Of all the supersonic interceptors which emerged during the 1950s, it is doubtful that any are as charismatic nor more futuristic-looking than the iconic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. It is easily one of the most elegant aircraft ever designed, and still looks wickedly fast – even today – when just sitting on the ground. With the production run continuing into the late 1970s, the type enjoyed significant success on the export market too, even if it lingered only briefly as a front-line fighter in domestic air arms.
By Gray Creech
With a name like Starfighter, F-104s were destined to serve NASA in the extreme regime of high-speed flight research.
NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center flew Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft in a wide variety of missions beginning in August 1956. Over the next 38 years, 11 were operated by NASA Dryden, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., with the last Starfighter flight taking place in February 1994.
NASA Starfighters provided flight research data on everything from aircraft handling characteristics, such as roll coupling, to reaction control system research. With the approaching X-15 rocket-powered research aircraft program in the late 1950’s, research pilots needed experience in flying with reaction control systems, which are key to spacecraft control and maneuverability. A NASA F-104 modified with a hydrogen peroxide thruster system provided the necessary experience for the soon-to-be rocket pilots.
Durability of Space Shuttle thermal protection tiles was investigated in flights aboard a Starfighter, flown on a special flight test fixture through rain in moisture impact studies.
Another important role for NASA’s Starfighters included flying many safety chase missions in support of advanced research aircraft over the years, including the wingless lift body vehicles flown at Dryden during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
F-104 Starfighters proved most valuable to NASA as flight research and support aircraft for nearly 40 years, a distinction that few other aircraft share.
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center