A Brief History
On May 18, 1958, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter set the world speed record for an airplane by flying 1404.19 mph over a 15 mile course, at the same time becoming the first aircraft ever to hold both the world speed record and the world altitude record at the same time (91,243 feet on May 7, 1958).
An incredible plane in many ways, this little single jet engine powered interceptor went on to a production run of over 2500 planes and served with 15 different countries, until finally retired in 2004 (Italy). Designed as a Mach 2 supersonic interceptor, the F-104 was an interim design to defend the US against Soviet nuclear bombers until the Convair F-106 Delta Dart was in service.
Designed by perhaps the greatest airplane designer of all time, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson (P-38, P-80/T-33, U-2, SR-71 etc), the F-104 was meant to be simple, lightweight (less than half the weight of an F-4 Phantom II), and cheap. At only $1.4 million apiece (unit cost of the latest versions under $1 million), the F-104 cost a tad over a third as much as its F-106 successor. Not intended to be fighter bomber or a dogfighter, the F-104 was built to get to altitude as quickly as possible and fly there as fast as it could to intercept bombers. Climbing quickly and flying fast in a straight line were definitely the Starfighter’s forte, though it could not maneuver well at lower dogfighting speeds. The US Air Force quickly relegated the F-104 to duty with the Air National Guard, and the bargain price for such a high performance jet made the plane an export favorite, later largely replaced in Allied inventories by the F-16 Fighting Falcon, also a single engine jet seen as an economical alternative to the more expensive F-15.
Capable of Mach 2 flight, the F-104 was the first production jet fighter to regularly fly at that speed, with a top speed of Mach 2 (1528 mph) and an altitude record of 103,389 feet, becoming the first jet powered (air breathing as opposed to rocket powered) plane to reach the 100.000 foot milestone. Armed with an internal 20mm cannon and carrying 2 or 4 Sidewinder (later Sparrow) air-to-air missiles, later versions were fitted with 7 hardpoints to carry external bombs and rockets, up to 4000 pounds, in the fighter-bomber role. In fact, the F-104 was the first fighter to utilize the 20mm Gatling type rotary 6 barrel cannon that fired its 725 rounds in a mere 7 seconds! The Starfighter saw combat in service with foreign countries and with the United States Air Force in Vietnam, flying over 5000 combat sorties in that war. Later versions had enhanced capabilities for all weather use, longer range (including air to air refueling), and carrying more bombs.
Known by a variety of nick-names, including “Missile with a man in it,” “Lawn Dart,” “Flying Coffin,” “Widow maker,” and “Zipper.” With a downward ejecting ejection seat, the F-104 killed many pilots who had to ejct at low altitude, a problem corrected later with the installation of upward ejecting seats.
The F-104 became the basis of the U-2 spy plane, and was adapted for use by NASA as an ultra-high altitude (120,000 feet) astronaut training plane. Jackie Cochran became the first woman pilot to fly at Mach 2 in an F-104, and a civilian owned F-104 holds the world low altitude speed record.
The F-104 Starfighter was a money maker for Lockheed and for a time was the prevalent Allied fighter plane for NATO air forces, cost effective and with a decent service life. This fighter jet deserves a better reputation than it is generally accorded.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think, does the F-104 deserveabetter reputation? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Doyle, David. F-104 Starfighter In Action. MMD-Squadron Signal, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of 56th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron Lockheed F-104A-25-LO Starfighter 56-857 Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, May 1958, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.