Staff Writer (Updated: 10/27/2016):
The F-104 Starfighter came about after discussions Johnson had with United States Air Force pilots and their experiences in the Korean Air War. At the time, the Soviet Union had unveiled their feisty little jet-powered fighter - the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 "Fagot" - while the USAF and its NATO allies had to make do with early and outclassed jet-powered forms until the introduction of the North American F-86 Sabre. Though air superiority eventually found its way back into NATO control, the USAF was still left without a capable and dedicated intercepting platform to combat the new Soviet fighter types effectively. As a result, Johnson set to work in 1952 to design a new aircraft based wholly on performance. This aircraft would mate the smallest (and therefore lightest) airframe to the most technologically advanced and powerful engine available. The resulting creation became the basis for the F-104 Starfighter.
An early proposal netted the liking of the USAF, which introduced several other aircraft firms into an open competition. The Lockheed design won USAF approval and a contract to product two prototypes, no labeled as "XF-104A", was signed in 1953. The first of these two prototypes was made available for its first flight in February of 1954. Despite being designed for the General Electric J79 turbojet engine, availability of the GE powerplant forced these prototypes to fit with a license-production versions of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire engine (as the Wright XJ65-W-6 series) of 10,200lbs thrust until the General Electric J79's were made available to the F-104.
The new jet-powered, post-war design was not without its issues however, and four years of development for the program would follow. At least 17 pre-production YF-104A aircraft were generated for the USAF to fulfill testing roles of the various problematic systems aboard the F-104 and iron out some resolutions before production would commence. By 1958, the first F-104A was made available for deliveries. These systems differed somewhat from their original design in that they sported a longer fuselage and were fitted with their General Electric J79-GE-3 series engines of 14,800lbs of thrust.
Upon its induction into operational service, the Starfighter set about to cement a few "firsts" in its career. The aircraft became the first operational fighter platform capable of sustained flight at speeds past Mach 2 - twice the speed of sound. It eventually went on to become the first aircraft to simultaneously hold the world speed and altitude records in its F-104A and F-104C forms. Major Howard C. Johnson, in his F-104A, broke the altitude record by setting the new bar at 91,243 feet on May 7th, 1958. An F-104 Starfighter followed suit and set the new world air speed record on May 18th, 1958. The aircraft recorded a top speed of 1,404.19 miles per hour. The altitude record was then again bested - this time by an F-104C model - with a new ceiling of 103,389 feet. In this record setting endeavor, the Starfighter also became the first aircraft to break the 100,000 foot barrier under its own power (no rocket-assisted propulsion was needed). In this way, the Starfighter's legacy was enriched with accolades than any fighter would aspire to reach.
Externally, the F-104 Starfighter was really a distinct aircraft design. The platform showcased an aerodynamic streamlined fuselage design that held all of the vital components (weapons, avionics, undercarriage, engine, etc...) in a cramped internal layout. The powerplant made up most of the internal space, as did the fuel, and covered about half of the tubular form. The front end was tapered to a sharp point while the cockpit tub was well-positioned in the forward part of the design, offering up exceedingly good visibility when in flight or taxiing. The canopy consisted of three major components- a framed forward section, a center section opening to portside, and a rearward section. The single engine was fed by two small half-circle intakes along the sides of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. The intake openings were fixed and not variable and were fitted with cones to regulate the turbojet airflow at high speeds. The undercarriage was completely allocated to the fuselage with the two main gears retracting into the fuselage portion near the wing roots and the nose wheel retracting into the fuselage portion under and behind the cockpit.