Back to the Drawing Board: the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

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David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions

The F-104 originated during the Korean War, with the USAF’s requirement for a new supersonic fighter. The basic design was finalised in 1953, and the first prototype flew in March 1954.

It was a futuristic-looking aircraft, which Lockheed publicised as ‘a missile with a man in it’. Rate of climb and top speed were everything that had been anticipated, but engine problems and the need to integrate the new Sidewinder air-to-air missile delayed the type’s introduction to service until 1958.

A formation of two USAF Lockheed F-104 Starfighters in flight, c.1960. Image: bagera3005/Deviant Art
A formation of two USAF Lockheed F-104 Starfighters in flight, c.1960. Image: bagera3005/Deviant Art

When the F-104 finally became operational, the USAF rapidly discovered that it had a host of problems – some of these were relatively minor, such as the razor-sharp wing leading edges, which gashed so many unwary ground crews that protective strips had to be fitted to all aircraft immediately after each flight.

Others were far more serious, such as the decision to install the Stanley C-1 downward-ring ejector seat in early production aircraft because of concerns that conventional upward-firing seats might not clear the tall ‘T’ tail assembly.

All that this did was virtually guarantee the death of any pilot who had to eject at low altitude, and later USAF versions were adapted to take the Lockheed C-2 upward-ring seat, which was capable of clearing the tail, but could only be operated safely at speeds greater than 104mph (167km/h).

Short range interceptor

The early Starfighters were effective short-range day interceptors, but lacked the sophisticated radar and long-range missiles needed for US Air Defence Command missions.

USAF orders were cut back to fewer than 300 aircraft. All the survivors were passed on to the Air National Guard by 1969, and even these were withdrawn from service in 1975.

Lockheed had much greater success in selling the F-104 to foreign buyers – largely due to lavish bribes, totalling more than $22 million. Over 2,000 eventually served with the air forces of 14 other countries.

West Germany was the largest customer, with the Luftwaffe and Marineflieger operating a total of 916 aircraft from 1960 until 1987. The majority of these were the F-104G variant, with additional equipment to allow them to act as fighter-bombers.

The extra weight, combined with intensive low-level operations in a type designed as a high-altitude interceptor, worsened the already difficult handling characteristics and contributed to a spate of accidents when the Starfighter entered German service in 1960.

Wartime fighter-aces such as Johannes Steinhoff and Erich Hartmann, who were senior Luftwaffe officers in the 1960s, did their best to improve the situation. They introduced more thorough training programmes, and had the Lockheed ejector seats replaced by the far better Martin-Baker Mark 7 ‘zero-zero’ model, which could function even when the aircraft was stationary on the airfield.

Despite these measures, the F-104G had an appalling accident rate, with at least 262 crashes, which claimed the lives of 115 pilots. Unsurprisingly, it soon became known throughout the Luftwaffe as Witwenmacher (‘the Widow-maker’), and there were few regrets when the type was phased out in favour of the Tornado in the 1980s.

This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

1 Comment

  1. There is an RAF saying about new planes that if they look good, they are good. The F104 was the exception to this rule. Lovely looking plane, but indeed a widow maker.

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