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Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter is a single-engine, supersonic interceptor aircraft which was extensively deployed as a fighter-bomber during the Cold War.

Created as a day fighter by Lockheed as one of the Century Series of fighter aircraft for the United States Air Force, it was developed into an all-weather multirole aircraft in the early 1960s and produced by several other nations, seeing widespread service outside the United States.

After a series of interviews with Korean War fighter pilots in 1951, Kelly Johnson, then lead designer at Lockheed, opted to reverse the trend of ever larger and more complex fighters and produce a simple, lightweight aircraft with maximum altitude and climb performance.

On 4 March 1954, the Lockheed XF-104 took to the skies for the first time, and on 26 February 1958 the production fighter was activated by the USAF.

Only a few months later it was pressed into action during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, when it was deployed as a deterrent to Chinese MiG-15 and MiG-17 fighters.

Problems with the General Electric J79 engine and a preference for fighters with longer ranges and heavier payloads meant its service with the USAF was short-lived, though it was reactivated for service during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Vietnam War, when it flew over 5,000 combat sorties.

While its time with the USAF was brief, the Starfighter found much more lasting success with other NATO and allied nations.

In October 1958, West Germany selected the F-104 as its primary fighter aircraft.

Canada soon followed, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, and Italy.

The European nations formed a construction consortium that was the largest international manufacturing program in history to that point, though the Starfighter’s export success was marred in 1975 by the discovery of bribe payments made by Lockheed to many foreign military and political figures for securing purchase contracts.

The Starfighter eventually flew with fifteen air forces, but its poor safety record, especially in Luftwaffe service, brought it substantial criticism.

The Germans lost 292 of 916 aircraft and 116 pilots from 1961 to 1989, its high accident rate earning it the nickname “the Widowmaker” from the German public.

The final production version, the F-104S, was an all-weather interceptor built by Aeritalia for the Italian Air Force.

It was retired from active service in 2004, though several F-104s remain in civilian operation with Florida-based Starfighters Inc.

The Starfighter featured a radical design, with thin, stubby wings attached farther back on the fuselage than most contemporary aircraft.

The wing provided excellent supersonic and high-speed, low-altitude performance, but also poor turning capability and high landing speeds.

It was the first production aircraft to achieve Mach 2, and the first aircraft to reach an altitude of 100,000 ft (30,000 m) after taking off under its own power.

The Starfighter established world records for airspeed, altitude, and time-to-climb in 1958, becoming the first aircraft to hold all three simultaneously.

It was also the first aircraft to be equipped with the M61 Vulcan autocannon.

The Starfighter’s airframe was all-metal, primarily duralumin with some stainless steel and titanium.

The fuselage was approximately two and a half times as long as the airplane’s wingspan.

The wings were centred on the horizontal reference plane, or along the longitudinal centreline of the fuselage, and were located substantially farther aft on the fuselage than most contemporary designs.

The aft fuselage was elevated from the horizontal reference plane, resulting a “lifted” tail, and the nose was “drooped”.

This caused the aircraft to fly nose up, helping to minimize drag.

As a result, the pitot tube, air inlet scoops, and engine thrust line were all canted slightly from centreline of the fuselage.

The F-104 featured a radical wing design.

Most jet fighters of the period used a swept-wing or delta-wing, which balanced aerodynamic performance, lift, and internal space for fuel and equipment.

The Lockheed tests determined that the most efficient shape for high-speed supersonic flight was a very small and thin, straight, mid-mounted, trapezoidal wing.

Much of the data on the wing shape was derived from testing done with the experimental unmanned Lockheed X-7, which used a wing of a similar shape. 

The leading edge of the wing was swept back at 26 degrees, with the trailing edge swept forward by a slightly smaller amount.

The new wing design was extremely thin, with a thickness-to-chord ratio of only 3.36% and an aspect ratio of 2.45.

The wing’s leading edges were so thin (.016 in, 0.41 mm) that they were a hazard to ground crews. Hence, protective guards were installed on them during maintenance.

The thinness of the wings required fuel tanks and landing gear to be placed in the fuselage, and the hydraulic cylinders driving the ailerons were limited to 1-inch (25 mm) thickness to fit.

The small, highly loaded wing caused an unacceptably high landing speed, even after adding both leading- and trailing-edge flaps.

Thus, designers developed a boundary layer control system, or BLCS, of high-pressure bleed air, which was blown over the trailing-edge flaps to lower landing speeds by more than 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph) and help make landing safer. 

Flapless landings would be without the BLCS engaged, as flaps in the “land” position were required for its operation.

Landing without the BLCS engaged was only done in emergencies and could be a harrowing experience, especially at night.

The stabilator (fully moving horizontal stabilizer) was mounted atop the fin to reduce inertia coupling.

Because the vertical fin was only slightly shorter than the length of each wing and nearly as aerodynamically effective, it could act as a wing-on-rudder application, rolling the aircraft in the opposite direction of rudder input.

To offset this effect, the wings were canted downward at a 10° negative-dihedral (anhedral) angle.

This downward canting also improved roll control during high-G manoeuvres, common in air-to-air combat.

The fuselage had a high fineness ratio.

It was slender, tapered towards the sharp nose, and had a small frontal area.

The tightly packed fuselage contained the radar, cockpit, cannon, fuel, landing gear, and engine.

