Lockheed F-104 Starfighter Single-Seat High-Speed Fighter / Interceptor Aircraft
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Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter served a greater role with air forces abroad than it did with the USAF, though its operational service was not without issues.
The Lockheed F-104 was in many ways an engineering marvel whose legacy suffered terribly due to several internal and external circumstances, so much so, in fact, that the aircraft was dubbed the unflattering name of "Widowmaker". Despite its setbacks, the aircraft was a record-setter and found a home with many an air force around the globe. The Starfighter was conceived of by Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, fabled Lockheed engineer at its "Skunk Works" facility. From the outset, the F-104 was designed as a daytime supersonic air superiority fighter.
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.
Perhaps the most distinct element of the Starfighters design lay in the use of its straight, stubby wings that were only 4 inches at its thickest. Sweepback was only utilized on the leading edges and a slight anhedral was present to help combat "Dutch Roll", an aerial phenomenon that forces the aircraft sway or rock from side-to-side. Flaps were fitted to both leading and trailing edges and all internal mechanics had to conform into this confined space - hence the placement of vital and oversized systems in the fuselage. The wings made up a big component of the aircraft's supersonic capabilities and were found with edges so sharp that they presented dangers to the ground crews servicing the aircraft to the point that special protectors had to be issued to these areas.
The empennage completed the design and sported its stabilator towards the top-most edge of the vertical fin. The horizontal surfaces were a smidgeon in size smaller than that of the main wings themselves, forcing engineers to make add anhedral to the main wings. The top-mounted horizontal surfaces also combated inertia coupling, another dangerous aerial phenomena consistent with high-speed flight.
The bread and butter of the Starfighter platform lay in its selection of the General Electric J79 series of axial-flow turbojet engine. It relied solely on the single engine for propulsion and the powerplant was originally designed for sustained Mach 2.0 flight. The engine would end up proving so successful that it would power a quantity of Cold War aircraft including the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, North American A-5 Vigilante and the Convair B-58 Hustler programs including the F-104 itself. The J79 series of turbojet was an evolution of the General Electric J73 series powering the F-86H Sabres. This powerplant, coupled with the lightweight and streamlined shape of the Starfighter's airframe, ensured proper high performance from the get-go. Operational service of this marriage would eventually be the deciding factor as to its success - or failure. Among other additions to the aircraft were a drag chute for lower landing speeds. An arrestor hook was also featured in the event of a landing emergency. Needless to say, this Mach 2-capable aircraft exhibited quite high landing speeds.
In terms of armament, the Starfighter was designed with a single standard option in the form of the M61 Vulcan multi-barrel 20mm cannon. The weapon was located along the lower port-side fuselage near the cockpit and was fed by a 725-round ammunition drum. The weapon became expendable as the decade rolled on to the point that it was deemed unessential. In dedicated variants it was nixed altogether in favor of extra fuel, saving weight or replacing the space with reconnaissance cameras. Two-seat Starfighters seldom carried the weapon system if at all.
Despite the relative thinness and size of the wings, the structures were designed to carry external stores. The wingtip positions could mount a single AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile for interception or fuel tanks for extended range. Later models sported more hardpoint positions, particularly along the fuselage centerline and under the wings. Up to nine hardpoints could be generated for the aircraft, increasing its combat load significantly and branching the aircraft out from its air superiority roots to a more conventional fighter-bomber platform. Other munition types showcased on the Starfighters throughout their operational lives included AIM-7 Sparrow and Selenia Aspide medium-range air-to-air missiles, rocket pods, conventional bombs and even nuclear-tipped weaponry (the latter restricted to placement along the centerline hardpoint).
Despite its association with a high accident rate and high pilot attrition, the Starfighter was designed with an ejection seat. However, as the aircraft was designed to travel at sustained speeds of Mach 2.0 and higher, it was believed that the selected ejection seat would not be allowed the time to clear chair and pilot free of the high-mounted tailplane. As such, early Starfighters were fitted with a downward-firing ejection seat known as the Stanley C-1. As may be expected, though this might have worked in theory, especially at the designed high speeds, this became a lethal issue when the pilot was forced to eject at lower altitudes and at lower speeds. Since combat dictated the need of when and where to eject, the system could not be left to chance. As such, Lockheed developed an upward firing ejection seat known as the C-2 but this new seat came with a minimum speed tied to it, still complicating the action. The entire situation was finally rectified with the inclusion of Martin-Baker ejection seats, particularly in foreign Starfighters. These seats had the capability to forcibly eject seat and pilot clear of the tail fin and had no altitude or speed restrictions tied to its design (hence the term "zero-zero"). Martin-Baker seats would go on to earn the respect of thousands of airmen after saving thousands of lives over the decades.
