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F-104 Starfighter

Because of its physical appearance and performance, the F-104 has often been called the "missile with a man in it." The design was a product of the Korean War, and was unique in several respects. The encounters with the MiG-15 in Korea caused a strong outcry among Air Force fighter pilots for a cheap, lightweight, maneuverable, high-performance fighter to confront future Soviet fighters. The result was the F-104, a fighter that overemphasized rate of climb and brute speed.

Intended as a point defense interceptor, range was sacrificed for rate of climb. Range, however, could be extended using external tanks and in-flight refueling. It used an exceptionally small wing span of only 21 feet, and provided low speed lift through air bled from the engine and vented over the wing. Designed as a supersonic superiority fighter, the F-104 was produced in two major versions. Armed with a six-barrel M-61 20mm Vulcan cannon it served as a tactical fighter and, equipped additionally with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, as a day-night interceptor. The USAF procured about 300 Starfighters in one- and two-seat versions.

In 1952, C.L. "Kelly" Johnson designed the F-104, and the first XF-104 made its initial flight in 1954. It was the first aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound and held numerous airspeed and altitude records. On May 18, 1958, an F-104A set a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph, and on December 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. Using an accelerated loft technique, some F-104s have been flown to higher than 90,000 feet.

The F-104G to be significantly lighter than the other Century Series fighters and, with its small wing, to have the highest wing loading of the group. Maximum speed is Mach 2.0 at 35 000 feet and Mach 1.13 at sea level. Initial rate of climb at sea level is a spectacular 48 000 feet per minute. In May 1958, a world speed record of 1404 miles per hour was set by an F-104, and a record zoom-climb to an altitude of 91243 feet was made.

Like the F-84F Thunderstreak before it and the F-16 Fighting Falcon of today, the F-104 was selected for use by the NATO allies. More than 1,700 F-104s were built in the U.S. 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. Several F-104 squadrons were still flying in the 1990s with the air forces of Italy, Germany and Japan. Some F-104s have been modified to include a second cockpit for transition training and some weapons delivery. A reconnaissance version also exists although it never served with the USAF.

Based on lessons learned in the Korean war, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was originally intended as a lightweight interceptor with very high maximum speed and rate of climb. However, the aircraft saw only limited service in that role with the USAF, perhaps because it was too small to accommodate the sophisticated all-weather navigation and fire-control systems required by the Air Defense Command. A redesigned fighter-bomber version of the F-104 saw limited service with the USAF Tactical Air Command, including action in the Vietnam war, but enjoyed spectacular success in export sales to foreign governments. The aircraft has been in the inventory of 15 different countries and manufactured in 7 countries including the United States.

Most supersonic aircraft have wings of one or the other of these shapes, or some hybrid form derived from a blending of the two types. In contrast, the Lockheed F-104 was designed in accordance with an entirely different configuration concept, which featured an almost vanishingly small straight wing and a horizontal tail mounted in the T-position at the top of the vertical tail.

With an area of 196.1 square feet, the wing of the F-104 was about one-half as large as that of the F-100 and less than one-third as large as that of the.F-106. From the side of the fuselage to the wingtip measured only 7 feet, 7 inches. The actual thickness of the wing varied from a maximum of 4.2 inches at the root to 1.96 inches at the tip. The corresponding airfoil thickness ratio was 3.4 percent. Sharp leading-edge airfoil sections (sharp enough to pose a safety hazard to ground personnel) were used to minimize the drag rise in passing through Mach 1.0. Even so, experimental data show that the transonic drag rise on this straight-wing aircraft with no area ruling was about 40 percent higher than that of the F-106 (in terms of drag coefficient). Both leading- and trailing-edge flaps were used to increase the lifting capability of the wing. Effectiveness of the simple trailing-edge flaps was augmented by boundary-layer control employing high-pressure bleed air from the engine. Ailerons were used for lateral control. The pronounced wing anhedral angle (droop) served to partially offset the rolling moment due to sideslip induced by the tall surfaces. During the flight test program, the aircraft was found to have a severe pitch-up problem at the stall. Immersion of the highmounted horizontal tail in the wake from the stalled wing and long fuselage nose undoubtedly caused the problem. A stick shaker/pusher to limit the maximum attainable angle of attack eliminated the pitch-up problem.

The side-mounted inlets incorporated a fixed conical centerbody whose vertex angle and position were chosen so as to place the oblique shock from the nose of the centerbody on or just above the lip of the inlet at the maximum design Mach number. The conical centerbody inlet along with appropriate auxiliary inlet doors provided the proper engine airflow through the design Mach number range. Of lower performance than the production aircraft, the prototype XF-104 had normal shock inlets without the centerbody.

Armament carried on the F-104 consisted of one six-barrel 20-mm Vulcan rotary cannon. This weapon can be likened to the 19th-century Gatling gun but was, of course, power operated instead of hand cranked. Four thousand pounds of various types of external stores could also be carried. On a typical ground-attack mission, the aircraft was capable of delivering 2510 pounds of bombs at a combat radius of 620 miles. Both pylon and tip-mounted fuel tanks were dropped during the course of the mission, which was carried out at an average speed of 585 miles per hour. Cruise altitude varied from about 22 000 feet at the beginning of the mission to 34 000 feet at the return to home base. Weapons delivery took place at near sea-level altitude.

In many quarters, the F-104 has the unenviable reputation of being a difficult and dangerous aircraft to fly, an aircraft with unforgiving handling characteristics. Certainly, it has had an appallingly poor safety record in use with some air forces but a relatively good one in others. In fairness, the record seems to suggest that the aircraft can be flown with reasonable safety if the pilots are properly trained and the aircraft is maintained and flown strictly in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations. Apparently, however, the aircraft can be terribly unforgiving of any departure from these recommended procedures.

First flight of the F-104 prototype took place on February 7, 1954, and production aircraft first entered service with the USAF in January 1958. By the time the last Starfighter was built in Italy in 1978, a total of 2536 units had been constructed in this multinational program. A final question and observation on the somewhat controversial F-104: Why did the aircraft receive such wide acceptance by foreign air forces while, at the same time, it was essentially rejected by the USAF? Relatively light in weight, the aircraft offered a very high performance at a reasonable price. These were no doubt important ingredients in the formula that assured its widespread safe abroad, as was the highly aggressive and effective sales campaign mounted by the Lockheed organization. Limited payload and range, however, restricted the usefulness of' the F-104 in service with the USAF - an organization that could and did pay for exactly what it wanted.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:30:04 ZULU