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Our project's goal - break the existing record of 763 mph (1,228 km/h) by reaching 800 mph (1,287 km/h)!

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NAE™ Project: Feature - F-104 Starfighter in Action

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F-104 Starfighter in Action

Flying the Starfighter

Jim Milner recalled the first time he saw the F-104. "It was sitting in the alert hangar, and it looked as if it was going Mach two just sitting there!" He went on to tell me that it was his first love and, like all first loves, remains as the most memorable of his flying associations. He first checked out in the F-104 in 1960, and would subsequently check out twice more between assignments in another aircraft. In all, he amassed over 950 hours in the Starfighter and came to know it's strengths and weaknesses intimately. This is his account of what it was like to fly the "manned missle."

The aircraft was easy to fly, but very difficult to fly to the edge of the envelope, or to the maximum of it's capacity. I would say that it's the most dangerous, most insidiuou airplane that I've ever flown. If you don't know your way around the airplane, it has many coffin corners the you can get yourself into, and not be able to get out of. I have known many extremely competent pilots who have not been able to get out of coffin corners that the 104 has put them in.


It is a simple airplane to start, with a couple of exceptions. There are four "T" handles that got some people into trouble when they mixed them up. On opposite sides of the center console you have the canopy jettison and rudder pedal adjust handles. Since you almost always have to adjust the rudder pedals to your personal preferences every time you fly the airplane, there is always the chance that you'll grab the wrong T handle. It has been known to happen, and beleive me, there is nothing more embarrassing than to be left in the chocks without a canopy! Above those T handles are the T handles for the emergency landing gear lowering sytem, and the ram air turbine (RAT) extension. I have known lots of pilots who developed some very interesting mnemonics just to remind themselves of where these handles were.

On engine run up before takeoff, with the early model engines you could go to minimum afterburner with no problem. But with the later, dash 19 engine, you couldn't even go to 90% without sliding the tires! The runup itself didn't take long. You'd do a throttle burst and chop, check the inlet guide vanes to make sure that they were going right, and when everything looked right, you'd start your takeoff roll.


The acceleration of the 104 on takeoff is really impressive, and will leave you aways behind the airplaine until you get used to it. We had abort speeds that we precomputed, but the 104 with a healthy engine got there so fast that you really had a very fleeting "dead man's zone". (Too slow to eject, but too fast to keep it on the runway if you had to abort.) There were some engine at first, and takeoff was where you usually paid the supreme price for an engine problem. Ivan Kincheloe was killed on takeoff when he had a cold shift on the engine inlet guide vanes, which in turn caused the engine to compressor stall. He was very low and the then standard downward ejection seat didn't give him room to get out of it. I flew the downward ejection seat airplanes on my first checkout, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the 104 was retrofitted with the upward seat in 1960.

One of the real dangerous things about the wing tanks on the 104 was the even load distribution that was possible if they were filled incorrectly. There were two cap tanks, with a forward and rear compartment. If you filled the rear and not the front, you would set up a "flutter", or oscillation that once started, would actually diverge, enventually tearing the wing off. One pilot took off in a "B" model with a cameraman in the back seat, to do some photo-chase work. At about 400 knots the tank began to flutter, the wing came off, and the airplane went into some very high roll gyrations. They both jumped out, but that was not to end of the story. This happened at Edwards AFB, and as luck would have it, it happened on one of our real windy days. (High winds are about the only non-flying weather that you get at Edwards.) The pilot was dragged across the lakebed by his parachute for about 25 to 30 minutes, wearing out the toes and heels of his boots, his flying suit, and choice portions of his anatomy. The cameraman came down behind him and seeing what was happening to his pilot, he decided to get out of his harness, then drop free when he got within a few feet of the ground. Unfortunately, he misjudged his altitude and dropped from high enough to break a leg. As a result of this, flying at Edwards was limited to days when the wind was under 25 knots.


Climbing in the 104 was pretty straightforward for a high-performance airplane. Once airborne and cleaned up, you would accelerate to .92 mach, then hold that speed until you reached about 35,000 to 40,000 feet, at which point you pushed over and accelerated to 1.7 before starting to climb again. That was you max time to climb profile. The F-101 Voodoo actually has a higher thrust-to-wieght ratio, and when I was at Hamilton AFB, our sister squadron had 101's. The two squadron commanders got up a little wager on which airplance would be to the contrail level first. The two airplanes took off, and the 101 started outclimbing the 104 right away. Of course, the 104 driver just stayed low until he had point nine mach, then started up. He passed the 101 at about 20,000 and beat him to 35,000 handily!