In terms of performance, the F-104 Starfighter did not disappoint. The definitive F-104G could reach top speeds of 1,328 miles per hour and a ceiling of 50,000 feet. Rate-of-climb was exceedingly exceptional in that the aircraft could hit 48,000 feet per minute. A ferry range of 1,630 miles was reported while a combat radius of 420 miles was possible. Thrust from the General Electric J79-GE-11A series turbojet with afterburning netted 15,600lbs of thrust.
Some 153 F-104A models were eventually produced along with its counterpart 26 F-104B tandem-seat trainers. The USAF Air Defense Command was the first to receive the type through the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron in February of 1958. Of note was that these aircraft did not possess the capability for all-weather attack and were essentially limited from the start in terms of what the USAFADC could do with them. A-models spent a brief time in operational service before being shipped out to Air National Guard units (ANG used their Starfighters up until 1975). Some were shipped to foreign operators overseas who put them to good use in combat. At least 22 A-models were held in reserve and converted for use as radio-controlled drones for testing. Beyond their two-pilot seating arrangement, F-104B trainer models sported larger vertical tail surfaces, no internal gun and less fuel.
Seventy-seven F-104C tactical strike fighter models were produced, these being dedicated fighter-bombers for service with the USAF Tactical Air Command through the 479th Tactical Fighter Squadron in September of 1958. C-models featured an improved fire-control system and hardpoints set to a centerline and two underwing positions. Nuclear capability was officially introduced, expanding the lethality of the aircraft and the reach of USAF firepower. The F-104C also introduced in-flight refueling capability with its induction into service, increasing the operational range of the type somewhat. Like the A-models before them, C-models were quickly transferred to ANG units.
The F-104D was a tandem-seat, dual-control trainer based on the F-104C single-seat models and saw production reach only 21 examples. Likewise, the F-104F was also a two-seat model but based on the F-104D trainers. These Starfighters were fitted with the uprated powerplants of G-models but no radar system, thus making them non-combat ready. The German Luftwaffe produced F-models as interim designs for training purposes and only 30 or so were eventually produced.
As it happened, the F-104G (based on the F-104C series) became the definitive Starfighter model in terms of both numbers and acceptance into service. It was essentially billed as an "improved" Starfighter with all-weather and multi-role capabilities. The aircraft secured its future by the endorsement from NATO and became a stalwart in Europe for decades. Not only did this increase the use of Starfighters globally, it ensured some level of commercial success. In fact, the bribery-laden "Deal of the Century" was struck between Lockheed and the European Starfighter Consortium for quantitative sales of the aircraft to participating NATO nations. License production was handled y MBB, Messerschmitt, FIAT, Fokker and SABCA.
F-104G models featured a reinforced airframe, enlarged vertical tail unit, uprated engines and a revised and improved electronics suite. Design of this model was initially set to German Luftwaffe specifications and first flew in October of 1960. It went on to become the most successful mark in the series. The model was also spawned into the TF-104 trainer and RF-104 reconnaissance platform.
Mitsubishi became a global operator and producer of the Starfighter. This was showcased in their F-104J series mark, a dedicated interceptor /air superiority variant stripped of its strike fighter capability and based on the universal F-104G. Standard armament included the 20mm cannon and up to four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Two Hundred Ten of this model existed with 177 handled by Mitsubishi and 29 produced by Lockheed. Several J-models became UF-104J radio-controlled target drones.
Italy produced the Starfighter under the FIAT label. At least 246 of these were produced as the F-104S and were improved or upgraded in the F-104S-ASA and F-104S-ASA/M marks. Italian Starfighters featured NASARR R-21G/H radar with AIM-7 Sparrow and Selenia Aspide missile compatibility as well as improved stability via ventral fins. The 20mm cannons were dropped from air superiority models in lieu of equipment for the missile systems.
