Famed aircraft designer Clarence L. Johnson designed an aircraft based on what Korean War fighter pilots said was needed. Johnson designed the F-104 which had superior performance at the expense of equipment and other trade-offs. The Starfighter could fly over twice the speed of sound and had a service ceiling of 58,000 ft (17,680 m).[i] Its sleek lines gave it the look of the fighter of the future. It got the nickname of “missile with a man in it”.
[i] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft by Bill Gunston© 1980 Salamander Books, Ltd. P.74.
Development and Records
The XF-104 made its first flight on February 7, 1954. On February 17, 1956 the F-104A made its first flight. F-104As entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF) Air Defense Command (ADC) in 1958. In 1959 USAF F-104C pilot Captain Joe Jordan broke an altitude record by reaching 103,395.5 feet (31514.95m) Three F-104A received modifications that included rocket boosts. In 1961 Soviet Air Force pilot Colonel Georgi Mosolov, broke the altitude record in a MiG-21.[i] F-104 pilot Major Robert W. Smith broke an altitude record for a jet aircraft, reaching 119,000 feet (36,300m) on December 6, 1963.[ii] Colonel Chuck Yeager attempted to break the altitude record on December 10, 1963. His NF-104 went into a flat spin and Colonel Yeager ejected.[iii] The 1983 movie “The Right Stuff” depicted this incident. The USAF stopped trying to break altitude records.[iv] Jacqueline Cochran used a Starfighter to become the first woman to exceed Mach 2 in a jet.[v] A CF-104 holds the Canadian altitude record. RCAF Wing Commander R.A. White flew to 100,100 feet (30,510 meters) on December 14, 1967.[vi]
[i] Remembering the Canadian Aircraft Altitude Record Set By Bud White’s CF-104 Starfighter, by Dario Leone, June 20, 2018, https://theaviationgeekclub.com/remembering-the-canadian-aircraft-altitude-record-set-by-bud-whites-cf-104-starfighter/, last accessed, 1/25/20.
[ii] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft by Bill Gunston© 1980 Salamander Books, Ltd. P.74.
[iii] Remembering the Canadian Aircraft Altitude Record Set By Bud White’s CF-104 Starfighter, by Dario Leone, June 20, 2018, https://theaviationgeekclub.com/remembering-the-canadian-aircraft-altitude-record-set-by-bud-whites-cf-104-starfighter/, last accessed, 1/25/20.
[iv] Remembering the Canadian Aircraft Altitude Record Set By Bud White’s CF-104 Starfighter, by Dario Leone, June 20, 2018, https://theaviationgeekclub.com/remembering-the-canadian-aircraft-altitude-record-set-by-bud-whites-cf-104-starfighter/, last accessed, 2/4/20.
[v] Yeager, by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, © 1985 by Yeager, Inc.
[vi] Remembering the Canadian Aircraft Altitude Record Set By Bud White’s CF-104 Starfighter, by Dario Leone, June 20, 2018, https://theaviationgeekclub.com/remembering-the-canadian-aircraft-altitude-record-set-by-bud-whites-cf-104-starfighter/, last accessed, 2/4/20.
The first F-104 combat loss occurred on June 29, 1965. It was shot down by ground fire. A Starfighter first engaged in air-air combat in September 1965. On September 20 F-104s were on a mission to escort an EC-130E-II Silver Dawn. One Starfighter, flown by Captain Harvey E. Quackenbush aborted because it had a damaged in-flight refueling probe. Captain Eldon Smith attempted to engage an unidentified aircraft. Soon after abandoning the chase, because he was close to China, Captain Smith realized his heading indicator and standby compass were malfunctioning. While attempting to figure his location a MiG-19, flown by People’s Republic of China Air Force Captain Gao Xiang, shot him down. Captain Smith ejected and was held prisoner in China until March 1973. In an attempt to find Captain Smith Captains Quackenbush and Dayle W. Carlson escorted a Grumman SA-16 aircraft. Their F-104s had malfunctions with their lights and Quackenbush and Carlson collided. They ejected and were rescued in the sea off the coast of Da Nang.[i] The last F-104 loss in Vietnam was on May 14, 1967. This loss was caused by an engine malfunction. Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) shot down 7 Starfighters. Total F-104 losses in Vietnam were 14.[ii]
India and Pakistan had a war in September 1965. Pakistan had F-104s and India had MiG-21s. There was no combat between these two fighters. Pakistani Starfighters claimed five aerial victories, 3 Mystéres and 2 Canberras during the fighting.[iii] An Indian Gnat also landed on a Pakistani base and was captured. Pakistan claims an F-104 forced the Gnat to land. The Gnat pilot, Brij Pal Singh Sikand claimed he made a navigation error and thought he was landing at an Indian base.[iv]
In 1967 Nationalist China F-104s fought an air combat against People’s Republic of China MiG-19s. The F-104s claimed 2 MiG-19s but lost one F-104.[v]
In the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict F-104s faced MiG-21s. MiG-21s shot down at least 2 Starfighters without loss. Pakistan credited F-104 pilots with shooting down two Gnats.[vi]
[i] F-104C vs MiG-19: The Story of The Only Air-to-Air shootdown of a Starfighter During the Vietnam War by Dario Leone, May 10, 2019, https://theaviationgeekclub.com/f-104c-vs-mig-19-the-story-of-the-only-air-to-air-shoot-down-of-a-starfighter-during-the-vietnam-war/, last accessed, 1/26/20.
