds above MACH 2 and an operational ceiling above 60,000 ft. Lockheed promised a fast fighter and they delivered.

The first version of the GE engine proved unreliable and underpowered. Kelly’s team was sure the F-104 could do better if equipped with the right engine. GE developed a larger J79 turbojet, able to generate 18000 lbs of thrust during afterburning, considerably improving the plane’s already superb performance.

The F-104 was also the first USAF equipped with the legendary 20mm Vulcan M61 Gatling cannon, giving the plane some serious punch, even if it carries enough ammunition for only 7 secs of continuous firing.

The unforgiving machine

The design of the F-104 is the result of thousands of hours of research and development by Lockheed. Those small, thin wings, mounted further towards the rear of the plane are a key element for its stability at high speed and also a smooth operation at low altitude. But the team compromised so much to get it done.

The diminutive wings are the culprit for the plane’s large turn radius, which can be very awkward (to say the least) during dog fights. The wing’s reduced lift is also the cause of another unwanted characteristic, the dangerously high landing speed.

The Starfighter also has a vicious pitch-up behavior: once it reaches an angle of attack of 15 degrees, the aircraft pushes itself to quickly increase the angle to 60 degrees following lateral and directional oscillation. The production version was equipped with an electromechanical device able to warn the pilot and even correct the airplane from dangerous angles of attack. But fighter pilots are a very proud bunch indeed, they don’t appreciate an airplane that corrects itself, and most of the F-104 drivers just turned off the device during their missions.

Since Lockheed tried to keep the fighter as light as possible a more complex avionics system was avoided, making the first versions of the Starfighter a plane for optimum weather operations.

The pilots soon realized that the F-104 was an unforgiving machine and the United States Air Force pushed it to more secondary roles. But the Starfighter’s few qualities would make the plane fit for a role that it wasn’t meant for.

Nuclear bomber

A Luftwaffe F-104 armed with the  B61 Silver Bullet atomic bomb. 

The first generation of western nuclear strike bombers was designed to fly as high and as fast as possible. Pilots and engineers alike concluded that was the best approach to avoid the Soviet fighters and the anti-aircraft missiles, but on May 01, 1960, a U2 American spy plane was shot down while flying a photo-reconnaissance mission deep inside Soviet territory. The aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile while flying at 70,000 ft. This tragic event showed that the high-altitude nuclear bombers were no longer safe during a possible mission over Soviet territory.

The Western air forces drastically changed the tactics of aerial nuclear strikes. They thought a small and very fast aircraft,  flying at low altitudes would have a good chance to fool the Soviet radar system. The Starfighter’s characteristics of high speed and smooth flying behavior at low altitude made it a pretty good candidate for the role. Those qualities would also become a strong selling point later on.

The Vietnam War

A pilot poses for a picture in his F-104. Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965.

The F-104’s baptism of fire occurred during the Vietnam War (1964-1972) when the USAF employed almost every single aircraft in its arsenal. The Starfighter flew more than 4,000 combat missions, mostly as an escort for the EC-121 Constellation Airborne Early Warning System, operating off the Coast of North Vietnam.

The Deal of the Century.

By the early-1960s, many NATO allied nations were in dire need to replace their aging first-generation jet fighters and Lockheed saw it as a wonderful opportunity to dump the production of the Starfighter. The F-104 was the chosen fighter to equip many air forces around the globe in what was called the deal of the century.

In total, the Starfighter was either sold to or produced under license in 14 different countries. The biggest customer was West Germany, between 1962 and the mid-1970s, the Luftwaffe (German air force) and Marineflieger (German navy) purchased 916 units.

What the Germans needed was a multirole, all-weather fighter, and Lockheed had to adapt the F-104 as best as they could. Two extra fuel tanks were added under the wings and much more complex avionics as well, making the plane 2000 pounds heavier. The company called this version, F-104G (G for Germany). You don’t need to be an engineer to figure out that the extra weight made the flying dynamics of the F-104 even more challenging for the pilots. Some top brass in the Luftwaffe deemed the Starfighter unfit for the job long before the first units were delivered but their complaints fell on deaf ears.

The deal between the Americans and the Germans is covered in shady schemes and politics. There are pieces of evidence that Lockheed even bribed some German officials to keep them quiet. The same methods were applied during the selling of the Starfighter to other countries as well.

The F-104G proved to be a deadly challenge for the pilots, during the first four years of operations, the Luftwaffe crashed 61 Starfighters and 31 pilots lost their lives.

Gen. Wernher Panitzki, the Luftwaffe Commander at the time, was one of the most vociferous opponents of the F-104. He was forced to resign when he said that the deal was politically motivated. His successor, the World War II ace, Lt. Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, immediately grounded all the F-104Gs, until new ejection seats were installed.

The fighter became known among the pilots and ground crew as “The Widow Maker”. The Germans in collaboration with Lockheed tried very hard to minimize the fighter’s problems, but even though the horrible rate of crashes continued. Around 15 Starfighters crashed every year between 1968 and 1980 when it was finally replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In the end, 292 of the 916 F-104G were destroyed, and 115 pilots died in the accidents.

Canada

Canada was another important NATO country that chose to equip its fighter squadrons with the F-104, but instead of purchasing the plane, they decided to produce it under license.

  A total of 200 single-seat aircraft were built by Canadair (now Bombardier) in Montreal. Another 38 dual-seat aircraft were built by Lockheed Aircraft in Palmdale, California. The Canadians renamed the fighter CF-104. Canadair also built spare parts for the German Starfighters.

This CF-104 Starfighter served with No. 439 Sabre Tooth Squadron in Europe. The distinctive yellow and black stripes recreate the squadron’s entry at NATO “Tiger Meet”. Many countries took part in this competition, represented by squadrons that had the Tiger as their emblem. The aircraft now belongs to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Mount Hope, Ontario.

