Aviation History

The story of why the German Air Force and German Navy dubbed the F-104 Starfighter “Widow Maker”

The F-104 Starfighter

Designed as a supersonic superiority fighter, the F-104 Starfighter was produced in two major versions. Armed with a six-barrel M-61 20mm Vulcan cannon, it served as a tactical fighter, and when equipped additionally with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, as a day-night interceptor. Development of the F-104 began in 1952, and the first XF-104 made its initial flight on Mar. 4, 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.

The USAF procured about 300 Starfighters in one- and two-seat versions. In addition, more than 1,700 F-104s were built in the United States 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.

The Widow Maker

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.”

In fact, as explained by Dr. Marshall Michel, 52nd Fighter Wing Historian in his article F-104: Germany’s ‘Widow Maker,’ the F-104 sleek looks hid a multitude of flaws.

For instance its wings were so small they could hold neither the landing gear nor fuel, which all had to be stowed in the fuselage. However the small wings were necessary to give the Starfighter its excellent acceleration, rate of climb and top speed. By contrast the small wings gave the F-104 also a poor sustained turn performance and since the could not carry fuel, the aircraft had a very limited range.

A German Lockheed F-104G Starfighter (s/n KF+134) in flight near Edwards Air Force Base, California (USA), in 1962. It was as first assigned to the “Joint Test Force” 6516th Flight Line Maintenance Squadron at Edwards AFB with in 1962 for “Category II” test flights. This F-104G was later airlifted to West Germany in July 1962 and came into service with Jagdbombergeschwader 31 (JaBoG 31, 31st Fighter-Bomber Wing) at Nörvenich Air Base. It was coded DC+112 and DA+106 in 1962 and finally became 20+51. It crashed during take off at Nörvenich on Jul. 30, 1969. The pilot ejected safely.

Moreover the aircraft did not feature a useful radar, and its loadout was made only by a cannon and heat-seeking missiles, making it a day, clear weather-only fighter.

The F-104 Starfighter Widow Maker “Deal of the Century”

It quickly became obvious that it was not really what the U.S. Air Force (USAF) wanted, and it was quietly shunted to the sidelines.

But at the same time the F-104 was chosen under what was called the “Deal of the Century,” by several NATO air forces to replace their old first-generation jets. Most of these aircraft, actually more than 900, went to Luftwaffe and Marineflieger air force.

At its peak in the mid-1970s, the Luftwaffe and Marineflieger operated 11 F-104 wings.

The variant delivered to the Germans was designed F-104G (with G for Germany) and it was not not the simple daylight fighter but an all-weather, ground attack version which was 2,000 pounds heavier than the original F-104 with the same engine. For most missions, it needed to carry four external fuel tanks, adding to the weight.

The Starfighter got off to a very bad start when, in Jun. 1962, four F-104s were practicing for the type’s “introduction-into-service” display and crashed in formation, killing all four pilots.

With almost 300 days of sunshine a year, Luke Air Force Base (AFB) in Phoenix, Arizona, was an excellent place to train and, given that German pilots could avoid the European bad weather, the airfield was chosen by the country to train its future F-104 drivers. But when the pilots returned to the harsh German weather, problems immediately arose.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-104G Starfighter Jagdgeschwader 71 (JG 71) “Richthofen”, JA+240, 1965

F-104 Starfighter, the Widow Maker

The issues were in two areas.

First, the speeds that the F-104 had to fly for approach and landing very high – much higher than the earlier jets – and went very fast, especially for an inexperienced pilot flying in seriously bad weather.

Second, since the Luftwaffe Starfighters’ had to perform the low-level high-speed attack mission and in those kind of sorties the aircraft was very sensitive to control-input and extremely unforgiving to pilot error.

The result was a horrific number of accidents. In fact 61 German F-104s had crashed, with a loss of 35 pilots by mid-1966.

Gen. Wernher Panitzki, the then Commander of the Luftwaffe, was forced to resign when he said that the Starfighter purchase was politically motivated. His successor was the Luftwaffe World War II-ace Lt. Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, who, as told by Michel, immediately grounded the F-104Gs, at least partially (and wisely) to install a new ejection seat.

To add to the Starfighters’ problems, it was learned that, in fact, Lockheed had bribed officials in Germany and other countries in the process of selling the F-104, though the German Starfighter purchase documents had been destroyed in 1962 by the Ministry of Defence.

However 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.

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

Marineflieger (German Navy) F-104 Starfighters

Photo credit: German Federal Archive and U.S. Air Force

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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