The fuselage and wing combination provided low drag except at high angle of attack (alpha), at which point induced drag became very high.

The F-104 had good acceleration, rate of climb, and top speed, but its sustained turn performance was poor.

A “clean” (no external weapons or fuel tanks) F-104 could sustain a 7-g turn below 5,000 feet with full afterburner.

Given the aircraft’s prodigious fuel consumption at that altitude and relatively small fuel capacity, such a manoeuvre would dramatically reduce its time on station.



This was the prototype aircraft; two examples were built and powered by Wright J65 engines (the J79 was not yet ready).

The second prototype was equipped with the M61 cannon as an armament test bed.

Both aircraft were destroyed in crashes.


The YF-104A was a pre-production aircraft used for engine, equipment, and flight testing; 17 were built, with the first flight taking place on 17 February 1956 and reaching Mach 2 for the first time on 27 April.


This aircraft was the initial production single-seat interceptor version, very similar to the YF-104A.


The NF-104A was used for three demilitarized versions with an additional 6,000 lbf (27 kN) Rocketdyne LR121/AR-2-NA-1 rocket engine, used for astronaut training at altitudes up to 120,800 ft (36,800 m).


A total of 24 F-104As (4 YF-104As, 20 early F-104As) were converted into radio-controlled drones and test aircraft.


The F-104B was a tandem two-seat, dual-control trainer version of the F-104A.


A fighter-bomber for USAF Tactical Air Command, the F-104C had improved fire-control radar (AN/ASG-14T-2), one centreline and two pylons under each wing (for a total of five), and the ability to carry one Mk 28 or Mk 43 nuclear weapon on the centreline pylon.


The F-104D designation was a dual-control trainer version of the F-104C.

Twenty-one examples were built.


This aircraft was a dual-control trainer version of the F-104J for the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF).


The F-104F designation was given to a dual-control trainer based on the F-104D but using the upgraded engine of the F-104G.


The F-104G was the most-produced version of the F-104 family, a multi-role fighter-bomber with a total of 1,127 aircraft built.

They were manufactured by Lockheed, as well as under license by Canadair and a consortium of European companies that included Messerschmitt/MBB, Fiat, Fokker, and SABCA.


The RF-104G was a tactical reconnaissance model based on the F-104G, usually with three KS-67A cameras mounted in the forward fuselage in place of the internal cannon.


A combat-capable trainer version of the F-104G, the TF-104G had no cannon or centre line pylon and reduced internal fuel.


The F-104H was a projected export version based on the F-104G with an optical gunsight and simplified equipment.

It was cancelled prior to construction.


The F-104J was a specialized interceptor version of the F-104G for the Japanese ASDF, built under license by Mitsubishi for the air-superiority role; it was armed with cannon and four Sidewinders, but had no strike capability.


Three unarmed and lighter F-104Gs were delivered to NASA in 1963 for use as high-speed chase aircraft and given the designation F-104N.


FIAT built 246 of the final production versions, the F-104S (one of these aircraft crashed prior to delivery and is often not included in the total number produced).

Forty of these aircraft were delivered to the Turkish Air Force and the rest to the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare Italiana).


(Aggiornamento Sistemi d’Arma – “Weapon Systems Update”)

This was an upgraded F-104S equipped with the Fiat R21G/M1 radar with frequency hopping and a look-down/shoot-down capability, new IFF system and weapon delivery computer, and provision for the AIM-9L all-aspect Sidewinder and Selenia Aspide missiles.


(Aggiornamento Sistemi d’Arma/Modificato – “Weapon Systems Update/Modified”)

Forty-nine airframes were upgraded from 1995 to 1997 to ASA/M standard with GPS, new TACAN, and Litton LN-30A2 INS, a refurbished airframe, and improved cockpit displays.


CF-104 was the designation applied to 200 Canadian-built versions, built under license by Canadair.


The CF-104D was a dual-control trainer version of the CF-104, built by Lockheed, but with Canadian J79-OEL-7 engines.

Thirty-eight were built, with some later being transferred to Denmark, Norway, and Turkey.





54 ft 8 in (16.66 m)


21 ft 9 in (6.63 m)


13 ft 6 in (4.11 m)

Wing area

196.1 sq ft (18.22 m2)


Biconvex 3.36% root and tip

Empty weight

14,000 lb (6,350 kg)

Max take-off weight

29,027 lb (13,166 kg)


1 × General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet,

10,000 lbf (44 kN) thrust dry,

15,600 lbf (69 kN) with afterburner


Maximum speed

1,528 mph (2,459 km/h, 1,328 kn)

Maximum speed

Mach 2

Combat range

420 mi (680 km, 360 nmi)

Ferry range

1,630 mi (2,620 km, 1,420 nmi)

Service ceiling

50,000 ft (15,000 m)

Rate of climb

48,000 ft/min (240 m/s) Initially



Wing loading

105 lb/sq ft (510 kg/m2)


0.54 with max. take-off weight (0.76 loaded)



1 × 20 mm (0.787 in) M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled Gatling cannon, 725 rounds


7 with a capacity of 4,000 lb (1,800 kg), with provisions to carry combinations of:


4 × AIM-9 Sidewinder


Bombs, rockets,


Other stores.



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