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Flightline: 7/TBA

Lockheed F-104G aircraft lined up at Ingolstadt Manching Airport Germany
Lockheed F-104G aircraft lined up at Ingolstadt Manching Airport Germany
Photo: Unbekannter Autor

Look, pretty planes!

Nah, just messing with you.

Springing from the mind of Kelly Johnson and his team at Lockheed, the F-104 was developed in the early 1950s as a blindingly fast, high flying interceptor to engage Soviet bombers. Equipped with a single massive J79 turbojet and featuring small, highly swept wings so thin they needed covers during maintenance, lest ground crew cut themselves.

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F-104A showing leading and trailing edge covers
F-104A showing leading and trailing edge covers
Photo: Bill Spidle

The Starfighter saw service in the USAF from 1958 until 1969, though use continued with the Puerto Rican Air National Guard until 1975. The plane was widely exported, serving in the air forces of 14 other nations, as well as NASA. Canada, Italy and Japan license-built their own copies, with the CF-104 being modified to perform nuclear strike and recon roles, the F-104S designed to fire AIM-7 Sparrow missile, and the F-104J, which resembled the F-104G, but retained the original’s interceptor only role .

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The F-104G was the definitive variant, and 1,127 were produced by Lockheed, Canadair, and a consortium of Messerschmidt/MBB, Fiat, Fokker and S.A.B.C.A. The type featured a strengthened fuselage, wing, and empennage structures; the larger vertical fin with fully powered rudder as used on the two-seat versions; fully powered brakes, a new anti-skid system, and larger tires; revised flaps for improved combat maneuvering; and a larger braking chute. The G model was also a multi-role aircraft, with 7 hardpoints under the wing and fuselage allowing carriage of AIM-9 Sidewinders, unguided bombs and rockets, and fuel tanks.

It was this multi-role aspect that interested the international community, and the so-called “Deal of the Century” was struck (with bribes greasing the wheels along the way), allowing Lockheed’s new mount to replace a large number of aging first-generation jets.

West Germany acquired 915 Starfighters, with 151 going to the Marineflieger and the rest to the Luftwaffe. Though an adequate fighter-bomber, the F-104 design was optimized for high-speed, high-altitude flight, and the adaptations to low-altitude flight were not entirely effective. The plane quickly gained a reputation as being accident-prone, with 270 aircraft lost in West German service and 110 pilots killed. The press dubbed the plane Witwenmacher (‘widowmaker’), and the running joke being “How do you get an F-104 for cheep? Buy a plot of land in West Germany and wait.”. Still, the plane soldiered on in Luftwaffe service, surviving past reunification and being finally retired in 1991.

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