Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Italy - Air Force
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was the last of the day fighters, a
high-performance supersonic interceptor aircraft capable of high speeds and
climb rates. In this role the Starfighter served for only a short time and was
generally disliked by the US Air Force which found its range, load-carrying
ability, and equipment inadequate for the service's needs. The Starfighter
gained a second lease on life in the 1960s, when it was selected as the basis
for a high-speed fighter-bomber by a European commission. Many served in this
role into the 1980s. In some countries the Starfighter gained the reputation
of being an extremely unsafe aircraft.
In 1951, "Kelly" Johnson, chief engineer at Lockheed's Skunk Works, visited Korea
and talked to fighter pilots about what sort of plane they wanted.
At the time the US pilots were meeting the MiG-15 in their F-86s and
many of the American pilots felt that the MiGs were superior to the larger and
more complex American design. The pilots requested a small and simple aircraft
with excellent performance.
On his return to the US, Johnson immediately started the design of just such an
aircraft. In March his team was assembled and they studied several aircraft
designs ranging from small designs at 8,000 lb (3.6 t), to fairly large ones
at 50,000 lb (23 t). In November, 1952, a follow-on study started, the lessons
learned from the earlier designs being used to eventually result in the
Lockheed L-246, of about 12,000 lb (5.4 t). The 246 remained essentially
identical to the Starfighter as eventually delivered.
The design was presented to the Air Force in November, 1952, and they were
interested enough to create a new proposal and to invite several companies
to participate. Three additional designs were received: the Republic AP-55,
an improved version of its prototype XF-91 Thunderceptor, the North American
NA-212 which would eventually evolve into the F-107, and the Northrop N-102
Fang, a new General Electric J-79-powered design. Although all were interesting,
Lockheed had an insurmountable lead and was granted a development contract
in March, 1953.
Work progressed quickly with a mock-up ready for inspection at the end of
April, and work starting on two prototypes late in May. At the time, the J-79
engine was not ready so both prototypes were designed to use the Wright J-65
engine instead, a licensed version of the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. The first
prototype was completed by early 1954, and started flying in March. The total
time from design to flying was about two years, unheard of even then, let alone
today when ten to fifteen years is more typical.
In order to achieve the desired performance, Lockheed chose a minimalist approach:
a design that would achieve high performance by wrapping the lightest, most
aerodynamically efficient airframe possible around a single powerful engine.
The emphasis was on minimizing drag and mass.
Wing and fuselage
The wing design was radical. Most jet fighters of the period (and to this day)
used a swept-wing or delta-wing planform. This allowed a reasonable balance
between aerodynamic performance, lift, and internal space for fuel and equipment.
Lockheed's tests, however, determined that the most efficient shape for
high-speed, supersonic flight was a very small, straight, mid-mounted,
trapezoidal wing. The wing was extremely thin, with a thickness-to-chord ratio
of only 3.36%. Its aspect ratio was 2.45. The wing's leading edges were so thin
(0.016 in / 0.41 mm) and so sharp that they presented a hazard to ground
crews. The wings contained no fuel, necessitating the tanks and landing gear be
contained in the fuselage.
The stabilator (horizontal tail surface) was mounted atop the fin to reduce
inertial coupling. Because the vertical tailfin was only slightly shorter than
the length of each wing and nearly as aerodynamically effective, it could act
as a wing on rudder application (a phenomenon known as Dutch roll). To offset
this effect the wings were canted downward, given 10° anhedral. The wings had
both leading and trailing edge flaps. Later Starfighter marks incorporated a
system that allowed the flaps to be extended during combat maneuvering,
reducing turn radius and generally improving sustained turn rate.
The combination provided extremely low drag except at high angle of attack
(alpha), at which point induced drag became very high. As a result the
Starfighter had superb acceleration, rate of climb, and potential top speed,
but its sustained turn performance was very poor, described by some as more
like a milk truck than a fighter. It was sensitive to control input but
extremely unforgiving of pilot error.