The Starfighter entered service in the Royal Canadian Air Force in March 1962, primarily as a supersonic interceptor, but also used for low-level strike and reconnaissance. The CF-104 played an important role in Canada’s commitment to supporting NATO operations in Europe from 1967 to 1971. The airplane was also retrofitted to carry nuclear weapons.

In 24 years of service in the RCAF, 37 pilots lost their lives while flying the Starfighter, involved in 113 crashes. According to official documents, only four fatal accidents were due to aircraft system failures.

Italy

An Italian pilot is just about the leave her F-104 after a celebratory last mission, in 2003.

The last country to retire the Starfighter was Italy, the Aeronautica Militare operated the F-104 for 40 years until it was replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon, in 2004. Just like Canada, the Italians built their own Starfighter. In 1969, Aeritalia began producing the F-104S, also known as the Super Starfighter, the most battle capable of all the variants. A total of 214 F-104S left the Aeritalia assembly line, most of them for the Italian air force and some for the Turks.

The Italians know how to throw a party, and the Aeronautica Militare organized quite a few events to celebrate the retirement of their old warrior.

The F-104 in the picture above was painted in bright Ducatti red and received the #999 to participate in a very interesting drag race, against (you guessed it), a Ducati 999.  The same bike that won the 2004 Superbike World Championship.

The race consisted of two passes, first a 400 meters match and then a 1000 meters. To make things fair for the jet fighter the vehicles launched in a rolling start. At first, the duel seemed unfair but it proved to be well balanced, the Ducatti won the 400 meters race and the Starfighter scored the 1 km match.

The prancing horse painted on the plane’s rudder is the emblem of the ITAF 9° Stormo (the equivalent of 9th Fighter Wing), in southern Italy. Does it look familiar? You bet. There is a strong connection between the Ferrari logo and Italian military aviation. *

Conclusion

There are a handful of surviving Starfighters flying in the hands of civilians. You can go for a ride in one of them if you have deep pockets and the courage for it. If you are a licensed pilot you can enroll in training to become an F-104 pilot.

“If it looks good, it flies good”, this is a well know aviation adage, and more often than not, it holds true, but certainly the Starfighter is an exception. The F-104’s sleek, futuristic design is nothing short of gorgeous, but the plane lacks some essential qualities to be considered a good fighter.

But if the F-104 is that bad, why did so many countries choose it? Besides the USA, West Germany, Canada, and Italy, another 10 air forces adopted it as their main fighter. They are: Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and Pakistan.

A Pakistani Starfighter, during a patrol mission.

Some sources forget that the F-104 was sold to the Pakistani air force. It played such an important role during the India-Pakistan war in 1965 and 1971. Flight Lieutenant Aftab Alam Kham is credited to achieve one of the first Starfighter victories in combat when he shot down an Indian Dassault Mystere on September 06, 1965.

Awwww… The Italians are so emotional.

The pilots who flew the Starfighter had mixed feelings about it, they either love or hate the machine. The F-104 was a huge sales success but we will never know about all the shady methods used by Lockheed and the US Government to push those sales.

Besides all the controversies, the F-104 is one of the most emblematic jet fighters from the Cold War era. Lockheed called it: “A missile with a man in it“, and when you see one up close, you will definitely agree with the nickname.

A final thought

I wanted to close this post with a video, showing the F-104 in action. During my search, I came across a short video that shows a scene from the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, and I think it is perfect, but since it involves one of my favorite movies of all time and one of my childhood heroes, I need to put this video in context.

Among all the different versions of the Starfighter, perhaps the most mind-blowing one is the NF-104. This plane is nothing more than a regular F-104 retrofitted with a rocket engine, installed right above the exhaust of the main turbojet engine. This extra power was meant to take the aircraft up to 140000 feet high, in other words, up to the edge of the stratosphere. Up there the air is so thin that the aerodynamic controls are useless, instead, the pilot should “control” the beast using hydrogen peroxide nozzles installed on the tips of the wings and the nose cone. Well, if the 104 was complicated to fly under normal circumstances, let alone flying it at the border of space, so why the big guys came up with this idea? The NF-104 was created as an affordable platform for astronaut training. Getting the plane ready wasn’t much of a challenge, but finding a pilot to take it for a spin would be a different story. One guy jumped at the opportunity to ride the little monster for the first time, this guy was Chuck Yeager (pictured above), the same pilot who, in 1947 broke the speed of the sound the first time. Yeager flew the NF three times, around 100,000 feet and the missions were smooth sailing, everything was fine. On December 10, 1963, he went to break the record and pushed the aircraft above 108,000 feet, but at this time, things got out of hand, and he lost control of the plane. Miraculously he bailed out and survived the accident. The whole misadventure is depicted in detail in the book The Right Stuff and, of course, the film of the same name. I highly recommend both.

The scene was shot using a regular F-104, but that is OK, you will get the idea.

What makes a man get inside an analog machine with tiny wings and an insane amount of power and fly it to the edge of space? It is the fundamental quest to go over the limits? What those guys did back then, at the beginning of the space program in the early 1960s can be considered the pinnacle of human audacity.

* Note of the editor: -Here is the origin of the Ferrari’s logo, told by Enzo himself, The horse was painted on the fuselage of the aircraft of Francesco Baracca –  a heroic Italian WWI fighter pilot. “In 1923 I met count Enrico Baracca, the hero’s father, and then his mother, countess Paulina, who said to me one day, ‘Ferrari, put my son’s prancing horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck. The horse was and still is, black, and I added the canary yellow background which is the color of Modena.  (Enzo Ferrari’s birthplace).

Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

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