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Century Series Pt. 5 - F-104 Starfighter

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The jet age is epitomized by the legendary Century series of fighters.

The Century series aircraft, were tasked with defending the American homeland from the Soviet forces at the height of the Cold War, fighting a tenacious enemy over Vietnam and were also the backbone of NATOs nuclear strike force. They have been used as interceptors, bombers, reconnaissance and in nearly every conceivable role in between.
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
“Flying coffin, Zipper, Jinx Jet, Widow Maker” and “Missile with a man in” are all the names the F-104 Starfighter were called during its long and varied career.

Used as a interceptor, photo reconnaissance, nuclear bomber and ground attack platform the Starfighter was one of the iconic aircraft of the Cold War.

The Starfighter was generally considered a rewarding, if very demanding, "sports car" of a fighter. It was the first combat aircraft capable of sustained Mach 2 flight and its speed and climb performance remain impressive even by modern standards. If used appropriately, with high-speed surprise attacks and good use of its exceptional thrust-to-weight ratio, it could be a formidable opponent, although being lured into a turning contest with a slower, more manoeuvrable aircraft was perilous.

Unfortunately the F-104 earned the unfair trademark of having a bad reputation of crashing. Although the West German Luftwaffe lost 270 of their 917 F-104s with the loss of 110 pilots the loss was proportionately lower then other NATO countries. The main reasons for the losses was attributed to the fast rate at which the Luftwaffe rose along with poor maintenance and changeable weather conditions catching the relatively inexperienced pilots out. The pilots had trained on the Starfighter in the more predictable US climate. A grim joke in Germany was that the cheapest way of obtaining a Starfighter was to buy a small patch of land and simply wait. At the other end of the scale, Spain’s Ejercito del Aire operated 21 CF-104Gs for 7 years without a single loss.

A USAF comparison study of the accident rate of all the Century series aircraft over 750,000 flying hours showed that the F-100 Super Sabre led the table with an accident rate over double that of the F-104 (471 accidents for the F-100 versus 196 for the F-104) which had the second highest rate, closely followed by the F-102 Delta Dagger. It should be noted that the F-104 figures in this study were taken over 600,000 hours as the type had not reached 750,000 hours at the time.

The F-104 was designed to use the General Electric J79 turbojet engine, fed by side-mounted intakes with fixed inlet cones optimised for supersonic speeds. Unlike some supersonic aircraft, the F-104 does not have variable-geometry inlets. Its thrust-to-drag ratio was excellent, allowing a maximum speed well in excess of Mach 2: the top speed of the Starfighter being limited more by the aluminium airframe structure and the temperature limits of the engine compressor than by thrust or drag (which gives an aerodynamic maximum speed of Mach 2.2). Later models used uprated marks of the J79, improving both thrust and fuel consumption significantly.

The Starfighter's fuselage tapered sharply towards the nose, and had a small frontal area. The fuselage was tightly packed, containing the radar, cockpit, cannon, all fuel, landing gear, and engine. This fuselage and wing combination provided extremely low drag except at high angle of attack (alpha), at which point induced drag became very high. As a result the Starfighter had excellent acceleration, rate of climb and potential top speed, but its sustained turn performance was very poor, described by some as more like a “milk truck than a fighter“. It was sensitive to control input, and extremely unforgiving of pilot error. NACA wind tunnel tested a model of the F-104 to evaluate its stability, and found it became increasingly unstable at higher angles of attack, to the point that there was a recommendation to limit the servo-control power that generated those higher angles, and shake the stick to warn the pilot.

The F-104 featured a radical wing design. Most jet fighters of the period (and to this day) used a swept-wing or delta-wing platform. This allowed a reasonable balance between aerodynamic performance, lift, and internal space for fuel and equipment. Lockheed's tests, however, determined that the most efficient shape for high-speed, supersonic flight was a very small, straight, mid-mounted, trapezoidal wing. Each wing only spanned 7ft 7in (2.3m) long. The wing's leading-edges were so thin (0.016 in / 0.41 mm) and sharp that they presented a hazard to ground crews, and protective guards had to be installed during ground operations. The thinness of the wings meant that fuel tanks and landing gear had to be contained in the fuselage. The motors driving the control surfaces had to be only one inch (25 mm)-thick to fit. The wings had both leading- and trailing-edge flaps. The small, highly-loaded wing resulted in an unacceptably high landing speed, so a boundary layer control system (BLCS) of blown flaps was incorporated, bleeding engine air over the trailing-edge flaps to improve their lift. The system was a boon to safe landings, although it proved to be a maintenance problem in service, and landing without the BLCS could be a harrowing experience.