The small, highly-loaded wing resulted in an unacceptably high takeoff and
landing speed, so a boundary layer control system (BLCS) of blown flaps was
incorporated, bleeding engine air over the trailing edge flaps to improve their
lift. The system was a boon to safe landings although it proved to be a
maintenance problem in service, and landing without the BLCS could be harrowing.
The Starfighter's fuselage had a high fineness ratio, i.e., tapering sharply
towards the nose, and small frontal area. The fuselage was tightly packed
containing the radar, cockpit, cannon, all fuel, landing gear, and engine.
Several two-seat training versions of the Starfighter were produced. They were
generally similar to the comparable single-seater but the additional cockpit
required the deletion of the cannon and some internal fuel. Two-seaters are
combat-capable and, despite a slightly larger vertical fin and increased weight,
have similar performance to the single-seater.
The F-104 was built around the General Electric J79 turbojet engine, fed by
side-mounted intakes with fixed inlet scoops and a conical ramp optimized for
supersonic speeds. (Unlike some supersonic aircraft, the F-104 does not have
variable-geometry inlets.) Its thrust-to-drag ratio was superb allowing a
maximum speed well in excess of Mach 2: the top speed of the Starfighter is
limited more by the aluminum structure and the temperature limits of the engine
than by thrust or drag (which gives an aerodynamic maximum speed of Mach 2.2).
Later models used uprated marks of the J79, improving thrust by almost 20%.
Equipment and armament
Early Starfighters used a downward-firing ejection seat (the Lockheed C-1),
out of concern over the ability of an upward-firing seat to clear the tailplane.
This presented obvious problems in low-altitude escapes, and some 21 USAF pilots
failed to escape their stricken aircraft in low-level emergencies because of it.
The downward-firing seat was soon replaced by a Lockheed C-2 upward-firing seat
which was capable of clearing the tail, although it still had a minimum speed
limitation of 90 knots (170 km/h). Most export Starfighters were fitted with
Martin-Baker ejection seats with zero/zero (zero altitude, zero airspeed)
capability which, no doubt, was comforting to pilots.
The initial USAF Starfighters had basic AN/ASG-14T ranging radar, TACAN, and
radio. The later international fighter-bomber aircraft had much more advanced
Aeroneutics NASARR radar, a simple infrared sight, Litton LN-3 inertial
navigation system, and an air data computer.
In the late 1960s, the Italian Air Force developed a more advanced version of
the Starfighter, the F-104S, for use as an all-weather interceptor. The F-104S
received a NASAAR R21-G with moving-target indicator (for some ability against
low-level targets) and a continuous-wave illuminator for semi-active radar
homing missiles, including AIM-7 Sparrow and Selenia Aspide. The missile-guidance
avionics forced the deletion of the Starfighter's internal cannon. In the
mid-1980s surviving F-104S aircraft were updated to ASA (Aggiornamento Sistema
d'Arma, or Updated Weapons System) standard with a much improved, more compact
Fiat R21G/M1 radar that also provided enough space to restore the gun.
Basic armament of the F-104 was the M61 Vulcan 20 mm Gatling gun. The
Starfighter was the first aircraft to carry the new weapon which had a
phenomenal rate of fire of 6,000 rounds per minute. The cannon, mounted in the
lower part of the port fuselage, is fed by a 725-round drum behind the pilot's
seat. It was deleted in two-seat models and some single-seaters (the gun bay and
ammunition tank could be replaced by an additional fuel tank). Two AIM-9
Sidewinder air-to-air missiles can be carried on the wingtip stations which
can alternately be used for fuel tanks or other stores. F-104C and later models
added a centerline pylon and two underwing pylons under each wing for bombs,
nuclear weapons, rocket pods, or tanks. The centerline pylon could carry a
catamaran launcher for two additional Sidewinders, although the installation
had minimal ground clearance and made the seeker heads of the missiles
vulnerable to ground debris. The F-104S and some F-104G and F-104J models added
a pair of fuselage pylons beneath the intakes, usually used for Sidewinders
(providing better ground clearance than the catamaran launcher and leaving the
centerline available for other stores). The Italian F-104S also added an
additional pylon under each wing, for a maximum of nine. The F-104S was cleared
for a higher maximum takeoff weight allowing it to carry up to 7,500 lb
(3,400 kg) of stores; other Starfighters had a maximum external load of 4,000
lb (1,814 kg).
