Project Featherduster: the exercise that proved the F-104 could have been a better MiG killer than the F-4C, F-105D and F-100D

Former F-104 Pilots explain why despite the Starfighter many limitations they loved flying the Zipper

By Dario Leone
Mar 7 2023
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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Despite the Starfighter shortcomings, the pilots who flew the F-104 fell in love with it.

The Lockheed F-104 was the first operational fighter capable of sustaining speeds above Mach 2.

Development of the F-104 began in 1952, and the first XF-104 made its initial flight in 1954. On May 18, 1958, an F-104A set a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph, and on Dec. 14, 1959, an F-104C set a world altitude record of 103,395 feet. The Starfighter was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous official world records for speed, altitude and time-to-climb.

Because of his speed, the Starfighter was a huge leap forward when strictly compared to the old subsonic and “forgiving” jets. Nevertheless when the air-to-air engagements took place at subsonic speeds, the lack of wing area put the F-104 at a disadvantage against more traditional fighters since its turn ability in this regime was critical. Hence the importance of not allowing the Starfighter to slow below Mach 1 to take advantage of his speed and vertical climb that were unrivaled at the time.

Moreover, the short range and the limited weapons-carrying, worked against the F-104 which remained in active service with the US Air Force (USAF) only for a short period of time.

Despite these shortcomings, not only more than 1,700 F-104s were built in the US and abroad under the military aid program for various nations (including Canada, West Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan and Japan) but also the pilots who flew the Starfighter

fell in love with it, as emerged in several accounts released to Ted Spitzmiller, for his book Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960. James C. Parham, Jr., who flew the Starfighter as a member of the South Carolina Air National Guard recalled in fact that “Although limited in range with two Sidewinders and no drop tanks, the F-104 was the quintessential high altitude interceptor. The pilots had a love affair with the F-104. The cockpit was simple, compact, and comfortable. The canopy was straightforward, light and manually opened and closed. At Mach 2, it was quiet-and the long flexible fuselage rippled ever so gently.”

F-104 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-104C Starfighter 151st FIS, 134th FIG, 56-0890

Due to its lack of fit for USAF service, the F-104 was sold to foreign governments soon in its career and the Canadian Air Force became one of the main Starfighter users and several US pilots had the chance to fly it during squadron exchanges, as happened to Dudley Larsen who flew the CF-104 transitioning from the F-4 Phantom.

Larsen was favorably impressed by the “Zipper”: “It was an easy transition because the plane was very honest to fly-it talked to you. It had a good feel when it settled in. The engines were the same as the F-4 (J79).” The Starfighter performed admirably in the visual multi-bogey ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) arena, as it was very fast and small. On the other side, due to its high wing loading which caused the F-104 poor turning ability, if the pilot turned more than 30 degrees, he became a target. According to Larsen the CF-104 held its own against the F-4 and the proficiency of the pilot made a big difference.

Literally smitten with the Starfighter was Ed Carney, a U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II pilot who flew it in Germany for 3 years with the West German Navy from ’79-’82 “Coming from the A-7E it was like transitioning to jets all over again. Crazy fast and light, and would outrace anything out there. Flying slow (defined as less than 450 kts) could be dicey if you tried to pull any G’s.“ As Carney explains the jet could super cruise at sea level and could maintain its maneuvering capacity while fighting, as long as the fight never went too slow. “It demanded a skilled pilot and rewarded him with amazing performance, but was the least forgiving airplane I have ever flown. On the deck, plugging in the burner would shove you from 450 to 750 knots so fast it was almost scary. We were always pulling it back to keep from exceeding a speed or temp limit.”

However, according to Carney, the F-104 was more than a high performance fighter, since “Along with the SR-71, it is Kelly Johnson’s greatest creation.”

Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

F-104 model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.


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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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