The trim in the F-104 is slow, and that's to compensate for the very high speeds. It would do 800 knots indicated. You had a manual rudder... you pushed on cables, just like you do in a Piper Cub. It had a rudder lock, to keep the rudder from flopping at mach two. The yaw damper was a separate surface, about a foot square, that sat just below the rudder. Normally you don't use the rudder until you are at very high angles of attack, in air combat situations, then you want to use the rudder as much as you can. Aileron performance is very impressive and as a matter of fact, when flaps are up with the wing clean, it is limited to about two thirds travel to limit your roll performance, because it could wrap up very quickly. The stick feels very heavy in pitch and the only way you could fight the airplane effectively... that is, at zero G, or max G, or at high angles of attack, is to have your thumb on the trim switch constantly. The guys who got real good with the airplane developed that technique.


The stall warning was artificial, consisted of an eccentric weight on the stick, which would actually shake the stick when the airplane was approaching a stall. (Author's note: On more aerodynamically conventional airplanes, an airframe buffet will occur when a stall is approached, and thence be transferred to the controls.) If you ignored the "shaker", you encountered the "kicker", which was a hydraulic ram that actually kicked the stick forward when you didn't have the good sense to ease up yourself. The kicker could be overpowered with anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds of pressure, depending upon the model of 104. Both the shaker and kicker had a pitch rate input to them, so that if the pitch rate of the airplane went up quickly, they would fire early, just as you would get an accelerated stall in a conventional airplane.

The Starfighter is a very stable instrument platform, and I have flown it down to 200 foot ceiling and 1/2 mile visibility minumums with no problem. Again, you just have to get used to the higher approach speeds, and remember to anticipate your turns more.


During the time I spent at Homestead AFB, I ran the quality control program for the 104 squadron and I averaged about twenty test hops a month. On each of those I did an acceleration out to mach two, so I became very familiar with it's supersonic handling qualities. The inlet on the 104 was designed for 1.7 mach, and therefore, between .9 and 1.4 it had very little excess energy, and it took a little while to get to 1.4. But once you got there, the ducts started getting more efficient and at about 1.6 or 1.7 the engine went into what is called "T-2 reset", and the rpm went up about 3% to accommodate for the aerodynamic heating and give the engine better performance and stall margin. From about 1.4 to 1.8 the engine really seemed to come alive and the airplane stepped out like it was in passing gear. The limit on the airplane was mach 2, and that's an aerodynamic heating limit on the front frame of the engine. The actual airframe had directional stability out to about mach 2.4.

I think the F-104 is probably the best airplane in the inventory for the dirty L/D missions (Lift versus Drag) that we flew to simulate X-15 and Lifting Body approaches. We flew these missions in the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB. When you put the flaps down, the gear down, the speed brakes out, and pulled the engine back to idle, the 104 is the draggiest airplane that I know of, the L over D being somewhere in the range of 2 to 1. The key to these missions was playing your airspeed, dive angle, and allowable lift perfectly to hit your desired aim point on the lakebed. You have only about 30 to 40 knots leeway between not being able to pull out, and pulling out too soon. In the former you hit the ground. Both have a tendency towards fatal results. It was a very interesting manuever, and if you practiced a lot and were fairly attentive, you could get pretty good. I got so that I could hit plus or minus ten knots and a thousand feet for touchdown from anyplace. Pete Knight, the X-15 Astronaut, was really impressive... he could hit plus or minus five knots and five hundred feet!


As you know, the 104 was designed by Kelly Johnson, in the "Skunk Works". The parameters of the design were set by the Korean War vets, who wanted an airplane that was faster than the other guy's... that would outclimb the other guy... that was small, with simple systems, and was best able to use the fightig element of surprise because of it's small size. (I think that if you study the history of air battles, you'll find that most of the kills were made from deep six... perhaps a ratio of six to one... out of the element of surprise.) Well, they got just what they wanted in the 104. The simple systems were the 20mm "gattling" gun, the Sidewinder missiles, and the twenty mile radar that was superlative from a hit-and-run tactics point of view. The simple start system was such that a scramble from an ADC alert barn would on the average of two minutes. In fact, I remember once scramble I made when I was a young Lieutenant (eager like all young lieutenants are) of a minute and forty five seconds, from the time the horn went off upstairs, down the firepole, into the airplane, and gear in the well! (The F-101's could do it in two minutes too.) But compare that to a lot of airplanes that take five minutes from the time you hit the start switches until they can fly, and it is still impressive.

