The Starfighter began its life as a high-speed high-altitude interceptor and ended it as a ground attack aircraft. It was the first Air Force jet to hold simultaneous speed and altitude records.
The Korean War experience prompted the Air Force to develop aircraft that placed a premium on high-speed performance, even at the expense of range and maneuverability. In 1952 a Lockheed design team headed by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson conceived an aircraft that was literally a “missile with a man in it.” The prototype XF104 emerged two years later as a relatively lengthy jet fighter with a seemingly impossibly small wingspan and a high tail. The pilot flew from a cockpit that was placed well forward and gave him excellent all-around vision. The pilot would need it, as the F104 proved itself a very “hot” and unforgiving aircraft. Curiously, the plane was equipped with a downward-firing ejection seat. It was first deployed in 1958 as the F104A Starfighter and went on to simultaneously set several speed and altitude records. However, F104s never overcame range limitations and were never popular with pilots. After 1960 it was slowly transferred to Air National Guard units and replaced by more flexible aircraft. Some 300 were built and operated before being retired in 1975.
First USAF fighter to fly above Mach 2, the F-104 Starfighter made its appearance in the 1950s when it was decided to replace the still airworthy F-100 Super Sabre with a fighter which could be used mainly as an interceptor. Planning started in 1952 and the first of two prototypes took to the air on March 4, 1954. Seven months later came the initial order for 153 machines of the F- 104A series, followed by 26 two-seater F-104B trainers. Despite its exceptional qualities, however, the USAF considered it unsuitable for interception alone, and with the C version (77 machines, first delivery October 16, 1958), the F-104 was transformed into a fighter-bomber. This aircraft had a brief operational life in Vietnam. However, the Starfighter’s fortunes were lifted by production of the next G version for the NATO allies. From 1960 to 1973 some 1,127 of this variant were produced under license in Canada, Japan, Belgium, Italy, West Germany and Holland. Italy, too, built 245 of the final F-104S version.
Almost all the F-104s in the fighter-bomber version, assigned the letter C, were used in Vietnam, for 21 months, during which time they performed important, far-ranging work. The first fifteen Starfighters arrived in April 1965, with the 476th Tactical Fighter Squadron and the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing: from April 20 to November 20 of the same year they carried out 2,927 missions of machine-gunning, bombing and escorting strike aircraft, sometimes in North Vietnamese air space, before returning to the United States. The 476th was back, however, in June 1966, operating from the Udorn base in Thailand. The F-104Cs were now camouflaged in accordance with operational needs and in July were handed over to the 436th TFS and in October to the 435th, still belonging to the 479th TFW. From June 1966 to July 1967 the F-104Cs carried out escorting and bombing missions on North Vietnam, with over 5,290 sorties. The last Starfighter left Thailand before the end of 1967, its duties being taken over by the Phantom F-4D. Although not much has been written and said about the F-104C, it seems to have given a good account of itself, but the shortage of machines obviously limited its use.
Ironically, the F104′ s saving grace was its capability as a ground fighter. Lockheed strengthened the fuselage and wings, added several hardpoints, and exported 400 abroad as the F104G. An additional 1,600 were manufactured under license in Germany, Japan, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, where they remained in frontline service through the 1980s. The final version, the F104S, was built by Aeritalia and is still flown by Turkey.
‘Man on a Missile’, that’s how many Starfighter pilots referred to their experience flying one of the most intriguing aircraft ever developed: the Lockheed F-104. From its conception, the Starfighter was one of the most revolutionary airplanes in the history of aviation.
Its clean lines, powerful engine and advanced electronic and weapon packages made the F-104 one of the most powerful platforms in the world. Ahead of its time by years, the Starfighter would be used by many NATO air forces for decades.
There were a total of 19 variants of the Starfighter. Most of them were flown by overseas customers such as Japan, Canada and Italy, which continued to operate the air superiority fighter well into the 2000s.
Although several units had longer airframes (by fractions), all 19 versions were similar in their fuselage profile. The F-104 had a length of 55 feet, a wingspan of just 22 feet with a total wing area of 196 square feet, including a part that was enclosed in the fuselage. The wing structure had a very thin low aspect ratio (probably the thinnest wing ever employed) for high speed enhanced performance.