[ii] United States Fixed Wing Aircraft Losses of The Vietnam War 1962-1973, https://03236830-405f-4141-9f5c-3491199c4d86.filesusr.com/ugd/a2dd91_80482dc4e2994350a59ec3b4bdb463e1.pdf, last accessed, 1/30/20.
[iii] Fighter Aces by Christopher Shores © The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited 1975.
[iv] Aircraft Information, http://www.aircraftinformation.info/art_gnat.htm, last accessed 2/1/20.
[v] The not quite right stuff – F-104 Starfighter, February, 2, 2015, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/2/2/1360449/-The-not-quite-right-stuff-F-104-Starfighter, last accessed 1/30/20.
[vi] Aircraft Information, http://www.aircraftinformation.info/art_gnat.htm, last accessed 2/1/20.
Mishaps and Scandals
The F-104 was a commercial success for Lockheed. Lockheed produced 2,782 Starfighters and they were sold to 16 countries. Over 530 F-104s crashed killing over 100 pilots.[i] The German military began flying Starfighters in 1961. The Germans had two F-104 crashes in 1961. On June 19, 1962 four F-104F Starfighters were practicing formation flying to celebrate the Starfighter’s entry into active service. The aircraft collided and killed all four pilots. In 1966 there were 61 Starfighter crashed that killed 35 pilots. The German press called the Starfighter “Widowmaker”, “Flying Coffin”, “falling fighter”, and “Ground Nail”. There were accusations of bribery and other unethical business practices over the sale of the F-104. In 1966 General Johannes Steinhoff was appointed Chief Inspector of the Luftwaffe. General Steinhoff grounded the Luftwaffe Starfighter fleet. General Steinhoff and his deputy, General Günther Rall, carried out an extensive investigation to find out the underlying reason for the high accident rate of the German Starfighters relative to other countries. They found the initial Starfighter training was over flat land that had good flying weather. This contrasted with the terrain and weather in Germany. Improved training brought the loss rate down for a time. The training regimen soon caused a higher rate of structural problems. The Luftwaffe lost 15-20 Starfighters per year from 1968-1972.[ii] In 1974 Robert Calvert cut an album, Captain Lockheed and the Starfighter, mocking the F-104 the songs included “The Widow Maker” and “Catch a Falling Starfighter”.[iii]
Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots nicknamed the F-104 “Lawn Dart” and “Aluminum Death Tube”. The RCAF lost 110 of the 235 CF-104s they purchased.[iv]
The Italian Air Force was the last military operator of the F-104. The first Italian F-104 loss happened on January 8, 1964. The pilot was killed. On September 25, 1975 a flight of four Italian Starfighters crashed into a mountain near Bitburg, Germany. The four pilots died in the crash. The last military F-104 crash occurred on May 2, 2002. The pilot was severely injured. The Italian Air Force lost 153 Starfighters in crashes.[v] The Italian Air Force retired the F-104 in 2004.
