Did you know the F-104 had not been the only “Widow Maker?” During the Cold War the MiG-19, MiG-21 and F-100 had high accident rates too. Here’s why.

Did you know the F-104 had not been the only “Widow Maker?” During the Cold War the MiG-19, MiG-21 and F-100 had high accident rates too

By Dario Leone
Dec 28 2021
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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The F-104 was not the only fighter aircraft to have a high accident rate during the Cold War.

The first futuristic-looking F-104 Starfighter flew in early 1956 and with its long circular fuselage, sharply pointed nose, and tiny, thin wings, it looked every inch the best fighter in the world.

Designed by C. L. “Kelly” Johnson and his “Skunk Works,” who developed some iconic combat-planes such as the U-2 and the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, the Lockheed F-104 was dubbed by the company as the “missile with a man in it” but by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and Marineflieger (German Navy) as the “widow maker.”

As we have previously explained in fact, because of its high accident rate in fact the Starfighter was involved in a horrific number of accidents while in German service. In fact 61 German F-104s had crashed, with a loss of 35 pilots by mid-1966.

The crashes continued despite a variety of fixes. Between 15 and 20 German 104s crashed every year between 1968 and 1972 and continued at a rate of about 10 F-104s per year until it was replaced.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19S

The final tally was the loss of 292 of the 916 Starfighters and the death of 115 pilots.

However, German F-104s were not the only fighter aircraft to have a high accident rate during the Cold War.

As told by Michael Napier in his book In Cold War Skies, in 1972, Bulgarian Air Force 21st IAP (fighter regiment) based at Uzundzhovo withdrew its MiG-19S aircraft and replaced them with the older MiG-17PF. The reason for this apparently backward step was the poor reputation of the MiG-19 in Bulgarian service. The RD-9B engines of the MiG-19 proved to be very unreliable and the Bulgarians experienced a high accident rate with these aircraft, losing almost half of their inventory of the type through accidents.

The Bulgarian experience of a 48 percent attrition rate with the MiG-19 was not entirely untypical of the accident rates among combat aircraft at that time.

As we have explained above, the F-104 gained a notorious reputation as a ‘widow maker’ thanks to an attrition rate of 30 percent with the Luftwaffe and of 46 percent with the RCAF/CAF. The loss rate for the Lockheed F-104 in both the Dutch and Belgian service was around 35 percent and the Danish lost a similar proportion of their F-100D force. The lost rate for the MiG-21F-13 in Hungarian service was also around 37 percent.

F-100F print
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However, accidental losses were also dependent on a number of factors including the flying rate and the role of the aircraft: for example, the Canadians flew more hours per CF-104 than other nations flew their F-104G fleets and they did so exclusively in the high-risk low-level environment.

Statistics can be presented in a number of ways, one being the loss rate per 100,000 flying hours. Using this measure, the Bulgarian MiG-19 rate was 100 aircraft lost per 100,000hrs, the F-104G was 139 aircraft, the RAF lost 41 Lightning aircraft and the MiG-21F in Soviet service was 30 aircraft. Between 1971 and 1975, the comparable rate for the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II F-4 in USAF service was 50 aircraft lost.

But whichever way the statistics might be presented, there can be no doubt that the life of fighter aircrew at the height of the Cold War was challenging and often dangerous. One unfortunate accident occurred on 14 July 1970 during the Exercise Zenit-70 when a Polish MiG-21PFM flown by Kapitan (Captain) H. Osierda from 11.PLM intercepted a Czech Air Force Su-7BKL; forgetting that he was flying a live-armed aircraft, he fired a K-13R AAM which destroyed his target. Fortunately, the Czechoslovak pilot, Kapitán F. Kružík ejected safely.

In Cold War Skies is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Rob Schleiffert from Holland via Wikipedia

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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