1. F-104A: This was the first production version. Fitted with a General Electric (GE) J79-3A engine capable of generating 14,800 pounds of thrust, the A model could reach speeds upward Mach 2. Its operational range was an impressive 1,450 nautical miles with its full complements (2 removable wingtip tanks) of fuel tanks. Armed with the famous M61-A-1 Vulcan Cannon and two, first generation AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the ‘A’ was a powerful offensive machine. At the heart of the model attacking capability was the sophisticated AN-ASG 14T-1 Fire and Control System. Early units were fitted with downward ejections seats, but in the second delivery batch, those were replaced by the C2 upward platform. The A version also had the distinction of being the first aircraft fitted with the Boundary Layer Control mechanism. One hundred and fifty three (153) F-104As were developed.
2. F-104B: This was a two seated version of the A model. It had the same power plant and overall dimensions. The two main differences were maximum takeoff weight and the Vulcan gun. In the B, top operational weight was slightly lower (23,535 to 24,528). Unlike the early 104s, the B did not incorporate a forward firing gun. It did have the pylons to carry the two Sidewinders and was fitted with the 14T-1 Fire and Control system. Lockheed produced 26 of this type.
3. F-104C: Seventy seven (77) of this all-weather fighter-bomber were produced, all for the United States Air Force’s Tactical Air Command. The C model introduced the platform for the first time to a new in-flight refueling system that employing a probe fitted on the left side of the cockpit. Another innovation present in this version was the Blown Flaps (BF) mechanism added to improve the plane’s takeoff capability. A new and improved power plant (J79GE-7) capable of generating up wards of 15,000 pounds of thrust with afterburning was also introduce with this configuration. Total operational range was achieved at 1,640 nautical miles. This particular unit suffered from engine failures that caused the loss of 24 aircraft and nine pilots. Eventually, those problems were resolve and the version remained in service for nearly 35 years.
4. F-104D: Only 24 ‘D’s were ever produced. This version was basically an enhance ‘C’ unit with some refinements. It had the same engine and navigational system of its predecessor. It’s main different was the absence of the M-61 Gatling Gun.
5. F-104DJ: This unit was an special version develop for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force. It was fitted with the J79GE-11A engine capable of generating 15,800lbs of thrust and no Gatling Gun, this was essentially an upgraded D model. Only 20 units were developed.
6. F-104F: This 30-plane strong batch was developed for the West German Air Force. Its frame was a replica of the DJ’s one. The standard packaged of this version was the same of the Super Starfighter (F-104G).
7. F-104G Super Starfighter: The most produced (1,127 total units) member of the class, the G proved went on to be the standard bear of the platform. No less than 8 companies (Canadair in Canada, Fiat in Italy, Fokker in the Netherlands, Lockheed in the US, MBB and Messerschmitt in West Germany, Mitsubishi in Japan and SABCA/Fairy in Belgium) participated in the 13 (June 1960 to October 1973) year production run. The Super as many pilots referred to it, was a modified C version with a reinforce frame, larger tail area with a fully powered rudder system. It also had engagement maneuvering flaps with a new avionic package that included the famous Autonetics F15-A North American Search and Raging System (NASRR). The model was powered by a revised J79GE-11A engine capable of generating 15,600 pounds of thrust. Maximum speed was Mach 2.2 with an operational range of 1,628 nm. Another improvement over previous versions was the incorporation of a more advance navigational system: the Litton LN3. Introduce in the platform for the first time in its history was an internal bombing computer linked to the NASRS and the LN3.
8. RF-104GL: This was the tactical reconnaissance version of the ‘G’ model. It had the same fuselage characteristics of the previous unit, but instead of having its offensive package installed on the nose cone (Vulcan Cannon); this plane carried the highly sensitive KS-67a camera. It was also fitted with a flat sided fixed ventral pods for enhance stability. One hundred and eighty nine (189) ‘GL’s were built by Fiat, Fokker and Lockheed between 1964 and 1968.
