In 1952, "Kelly" Johnson, the chief engineer of Lockheed, began to design a supersonic fighter superior to the MiG-15 and the MiG-17. He intended the aircraft to be small, single engined, economical, and maneuverable, although he designed the top speed to be around Mach 2.2. The short, stubby straight wings (which gave the aircraft the name of a "missile with a man in it") were so sharp that a covering had to be placed over them on the ground. A downward-firing ejection seat was fitted in the cockpit because a conventional one (firing upwards) might have hit the high tail.
The XF-104 made its maiden flight on March 4, 1954 with a less powerful Wright J65 engine (it was designed to use the prototype General Electric J79 engine). There were so many testing accidents that the aircraft wasn't cleared for production until July 1958.
The F-104As were delivered to the Air Defense Command of the Air Force to be used as interceptors. Although the jets set numerous speed and height records, the interceptors were transferred to the Air National Guard.
The Air Force purchased the next version, the F-104C, for the Tactical Air Command. In 1965, they too went to the Air National Guard.
While not prominent in the Vietnam War, F-104s did serve there as fighter-bombers and escorts. They turned out to be fairly effective strike aircraft, but saw little air combat. Some were downed by SAMs and anti-aircraft fire, and one was shot down in 1965 by Chinese MiG-19s after the pilot got lost and wandered into Chinese airspace over Hainan. The pilot, Captain Phil Smith, ejected, was captured, and held prisoner until 1973. All USAF Starfighters were withdrawn from southeast Asia by mid-1967.
Although the USAF had lost interest in the F-104, a group of NATO countries led by Germany selected the aircraft as the fighter to replace the aging Gloster Meteors, F-86 Sabres, and F-80 Shooting Stars, and Lockheed launched the F-104G Super Starfighter (G for Germany) program.
The NATO pilots found the aircraft hard to handle, but as pilots grew more experienced, losses of aircraft in accidents came down.
The F-104S was a special version built for Italy and Turkey, and the most developed one, with the ability to carry AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles (thus the S).
Lockheed tried to get the IFA contract with the F-104, but the Northrop F-5 got it.
The Pakistan Air Force flew the Starfighter in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War. At the time, it was Pakistan’s most modern fighter, and F-104 pilots claimed a number of Indian planes downed, including a Canberra bomber and at least three Mystere fighters. One Starfighter was lost in aerial combat.
|Type||Single seat fighter|
|Power plant||One General Electric J79 with 10,000 pounds of thrust|
|Length||54 feet, 9 inches|
|Height||13 feet, 6 inches|
|Speed||1,300 miles per hour|
|Wingspan||21 feet, 11 inches|
|Empty weight||14,082 pounds|
|Unrefueled range||690 miles|
|Maximum Weight||27,779 pounds|
|Armament||One General Electric M61 six-barrel 20-mm cannon, two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 4000 pounds of external stores|
F-104 in Media
Like its later generation cousins, the F-14 and F-16, the F-104 had a good movie career. The Starfighters, a movie about an F-104 pilot, was filmed at George Air Force Base in California and released in 1964.
The F-104 will also be familiar to fans of Star Trek. Stock footage of the plane was used in the first-season episode, Tomorrow is Yesterday.
- F-104 at FAS.org
- Picture of F-104Cs heading north
- F-104 in USAF service
- Encyclopedia of Modern Military Aircraft, ed. by Paul Eden, Amber Books, 2006
- Taiwanese Air-to-Air Victories