Canadair produced the Starfighter in the CF-104 nuclear strike form while Lockheed handled production of the CF-104D tandem seat dual-control trainers for Canada. Engines were Canadian J79-OEL-7 series.
A highly-modified form of the F-104 was envisioned and mocked up as the CL-1200 Lancer, though this design never materialized.
Production of all forms of F-104 Starfighters ran into 1983. Operational service by Starfighters lasted well into the late 1990's. Italy was one of the last remaining users of the aircraft and sent their Starfighters through a modernization program to increase their longevity. These became an interim design until the arrival of more capable Eurofighter Typhoons. With delays in the Eurofighter program and the last Starfighters retired in 2004, Italy inevitably settled on an interim solution in the solid Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcon. In total, 2,578 Starfighters were procured by various air forces including the USAF. USAF received just 296 Starfighters in the various single and two-seat configurations. In fact, the USAF use accounted for only a third of all production Starfighters with global operators representing a majority of the owners. In USAF service, the F-104 made up just two fighter squadrons.
As a post-war, jet-powered, ground breaking Mach 2 design, the Starfighter's legacy would forever be tied to its high accident rate. Although the equally defining North American F-100 Super Sabre took the cake, the F-104 prone enough to accident that it is always mentioned in discussions of the aircraft. The aircraft proved a handful to fly and several built-in measures had to be introduced to protect the pilot and aircraft alike. Among these was a feature where the flightstick would shake to warn the pilot of insufficient airspeed. The J79 engine also proved temperamental at times and was the cause of many a flame out.
A notable accident concerning the F-104 occurred on June 8th, 1966, when an Starfighter chase plane collided with the North American XB-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber, killing pilot Joe Walker. Famed aviator Chuck Yeager nearly died in an NF-104A during an attempt at a new altitude record. The German Luftwaffe suffered an enormous amount of pilot losses during their tenure with the F-104, losing no less than 110 pilots. Canadian losses were also unacceptable. In many cases, however, accidents were deemed the fault of other things besides the aircraft itself, either through pilot error or outside forces damaging integral Starfighter components. Be that as it may, these accidents would forever be tied to the Starfighter name and legacy and duly reinforce upon itself the nickname of "Widowmaker".
The F-104 Starfighter saw its first combat action for America in the Vietnam War. The aircraft was selected to undergo a variety of sorties. As a fighter, the F-104 scored no kills but the aircraft did serve well in keeping MiG fighters at bay from intercepting "friendlies". Starfighters were deployed in the conflict in 1965 and then again from 1966 through 1967. By the end of their tenure, Starfighters accounted for 5,206 missions while losing just 14 aircraft. Starfighters were eventually replaced in whole by the more capable McDonnell F-4 Phantom II's.
Despite its limited combat forays in the Vietnam War, the Starfighter was showcased in other global foreign entanglements. F-104A's saw combat with Pakistan in the Indo-Pak war of 1965 recording the first reported Mach 2 aircraft kill. By the 1971 conflict, however, the Starfighter was wholly outclassed by Indian MiG-21 "Fishbed" fighters. In 1967, tensions between the island nation of Taiwan and mainland China ratchet up several notches leading to an engagement between four F-104G model fighters and 12 MiG-19 "Farmers". The ensuing action lead both sides to claim one kill.
Despite the learning curve inherent in this ground-breaking design, the F-104 had a lot going for it. Kelly Johnson's vision came together with the creation of this missile-inspired rocket ship. The aptly-named "Starfighter" certainly lived up to its namesake and recorded more than its propensity to test the most hardened pilot. Pilots found the aircraft to be a handful to fly but they by no means regretted the experience. The chance for man to fly sustained at Mach 2 in a Mach 1 world was a chance no pilot worth his weight would have passed up at the time. Where the system seemed to fail, it inevitably excelled in others. Performance was never an issue thanks to keen design philosophies from one of the best minds in aviation engineering and a powerplant that was seemingly born for the role. Despite its many misgivings, the "Widowmaker" was undoubtedly a special kind of aircraft with the last operational unit being displaced as recently as 2004 - encompassing some 50-plus years since its design was first being throttled about in the heads of Lockheed engineers.