“Along with the SR-71, the F-104 is Kelly Johnson’s greatest creation,” Ed Carney, U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II pilot who flew the Starfighter with the West German Navy from ’79-’82
The Lockheed F-104 was the first operational fighter capable of sustaining speeds above Mach 2.
Thanks to this ability 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 U.S. Air Force (USAF) only for a short period of time.
But despite these shortcomings, the pilots who flew the F-104 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.”
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 U.S. 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.”
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Luftwaffe
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com