9. TF-104G: Is a common mistake to associate this version with a training platform due to its ‘T’ designation. But in fact, this was a highly regarded two setter tactical attack aircraft similar in its performing envelop to the F-104G. Like the G, it also carried the advance NASRR and LN3 systems.
10. CF-104: This was a Canadian built version of the ‘G’ model. Internal characteristics and performing profile matched that of the Super Starfighter. They had the same NASRR system. Instead of the Vulcan Cannon, the CF carried the less expensive M61 Gatling Gun. It was powered by a J79OEL-7 engine (15,800lbs of thrust). Two (200) hundreds units were built. All by Canadair.
11. CF-104D: Basically a two seat version of the CF without the M61 gun. Only 38 were developed. Most of them were use as primary trainers.
12. JF-104: This was three unit batch specially modified for NASA and the US Air Force Strategic Air Command. Aside the inclusion of the NASRR and LN3 systems in a ‘G’ version fuselage, no additional data exists on this platform.
13. F-104J: Another version built exclusively for the Japanese ASDF. A total of 209 units, 206 of them by Mitsubishi, were produced. This particular model is a replica of the ‘G’ model.
14. F-104N: Is another common misconception to believe all attached planes with the N designation have to become a nuclear delivery platform. Such is the case with this version. The 104N was a dedicated research aircraft utilized by NASA to test the limits of air frame endurance at high drag profiles. Because of the nature of the airplane, no weapon system was installed. Only three unites were ever built.
15. NF-104A: As with the 104N, this was test bed plane. But instead of being fielded by NASA, the NF-104A was a US Air Force advance research units. The one different between those two test aircrafts was that the A carried a 6,000 pounds thrust rocket in the tail end structure. It also had extended wing tips as well as a new reaction jet control mechanism. As before, only three units were built.
16. QF-104A: The Lockheed Company, in conjunction with Sperry Phoenix, modified 24 F-104As as target drones. These target platforms were use between the summer of 1968 to the spring of 1973.
17. XF-104: This is the first platform built. Designed and develop by Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works division, two of this first generation versions were produce. The unit was powered by a non-afterburning Wright XJ-65 engine capable of producing 10,200 pounds of thrust. This power plant gave the XF a top operational speed of Mach 1.78 and a range of 800 nm. Its armament consisted on a M-61 Gatling Gun a K-19 Fire and Control System and the AN-APG34 Radar.
18. YF-104A: Seventeen (17) units were developed. This was basically an XF airframe, although a bit larger (54.77 feet compare to 49.17), with a more powerful engine (J79-GE-3A with 14,800 lbs of thrust). The plane also featured a newly designed supersonic conical inlets first seen in the XF version.
19. F-104S: The ‘S’ model has the distinction of being the last produce version of the Starfighter. These units, totaling 247, were built by Fiat and were intended sorely for both, the Italian and Turkish air forces. It was an advance, multi purposed aircraft capable of acting as an interceptor and/or tactical bombing platform. The interceptor mode carried an R-21G NASARR system and the AIM7 Sparrow II and AIM9 Sidewinder I missile. Its frame dimensions equal that of other F-104s. It had a J79-GE-19 engine (11,800lbs thrust) capable of generating speed upwards to Mach 2.2. Operational range was 1,589 nm. The production run for these units lasted from December 1968 until March 1979. A modernized ‘S’ version was built in October 1979. Only three samples were produce. All featuring an updated weapon package, a Look Down-Shoot Down Radar and the introduction of the Aspide 1A air-to-air missile.
Span: 21 ft. 11 in.
Length: 54 ft. 10 in.
Height: 13 ft. 6 in.
Weight: 27,853 lbs. max.
Armament: One M-61 20mm cannon, two air-to-air missiles; nuclear or conventional bombs
Engine: One General Electric J-79 of 15,800 lbs. thrust with afterburner
Serial number: 56-914
Maximum speed: 1,320 mph.
Cruising Speed: 575 mph.
Range: 1,250 miles
Service Ceiling: 58,000 ft.
Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide, Gunter Endres and Mike Gething, HarperCollins, 2002
Skunk Works, Benn R. Rich and Leo Janos, Back Bay Books, 1994