Fast, stubby, unforgiving…and designed by Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson.
On March 4th 1954, after less than year had elapsed since contracted by the Unites States Air Force to design and build it, the first prototype Lockheed F-104 Starfighter took to the sky at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Known by nicknames like “zipper” and “lawn dart” but none so much as “the missile with a man in it”, the F-104 was designed by the famous Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Later to be associated with such other notable aircraft as the SR-71 Blackbird and its derivatives, as well as the U-2 and the F-117 Nighthawk, Johnson basically built the smallest and lowest drag airplane possible around the most powerful engine available- the General Electric J79.
Lockheed and Johnson presented the design for the F-104 to the Air Force in November of 1952. Based on the design alone, the Air Force created a General Operating Requirement (GOR) for a lightweight fighter to replace the North American F-100 Super Sabre. Although three other designs were contemplated, Lockheed was granted a development contract in March of 1953 for two prototypes to be designated XF-104.
Capable of sustaining speeds above Mach 2 and reaching altitudes as high as 48,000 feet in less time than it has taken you to read this far, the raw performance of the F-104 was impressive right from the beginning. The usual refinements were defined and incorporated into the design between prototypes and production aircraft, including landing gear and intake modifications, additional airframe strengthening, and the addition of a ventral fin to improve directional stability. These modifications to the pre-production F-104 prototypes yielded the initial production model. The first F-104A Starfighter entered service with the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Wing on January 28th 1958.
The 83rd, based at Hamilton Air Force Base in California, attained operational status on February 20th 1958. A total of four Air Defense Command (ADC) units were equipped with the F-104A. After a rash of accidents, the Air Force evaluated the A-model Starfighter and made the decision to reduce orders for the fighter from 722 examples to only 155. The F-104As were eventually transferred to Air National Guard (ANG) units.
The next variant of the design, the F-104C, entered service with the US Air Force Tactical Air Command (TAC) as a multi-role fighter and fighter-bomber. In September of 1958, F-104Cs first equipped the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing based at George Air Force Base in California.
F-104C Starfighters took a limited part in the Vietnam War. The 476th Tactical Fighter Squadron arrived in-country first, followed by the 436th Tactical Fighter Squadron three months later. Between April of 1965 and October of 1965, F-104Cs from these two squadrons flew a total of 2,935 combat sorties and lost a total of five Starfighters (to all causes).
The 435th Tactical Fighter Squadron made the last F-104C deployment to South Vietnam from June of 1966 to July of 1967. During this deployment the 435th flew 2,272 combat sorties and lost nine more aircraft (to all causes). The 435th transitioned to the F-4 Phantom II after their Starfighter deployment. The F-104 Starfighters did not score a single air-to-air kill in Vietnam. Once the F-104Cs returned from Vietnam they too were transferred to ANG units.
After evaluating the F-104 and its capabilities against the missions it needed the aircraft to execute, the US Air Force decided that the Starfighter was not capable of fulfilling either the interceptor or tactical fighter-bomber roles because the 104 lacked both payload and endurance.
The US Air Force ended up buying just 296 F-104s (all models and variants). Based on the findings of their evaluation and the aircraft’s inherent design limitations, the F-104s were phased out of regular US Air Force service after 1968 but soldiered on with ANG units for a few more years. The Puerto Rico ANG gave up the last operational American F-104s left in captivity in 1975. But that didn’t mean that Starfighters wearing stars and bars disappeared from American skies.
The West German Air Force flew a wing of TF-104Gs and F-104Gs tasked with training their pilots out of Luke Air Force Base in Arizona until 1983. Even though the aircraft were owned by West Germany (and some had been license-built by them as well), they wore American markings. When the Germans replaced their F-104Gs with F-4G Phantom IIs they operated a F-4G-equipped training wing out of Luke and their F-4Gs wore American markings too. Germans? Read on.
The West German Air Force was looking for a foreign-designed aircraft capable of carrying out multiple roles right about the same time that the US Air Force was pushing the aircraft out to ANG units and replacing it in front line service. Realizing that no practical modifications to the design would result in US Air Force procurement of the F-104, Lockheed heavily modified the F-104C to include the capability to perform all of the missions required by the West German Air Force and the F-104G was born.
In a competition with several other seemingly more advanced aircraft, Germany chose the F-104G as their winner and the Starfighter had a new lease on life. Lockheed built a total of 738 F-104s. Eight other licensed manufacturers (including Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, and Mitsubishi) pushed the total number of F-104s built to 2,574 airframes in 14 distinct variants.
In addition to the United States and West Germany, the F-104 was also operated by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Japan, Jordan, The Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Spain, Taiwan, and Turkey.
When the F-16 Fighting Falcon became available as an export model many of the countries operating the F-104 began replacing them with the F-16. That by no means meant that the operational life of the F-104 was short. Nearly 47 years after the F-104 was first delivered to the United States Air Force, the Italian Air Force retired the planet’s last operational Starfighters on October 31st 2004.
At any given time there are about ten privately owned and operational Starfighters based in the United States today. We recommend you take full advantage if presented with an opportunity to see (and hear) one in action. See for yourself.