The Starfighter is generally considered a rewarding, if very demanding,
"sports car" of a fighter. It was the first combat aircraft capable of sustained
Mach 2 flight (not just a brief dash), and its speed and climb performance remain
impressive by modern standards. If used appropriately, with high-speed slashing
attacks and good use of its exceptional thrust-to-weight ratio, it can be a
formidable opponent, although being lured into a turning contest with a slower,
more maneuverable opponent (as Pakistani pilots were with Indian Hunters in 1965)
is perilous. The F-104's turn radius and high-alpha behavior have always been
tricky, however, and the Starfighter has a well-deserved reputation for
unforgiving behavior. Some users lost nearly half their aircraft through accidents,
although the accident rate varied widely depending on the user and operating
conditions; the Spanish Air Force, for example, lost none. The Starfighter has
been a particular favorite of the Italian Air Force, although the AMI's accident
rate was far from the lowest of Starfighter users.
The initial F-104A served briefly with the USAF Air Defense Command as an
interceptor, although neither its range or armament were well-suited for that
role. Its status was nonetheless enhanced when, on May 18, 1958, an F-104A set
a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph (2,260 km/h), and on December 14, 1959, an
F-104C set a world altitude record of 103,395 ft (31.5 km). The Starfighter was
the first aircraft to hold simultaneous official world records for speed,
altitude, and time-to-climb.
The subsequent F-104C entered service with Tactical Air Command as a multi-role
fighter and fighter-bomber. It saw service in the Vietnam War both in the
air-superiority role (although it saw little aerial combat and scored no
air-to-air kills) and in the air support mission.
The USAF procured only 296 Starfighters in one and two seat versions. The USAF
was less than satisfied with the Starfighter. At the time USAF doctrine placed
little importance on air superiority (the "pure" fighter mission), and the
Starfighter was deemed inadequate for either the interceptor or tactical
fighter-bomber role, lacking both payload and endurance compared to other
USAF aircraft. Its U.S. service quickly wound down after 1965.
Nevertheless, the F-104 found a new market with other NATO countries and
2,578 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, Pakistan, the Republic
of China (Taiwan), and Japan.
The so-called "Deal of the Century" produced considerable income for Lockheed,
but considerable political controversy in Europe, particularly in Germany,
where minister of defence Franz Josef Strauss was almost forced to resign over
the issue. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was also connected to being
bribed by Lockheed, and he later confessed having received more than 1 mill.
USD. Many considered the Starfighter program a politically motivated enterprise,
with governments browbeaten into accepting a USAF cast-off out of U.S.
political pressure. This debate was exacerbated by the F-104's alarming
accident rate (in German service alone 292 of the 916 Starfighters crashed,
claiming the lives of 115 pilots), leading to cries that the Starfighter was
fundamentally unsafe. In the 1970s it was revealed that Lockheed had engaged
in an extensive campaign of bribery of foreign officials to obtain sales, a
scandal that nearly led to the ailing corporation's downfall. Although that
scandal was not specifically connected with the Starfighter, some have
speculated that Lockheed's aggressive, sometimes bribery-based sales
tactics stretched back to the "Deal of the Century" as well.
The German controversy over the Starfighter also inspired a rock concept
album by Robert Calvert of Hawkwind, called "Captain Lockheed and the
Starfighters." After Kai-Uwe von Hassel succeeded Strauss as minister of
defence, his son Oberleutnant Joachim von Hassel died in a crash with a
Starfighter. This event was the topic of the Welle:Erdball song
The F-104 in international service began to wind down in the late 1970s,
replaced in many cases by the F-16, but it remained in service with some air
forces for another two decades. The last frontline Starfighters were with the
Italian AMI, which retired in summer 2004.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article "F-104 Starfighter".