Known as "the missile with a man in it," the stubby-winged Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was the first U.S. jet fighter in service to fly Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. Designed as a high-performance day fighter, the F-104 had excellent acceleration and top speed. It first flew on March 4, 1954.
While built for the U.S. Air Force, most Starfighters were flown by other countries, particularly Canada, Italy, Germany, and Japan. Many were built under license overseas.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) flew this F-104A for 19 years as a flying test bed and a chase plane. It was used to test the reaction controls later used on the North American X-15. This aircraft was the seventh F-104 built and was transferred to the Museum after its last flight, to Andrews Air Force Base, on August 26, 1975.
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was nicknamed "the missile with a man in it," since its long, thin fuselage and stubby wings resembled a missile more than a conventional aircraft. The F-104 was the first interceptor in our nation’s service to be able to fly at sustained speeds above Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound).
The Starfighter’s design was radical for its time, as it was a small, straight-wing aircraft while most contemporary designs were much larger and featured swept-back wings. The wingspan is only 21 feet, 11 inches, and the wings themselves have a 100 negative dihedral. The razor-sharp leading edge requires a specialty fitted cover when on the ground to protect the ground crew. A narrow fuselage fits tightly around the power plant, and its forward portion curves down slightly to allow maximum pilot visibility.
The F-104 featured the General Electric 14,800-pound-thrust J79 turbojet engine and afterburner, which occupied more than half the length of the fuselage. The fuel tanks and cockpit took up much of the remainder, so that insufficient space remained for the necessary electronics systems. A series of self-contained electronics packages were
developed which could be ‘plugged in" to suit the individual mission. Basic armament consisted of an M-61 Vulcan 20-mm gun in the fuselage and a Sidewinder GAR-8 missile on each wingtip. The M61 was a Gatling type with multiple rotating barrels and an extremely high rate of fire.
Design of the F-104 began in November 1952. The U.S. Air Force had a requirement for a superior day fighter, and Lockheed began work on its Model 83. Two prototypes, powered by the Wright J65 engine, were ordered by the Air Force in March 1953. On March 4,1954, Lockheed test pilot Tony Le Vier made the first flight in the XF-104. Fifteen YF-104A aircraft, powered by the GE J79 engine, were ordered for testing.
The first F-104A deliveries took place on January 26, 1958. They were delivered to the 83d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Hamilton Air Force Base. California. Soon afterward, pilots from this squadron set new world speed and altitude records. Maj. Howard C. Johnson established a world airplane altitude record of 91,249 feet on May 7. 1958. On May 16, 1958, Capt. Walter W. Irvin established a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph. The F-104 also established seven climb-to-height records. Four of these replaced old records: the 15000 meter, 20.000 meter. and 25.000 meter climbs set completely new records.
The major variants were the F-104B, a two-seat version of the F-104A, used as an operational trainer: the F-104C, modified for use by the Tactical Air Command with provision for inflight refueling: and the F-104D, a two-seat version of the F-104C.
The majority of Starfighters were used in foreign service. Most of the F-l04Gs, F-l04Js, and CF104s were built under license in NATO and SEATO countries. The basic Starfighter was modified to be a multimission fighter with considerably strengthened structure and different operational equipment.
On October 12. 1959. the Starfighter protect was awarded the Collier Trophy.
Starfighters served in the Air Force until the early 1960s. A few saw service in Vietnam. and they were also used in Air National Guard units until 1975. Their European counterparts stayed in service even longer.
The museum’s specimen is a Lockheed F-104A, military serial number 55-2961, the seventh F-104A produced (formerly a YF-104A). It was procured by the NASA Flight Research Center (then NACA High Speed Flight Station) at Edwards Air Force Base. California. on August 23. 1956. It was first flown by NASA on August 27. 1956, and logged 1.439 flights over a period of nineteen years.
The airplane. NASA number 818. was used in a number of research programs at Edwards It was used in the evaluation program of the Starfighter at first and was later used to help confirm wind tunnel data in actual flight, as a flying testbed, and as a chase plane. It was a part of the research program that led to the X-15 airplane program; a particularly important phase was the testing of reaction type controls.
Nineteen pilots flew the 818. Among them were three Apollo astronauts. including Neil Armstrong seven X-15 pilots, including Joe Walker: and six lifting body pilots. It made its last operational flight on August 26. 1975. and was flown to Andrews Air Force Base. near Washington D.C.. for transfer to the National Air and Space Museum later that year.