Basic armament of the F-104 was the M61 Vulcan 20 mm Gatling gun. The Starfighter was the first aircraft to carry the new weapon, which had a rate of fire of 6,000 rounds per minute. The cannon, mounted in the lower part of the port fuselage, was fed by a 725-round drum behind the pilot's seat. It was deleted in all the two-seat models and some single-seat versions, including reconnaissance aircraft and the early Italian F-104S; the gun bay and ammunition tank were usually replaced by additional fuel tanks. Two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles could be carried on the wingtip stations, which could also be used for fuel tanks. The F-104C and later models added a centreline pylon and two under wing pylons for bombs, rocket pods, or fuel tanks. The centreline pylon could carry a nuclear weapon; and a "catamaran" launcher for two additional Sidewinders could be fitted under the forward fuselage, although the installation had minimal ground clearance and made the seeker heads of the missiles vulnerable to ground debris. The F-104S models added a pair of fuselage pylons beneath the intakes available for conventional bomb carriage. The F-104S had an additional pylon under each wing, to give a maximum of nine.

The F-104 was operated and built under license by several countries, making it one of the best selling Century series aircraft. Operators included Belgium, Canada, Republic of China, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Spanish State, Turkey, Taiwan and the United States.
A total of 2,578 F-104s were produced by Lockheed and under license by various foreign manufacturers. Principal variants included:

XF-104 Two prototype aircraft equipped with Wright J65 engines (the J79 was not yet ready); one aircraft equipped with the M61 cannon as an armament test bed. Both aircraft were destroyed in crashes.

YF-104A 17 pre-production aircraft used for engine, equipment, and flight testing. Most were later converted to F-104A standard.

F-104A A total of 153 initial production versions were built. In USAF service from 1958 through 1960, then transferred to ANG until 1963 when they were recalled by the USAF Air Defence Command for the 319th and 331st Fighter Interceptor Squadrons. Some were released for export to Jordan, Pakistan, and Taiwan, each of whom used it in combat. In 1967 the 319th F-104As and Bs were re-engined with the J79-GE-19 engines with 17,900 lb of thrust in afterburner; service ceiling with this engine was in excess of 73,000 ft (22,250 m). In 1969 all the F-104A/Bs in ADC service were retired. On 18 May 1958, an F-104A set a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph (2,259.82 km/h).

NF-104A Three demilitarised versions with an additional 6,000 lbf Rocketdyne LR121/AR-2-NA-1 rocket engine, used for astronaut training at altitudes up to 120,800 ft (36,830 m). QF-104A

F-104B Tandem two-seat dual-control trainer version of F-104A, 26-built. Enlarged rudder and ventral fin, no cannon and reduced internal fuel, but otherwise combat-capable. A few were supplied to Jordan , Pakistan and Taiwan. 26-built.

F-104C Fighter bomber versions for USAF Tactical Air Command, with improved fire-control radar (AN/ASG-14T-2), centreline and two wing pylons (for a total of five), and ability to carry one Mk 28 or Mk 43 nuclear weapon on the centreline pylon. The F-104C also had in-flight refuelling capability. On 14 December 1959, an F-104C set a world altitude record of 103,395 ft (31.5 km). 77 built.

F-104D Dual-control trainer versions of F-104C, 21 built.

F-104DJ Dual-control trainer version of F-104J for Japanese Air Self-Defence Force, 20 built by Lockheed and assembled by Mitsubishi.

F-104F Dual-control trainers based on F-104D, but using the upgraded engine of the F-104G. No radar, and not combat-capable. Produced as interim trainers for the Luftwaffe. All F-104F aircraft were retired by 1971. 30-built.

F-104G 1,122 aircraft of the main version produced as multi-role fighter bombers. Manufactured by Lockheed, and under license by Canadair and a consortium of European companies which included MBB, Messerschmitt, Fiat, Fokker and SABCA. The type featured strengthened fuselage and wing structure, increased internal fuel capacity, an enlarged vertical fin, strengthened landing gear with larger tires and revised flaps for improved combat manoeuvring. Upgraded avionics included a new Autonetics NASARR F15A-41B radar with air-to-air and ground mapping modes, the Litton LN-3 inertial navigation system (the first on a production fighter) and an infrared sight.