On June 8, 1966 an XB-70 Valkyrie was in a formation with 4 aircraft, including a NASA F-104, for publicity shots. The Starfighter collided with the XB-70 and both planes crashed. The F-104 pilot, Joe Walker, and the XB-70 co-pilot, Major Carl Cross, died in the incident. The XB-70 pilot, Al White, ejected but was injured.[vi]
Lockheed test pilot Darryl Greenamyer built an F-104 out of spare parts. Some of those parts were from crashed Starfighters. He broke a low-altitude speed record by flying 988.26 mph (1,590.45 km/h) on October 24, 1977. He intended to break an altitude record but he had to eject from his F-104 on February 26, 1978.
[i] Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi and Bob Aldeman © 1977.
[ii] Decoded: The Cold War Blog 1945-1995, “A Tarnished Legacy: The F-104 and the Starfighter Crisis”, July 29, 2013, https://coldwardecoded.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-tarnished-legacy-f-104-and.html, last accessed 2/4/20.
[iii] Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi and Bob Aldeman © 1977.
[iv] Dailykos, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/2/2/1360449/-The-not-quite-right-stuff-F-104-Starfighter, last accessed 2/4/20.
[v] F-104 losse of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI), http://www.916-starfighter.de/F-104_AMI_losses.htm, last accessed, 2/9/20.
[vi] Area 51 Special Projects, Secret Heroes, Midair Crash of the XB-70 with F-104, http://www.area51specialprojects.com/xb-70_crash_sequence.html, last accessed 2/9/20.
The 1964 movie, “The Starfighters”, was practically an advertisement for the F-104. This movie was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.[i] The real star of “The Starfighters” was the F-104 but top billing went to Robert Dornan.[ii]
In the 1967 Star Trek episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” the USAF sorties an F-104 to check out a large radar blip that was the USS ENTERPRISE. Mr. Spock remarked the intercepting aircraft may be armed with nuclear weapons. The USAF had nuclear air-air missiles but they weren’t used on Starfighters.[iii]
[i] Mystery Science Theater 3000, MST3K, is a series where the characters watch bad movies and make jokes throughout the movie.
[ii] Representative Dornan went on to become a U.S. Congressional Representative and later a radio talk show host.
[iii] The ENTERPRISE computers, in this episode, didn’t volunteer complete details. Answers to queries were apparently very narrow.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on March 24, 2020:
The century series aircraft were aircraft the U.S, would just as soon forget. The U.S. did poorly with the Starfighter in Vietnam. The only success area was in Taiwan. That was marginal because it was against MiG-19s rather than 21s. I do think you have to give the Indian ground forces some credit for winning in Bangladesh.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 24, 2020:
The F-104 was given to Pakistan by the USA and used in the 1965 war. It turned out to be a dud mainly because of the poor piloting skills of the PAF pilots. It made no impression and faded out from the sub-continent. In contrast, the MIG -21 had a great effect especially in the 71 war when over 100000 Pak soldiers surrendered.
Robert Sacchi (author) on February 20, 2020:
Yes, Lockheed did very well with sales. It did have a long service life with many air forces.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 20, 2020:
I guess the only winner was the manufacturer of those planes. Too bad so many people died when using them.
Robert Sacchi (author) on February 19, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. The U.S. and Canada also had its share of F-104 accidents. The German Air Force seemed to have a perfect storm with the Starfighter. The pilots and ground crews weren't adequately trained, the weather and terrain in Germany, and the Starfighter was an unforgiving aircraft with many deficiencies, The Italian Air Force flew the F-104 for a long time. I'll let it go at that.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 19, 2020:
I was surprised to see how many crashes the Italians had. I was also interested to read about the Luftwaffe. This is a well-researched and interesting article.
Robert Sacchi (author) on February 17, 2020:
The F-104 wasn't popular with the USAF. The '60s was a bad period for Air Force planes. The so called century series aircraft are not thought highly of.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 17, 2020:
Wow! The nicknames for this aircraft pretty much says it all. "Widowmaker", "Aluminum Death Tube", "Flying Coffin," and more.
FlourishAnyway from USA on February 17, 2020:
With nicknames like that I can’t imagine that pilots were all too eager to fly these planes but maybe there was some bravado in trying to defy the odds. Yikes.
Robert Sacchi (author) on February 16, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. The Starfighter had impressive performance figures. The aircraft had other deficiencies. Some of those deficiencies were apparently on full display the day Captain Smith got shot down.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 16, 2020:
A plane that flies twice the speed of sound and it those high elevations is really impressive. There are sure a lot of stories about these planes. I imagine Captain Smith did not enjoy his time in China but those things happen in war.