The F-104 was the first airplane where a significant amount of supersonic formation flying was done, and there is a large section in the flight manual which discusses the effects of the shock waves that will suck you in, or push you out, depending upon where you are. It is a very good formation airplane... very solid.


A couple of the things about the 104 that really turned me on were its looks of course, and the amount of excess thrust it had. If you tapped a burner at low altitude above 550 knots, you almost had more thrust than you knew how to handle. I was one of the few airplanes that, when you pushed the throttle up into the left hand corner, you were not asking for more than it could give you. I suspect that the F-15 and F-16 are that way, but this was the original lightweight fighter! Some of its good news-bad news characteristics are centered around its design. The single engine allowed the airplane to be very small and have tremendous acceleration. But if you lost that single engine, that airplane had the aerodynamics of a bathtub. Sub-sonic, with no engine, it just did not want to fly! The Oil System ran the exhaust nozzles (they were programmed to open and close according to the throttle position). The exhaust would blow them open, but if you lost your engine oil, you couldn't maintain flight... you either had to get it on the ground now, or bail out. The airplane's supersonic drag was very low, which is impressive, but the bad news is that, that makes for low speed handling that is less than peachy keen. The high tail gave it low drag, but it also gave it pitch-up. It just did not like to fly at high angles of attack. Another impressive characteristic is the brake effectiveness. During my stint of quality control at Homestead, I went into a period of maximum braking, just to see what the airplane would do. It just so happened that we also had a Tac fighter wing of F-100s there at the same time, and it used to amaze the people out in the mobile control van with the difference in braking capability between my 104 and the 100s that they also saw every day. From the time to pitch out to touch down was about a minute and five seconds, and twenty seconds later, turning off the runway after a 3500 foot rollout. Those not familiar with the F-104 performance thought it incredible. My technique involved using a combination of aerodynamic braking and the drag chute before getting on the brakes. Holding the nose off with full aft stick and trim, popping the drag chute at the same time, setting the brakes. When the chute finally pulled the nose down, I would increase the brake pressure as the airplane slowed down. I did that for about three months, until one day I scrubbed a tire flat past the cord! Fortunately, it didn't blow, but I reserved my max braking effort for special occasions after that. The brakes were not power assisted, and some people had trouble keeping the airplane from rolling when they did their engine runup prior to takeoff.

Another interesting thing about the 104... the wingtip mounted tanks or sidewinders actually acted as extensions or endplates, making the airplane more efficient in turns.


Cockpit design is the best I've ever seen. We had a man 6'6", who was about three feet across, and had a man 5'4", 110 lbs. Both of those people could climb into that airplane, adjust everything out, lock shoulder harness, and reach every switch in the cockpit.

I don't think the 104 has ever been understood by the high level decision makers. It was well before its time, and every biggie that ever rode in the airplane rode in the "B" model which, instead having extra gas needed to really demonstrate the airplane's capabilities, gave up better than 20% of its internal fuel for the sake of the extra seat. Then of course, everyone wanted to go mach 2, so they would go out some place, head back to the base at mach 2 and use up all their chemical energy to get the kinetic energy to go doublesonic. By the time they got back close to the base, the low fuel level light was on, and they would conclude; "Hell, that airplane doesn't even have enough gas to fly an hour!" Well, you can't get energy like mach 2 and 65 to 70,000 feet without spending energy to do it... what they didn't realize is, once you get all that energy, you can do amazing things with it. I figured out one day that you could go 750 miles with a clean airplane at best cruise (.9 mach), but that if you climbed into your pressure suit and went mach two at 70,000 feet you could go 550 miles! Two hundred miles down the road you would be down to 2,000 pounds of gas, but you could go the next 350 miles on about 1,000 pounds of gas! When TAC got the 104, they tried to make an air-to-ground fighter out of it, instead of sticking to the air superiority role, and it wasn't designed for dropping bombs. I just don't think the Air Force ever properly understood the airplane. It was, after all, the original lightweight fighter!


Colonel Don Kutyna has flown a number of different aircraft - more that 25 - during his Air Force career. They from gliders to heavy bombers, most of the century series fighters, and included a combat tour in the F-105. While his time in the F-104 was relatively limited(300+ hours) it was spent as an instructor at the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) where the F-104 was routinely flown to the limits of its performance. These are his comments on the Starfighter.

Of all the airplanes I have flown, the F-104 was the most exciting and rewarding. "Exciting" because of its great performance, and "rewarding" because the limits of that performance took a great deal of skill to reach. This is not to say that you couldn't amble loosely around in the sky in the 104 without getting hurt - you could. But, to get the maximums available at the edges of the Starfighter's envelope took a lot of skill, concentration, and plain hard work. When you came down from a good mission and logged those six or seven tenths of an hour you generally had the very satisfied feeling that you had well earned the time.