RF-104G 189 tactical reconnaissance models based on F-104G, usually with three KS-67A cameras mounted in the forward fuselage in place of cannon.

TF-104G 220 combat-capable trainer version of F-104G; no cannon or centreline pylon, reduced internal fuel

F-104H Projected export version based on a F-104G with simplified equipment and optical gunsight. Not built.

F-104J Specialised interceptor version of the F-104G for the Japanese ASDF, built under license by Mitsubishi for the air-superiority fighter role, armed with cannon and four Sidewinders; no strike capability. Some were converted to UF-104J radio-controlled target drones and destroyed. Total of 210 built, 3 built by Lockheed, 29 built by Mitsubushi for Lockheed built components and 177 built by Mitsubishi.

F-104N Three F-104Gs were delivered to NASA in 1963 for use as high-speed chase aircraft. One, piloted by Joe Walker, collided with an XB-70 on 8 June 1966.

F-104S 246 Italian versions produced by FIAT, one aircraft crashed prior to delivery and is often not included in the total number built. The F-104S was upgraded for the interception role having NASARR R-21G/H radar with moving-target indicator and continuous-wave illuminator for SARH missiles (initially AIM-7 Sparrow), two additional wing and two underbelly hard points (increasing the total to nine), more powerful J79-GE-19 engine, and two additional ventral fins for increased stability. The M61 cannon was sacrificed to make room for the missile avionics in the interceptor version but retained for the fighter-bomber variants. Up to two Sparrow; and two, theoretically four or six Sidewinder missiles were carried on all the hardpoints except the central (underbelly), or seven 340 kg bombs (normally two–four 227–340 kg). The F-104S was cleared for a higher maximum takeoff weight, allowing it to carry up to 7,500 lb (3,400 kg) of stores.

F-104S-ASA (Aggiornamento Sistemi d'Arma – "Weapon Systems Update") – 147 upgraded F-104S with Fiat R21G/M1 radar with frequency hopping, look-down/shoot-down capability, new IFF system and weapon delivery computer, provision for AIM-9L all-aspect Sidewinder and Selenia Aspide missiles.

F-104S-ASA/M (Aggiornamento Sistemi d'Arma/Modificato – "Weapon Systems Update/Modified") – 49 airframes upgraded in 1998 to ASA/M standard with GPS, new TACAN and Litton LN-30A2 INS, refurbished airframe, improved cockpit displays. All strike-related equipment was removed. The last Starfighter’s in combat service, they were withdrawn in December 2004 and temporarily replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon, while awaiting Eurofighter Typhoon deliveries.

CF-104 200 Canadian-built versions, built under license by Canadair and optimised for nuclear strike, having NASARR R-24A radar with air-to-air modes, cannon deleted (restored after 1972), additional internal fuel cell, and Canadian J79-OEL-7 engines . CF-104D 38 dual-control trainer versions of CF-104, built by Lockheed, but with Canadian J79-OEL-7 engines. Some later transferred to Denmark, Norway and Turkey.
The Model
Hasegawa 1/48th scale F-104S. Painted with Humbrol enamels. This scheme is for an Italian 50th anniversary of the 22° Gruppo, 51° Stormo Treviso/Istrana. The black cat chasing 3 mice is the badge of the 51° Stormo, applied on a grand scale to only one side of the aircraft. The starboard side has the standard AMI dark green/dark grey disruptive camouflage scheme with neutral grey undersides. Worn on the starboard intake is the scarecrow badge of 22° Gruppo.
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About the Author

About Andy Brazier (betheyn)

I started modelling in the 70's with my Dad building Airfix aircraft kits. The memory of my Dad and I building and painting a Avro Lancaster on the kitchen table will always be with me. I then found a friend who enjoyed building models, and between us I think we built the entire range of 1/72 Airfi...


Excellent build, Andy! Very informative article and a stunning colour scheme for the Starfighter. Thanks for sharing
MAR 08, 2008 - 08:19 AM
Thanks Rowan and Jesper. The pleasure is all mine. Andy
MAR 08, 2008 - 10:28 AM
Magnificent build and a very interesting series of articles on these century planes. I am very fond of this approach placing a model into a relevant context, it really brings live to the hobby. thanks for making this
MAR 12, 2008 - 11:19 PM
Fantastic. I just ordered two.
MAR 22, 2008 - 09:24 AM