Happy Birthday to the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

The Italian Air Force celebrated the end of their Starfighter operations with a magnificently painted F-104S captured beautifully in this David Cenciotti photograph. To learn more about this amazing aeroplane, please click here.
The Italian Air Force celebrated the end of their Starfighter operations with a magnificently painted F-104S captured beautifully in this David Cenciotti photograph. To learn more about this amazing aeroplane, please click here.
The Italian Air Force celebrated the end of their Starfighter operations with a magnificently painted F-104S captured beautifully in this David Cenciotti photograph. To learn more about this amazing aeroplane, please click HERE.

Exactly sixty years ago today, the very first Lockheed Starfighter took to the skies over Edwards Air Force Base with legendary test pilot, Tony LeVier at the controls. Technically, it was not the first flight for the XF-104, but a brief hop about 5′ in the air during high speed taxiing tests in late February hardly counts as first flights go. Interestingly, both of the XF-104’s were designed around the under-powered J-65 turbojet rather than the J-79, which would become the standard production engine. Lockheed knew that the GE J-79 wouldn’t be ready in time, so went with the Wright J-65 (a license-built Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire) for the initial test articles.

The first XF-104, serial number 53-7786, on a test flight near Edwards AFB. This aircraft crashed in 1957 following flutter problems which ripped the tail from the fuselage. The pilot, Bill Park, ejected safely. (image via Wikipedia)
The first XF-104, serial number 53-7786, on a test flight near Edwards AFB. This aircraft crashed in 1957 following flutter problems which ripped the tail from the fuselage. The pilot, Bill Park, ejected safely. (image via Wikipedia)

Astonishingly, the XF-104 went from the initial contract to first flight in less than a year, which is pretty remarkable given today’s turn-around rate. Mind you, a lot of simulation prior to first flight occurs these days, and one shouldn’t forget that both XF-104 prototypes crashed during testing. Still, even with the technical difficulties experienced, the Air Force was sufficiently impressed with the Starfighter that it ordered them into production. And while it didn’t stay on front-line service with American units for long, it became an extremely successful, low-cost export fighter. Fifteen air forces around the world employed the F-104, coming from seven non-US production lines. Even more surprisingly, more than twice as many Starfighters rolled from foreign factories as did from Lockheed’s. The type was in production until 1979, an astonishing run for any aircraft, let alone a front-line jet fighter. The final example came from the FIAT factory in Italy, with the Italian Air Force being the last to retire their fleet in 2004. Just a handful of F-104s remain airworthy today flying research contracts with Starfighters Inc. operating from the Kennedy Space Flight Center on Merritt Island near Titusville, Florida. See here for more details.

Starfighters Incorporated's Canadian-manufactured CF-104D serial #104632 at an air show. (photo via wikipedia)
Starfighters Incorporated’s Canadian-manufactured CF-104D serial #104632 at an air show. The company owns nine of the aircraft, with at least three being in current airworthy condition. (photo via wikipedia)
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20 Comments

  1. The F-104 was and still is one of the fastest aircraft’s ever built and flown by the United States and other friendly counties. It was also one of the most beautiful aircraft ever in flight.

  2. I first flew the F-104 at Edwards AFB (check out # 108) and it’s one of my three favorites, along with the P-51 and F-86.

  3. Do any of you remember the side by side seating arrangements of the F-104? The German Air Force had them at one time.

      • I know you´re right, Mike! I flew the 104 from 1963 to 1978 at Nörvenich, Jever and Lechfeld and never heard, let alone saw anything like side by side seating (except maybe in very close formation! Just imagine the type of bubble this canopy would have put on the airplane

      • My memory must be faulty. I thought I remembered having a few of them on alert status at Memmingen AFB back in 1968. We had our weapons on board and I had to check the cockpit daily. The best I can recall is that the bubble was on the right side of the aircraft and made the plane look awkward. As I said it sounds like my memory is faulty, no surprise there.

    • You aren’t thinking of the RAF’s English Electric Lightning are you? The Lightning had very similar performance to the F-104, but was twin engined, with one above the other, and the two seat trainers did have the side by side arrangement.

      19 and 92 Squadron were based at RAF Gütersloh in West Germany and both had 2 seat trainers on their squadrons.

      • I also worked with the RAF at Geilenkershen where they had the Lightning but we did not have our weapons on their aircraft. We used the RAF Canberra which had the pilot sitting up above the navigator/bombardier. The pilot was the only one with an ejection seat. The other poor guy had to climb out the door in the side which had a wind break that kept him from hitting the wing. He had to manually jump from aircraft.

  4. I’ll go along with Mike. I flew F-104’s with the German Luftwaffe for 8 years and never heard of a side by side arrangement. No one else had side by side either.

  5. What a great airplane! Have been a big fan of it since 1956. Controlled the A models of the 319 FIS out Homestead in the 60s, and even got a ride in a B model. I sorely miss the STARFIGHTERS team at air shows.

  6. I was “element lead”, in a flight of four F-104’s which was the first F-104 flight into North Vietnam in April of 1965. Lt. Col. Howard Dale led the flight. We “capped 12 Skyraiders led by Vietnamese Col. Ky who later became president of South Vietnam. I watched from about 10,000 feet as they literally obliterated the small town of Dong Hoi on the Gulf coast of Southern North Vietnam. A somewhat compelling introduction to the war.

  7. As a production test pilot serving under the great Tony Levier and later as an engineering test pilot with Erprobungstelle (German NASA), the Zipper was the greatest thrill in my logbook, bar none. I flew them with Turkish, Greek air forces and the Luftwaffe. Sorry never with my own air force.
    What I wouldn’t give for a ride now….
    The previous commenter about side by side seating is confused with the F-102. The TF-102 did have side by side seating and it ruined a perfectly good fighter. What a dog it was…

  8. I flew the F-104 Starfighter for 5 years out of George AFB, CA.
    The F-104 is by far the most favorite Fighter I ever flew and holds many A. F. career memories for me and especially being stationed with some of the greatest Fighter Pilots in the world. I had the honor and priviledge of being the last F-104 Fighter Squadron Commander in the Air Force with the 436th Tac. Ftr. Sq. The 104 was phased out in Nov. 1967 and we transferred the aircraft to the Puerto Rican Air National Guard.
    One day at George, the Wg. Cmdr., Col. Don Ross and I were standing on the flight line admiring all of the F104’s on the parking ramp. Col . Ross turned to me and said, “Dutch, every Fighter Pilot should have one of these beautiful aircraft in
    their backyard.” I think about that often since I have room in my backyard.

  9. I was at Lockheed production test with George Andre and we had the pleasure of ferrying the first Turkish squadron F-104’s from Ishmir to Ankara. After training some of the German and Japanese WW2 pilots, I was sent to start the Japanese program, demonstrate, test and train 3 Mitsubishi test pilots, all WW2 veterans. As a brash, cocky kid of 27, I ran headlong into Japanese reluctance and caution due to the exotic reputation of the starfighter. After clearing up the nonsense, the 104 went on to a fine operational history of 20 plus years. Next I was sent to Norway to help them start their excellent operation. I had the pleasure of watching Capt. Joe Nevers Train their pilots without benefit of 2-seat trainers. Joe was in the Zipper for 17 years and ended up highman in flight hours. The Norwegians went 7 years before losing their first 104. they even bought more 104s after phasing out their F-5s, and kept ONE 2-seater in flying condition. They celebrated 50 years since introduction of the 104 into their Air Force last August and Joe and I were invited as guests. As a confidence builder I had all My students do a TRIPLE immelman off the end of the runway after takeoff. Who says it can’t turn!!! In the autumn of 1963 I happened to see a price quote offering a simply equipped F-104 in competition with the F-5 for a FIXED price of $750,000. The F-5 was bought at 1.5 mil. What a machne!! Something about a 40,000FPM rate of climb gets to me.

  10. Oh yeah, one more interesting detail about this little jewel. In 1958 , USAF Capt. Joe Jordan took a stock F-104C to a record 103,850 ft. Bottom l.ine to a very interesting story, at 75,000ft. the engine and burner were shut down to avoid over- temping the engine, the starfighter coasted up another 29,000FT.

  11. The guy was talking about side-by-side trainers in Germany though, which makes the TF-102 unlikely, unless they served with USAFE in Germany. Even then they don’t look much alike. The Lightning doesn’t much either. My guess would be the Hawker Hunter, which had a side-by-side seating trainer version, and looks vaguely like an F-104, in profile at least. Not sure Germany ever used them, but many other countries did, including the Swiss. It’s also possible that the poster doesn’t speak English very well, and meant something else entirely.

  12. The flip side to the pilots memories is my recollections of what a little beauty the 104 was to maintain. I crewed a drone 104 @ Eglin AFB for 18 months and it was such a piece of cake (especially compared to the F100’s I did in Germany) I almost regretted taking the overseas tour. All the hydraulics on one drop down panel! A sweet ride indeed!

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