From another aspect, the 104 was an airplane in which you could bust your tail quicker than any other I've flown. It just did not allow you many mistakes! Other aircraft, including century series, generally give a good deal of warning that trouble is approaching and ample time to ward it off. Not the 104 - make a critical error, and by the time you've noticed the goof it's often too late to recover. When I say "critical" I mean errors like improper configuration - flap positions, speed brake extensions, throttle settings, etc. For example, forget your flaps on the turn to final in a T-Bird or Thud, and the airplane will start to shake, rattle, and roll long before you're in any real danger and with plenty of opportunity to correct the error, widen the pattern, and/or take it around. Forget the flaps in a 104 and yank in into a tight base turn and it can get behind the power curve and pay off well before a surprised jock can realize he's in trouble and apply proper corrective action. In recognition of its demanding characteristics, very few, if any, brand new pilots were assigned directly to the 104. The Air Force generally let them cut their teeth on the less critical fighters before providing a set of Starfighter spurs.


While I'm anything but a great combat air ace and the closest I ever got to a Mig was to shake Steve Ritchie's hand, I did have the best group of teachers ever assembled in the students and test pilots at Edwards. They taught me a great deal about hassling in a 104. It was a beautiful plane to employ in a fight. From any angle its silhouette was very small and difficult to see, and yet the 104 itself had the best visibility of any supersonic bird after the F-86, and before the F-15. It had great performance; and, while it admittedly wasn't much of a turning machine, supersonically it got around corners quite well and could out zoom just about anything. To this day, excepting the F-15 and F-16, many of the pros would still take the 104 (particularly with the -19 engine) as a pure clean air mass fighting machine over any other fighter in the inventory.

The combination of performance, visibility, and invisibility made it a dream to fight in. For example, in rat racing with an F-4, often all you had to do was to play the vertical. If the Phantom was behind you on the way up, all those throttles, engines, fuel tanks, and pilots he was saddle with usually required him to start down before the 104 did - and of course in such a game, first down automatically assumes the lead. Also, there was no comparison in seeing and being seen. The 104 was small and clean, while the barn door, smoke belching profile of the F-4 blots out half the sky.

However, like any other fighter, to realize the full capabilities of the 104 you had to know and use its relative advantages. A few of those who didn't think it was much of an air-to-air machine often thought so because they would be led into playing the other man's game. A T-38 for example could climb with a 104 and would turn rings around it. But, a 38 is limited to about 1.5 Mach, while at Mach 1.4, the 104 is just starting to get good. Obviously, the way to play a 38 is to not turn with it, but rather to get the 104 to Mach 1.4+ and start a slashing attack, trading Mach with a zoom for altitude at each pass. The 38 could stay low turning circles all day but would never get a shot in, while often losing sight of the 104 and allowing a clean, almost panel strafing pass by the Starfighter.

As an aircraft at the leading edge of technology the F-104 had many unusual characteristics. One of these was that at high Mach numbers the engine emitted a lot of weird noises... groans, howls, screams, etc. It was all quite normal, but a pilot who hadn't had the experience often got somewhat concerned the first time around. In any other airplane those kinds of noises usually meant trouble. You got used to it after a while, and hoped that you could recognize the bad from the good amidst all that racket.

Of all the missions I have ever flown - including combat - the zoom flights in the rocket powered NF-104 were the most demanding. There was more to do and you had to practice harder to get optimal results on that flight than on any other flight I've had. You could get through the mission OK with a little sloppiness, but if you wanted to get the maximum out of the airplane you had to get the entire procedure and technique darn near prefect from start to finish. It took countless hours in the simulator and a lot of cockpit time just thinking through the mission. But the end result, a zoom to 100,000 feet plus was well worth it.

In a different category, the low L/D missions in the F-104 simulating lifting bodies were perhaps the hairiest we flew in the school. During my stay, it seemed like every time we got a new Commandant at ARPS he was greeted be an F-104 accident - the majority of which were low L/D related.

The parameters of the mission were very critical, and the 104 in the dirty L/D configuration with everything hanging out and the engine pulled back had a glide ratio of about 2.2 to 1. Compare this to a T-33 at about 14 to 1, a civil jet transport near 17 to 1, or an average glider at 35 to 1 and you get some feel for the rate of decent of a dirty 104. Even the aptly named "Thud" had a better glide ratio at 7 to 1! The dirty 104's 2.2 to 1 didn't give you much tolerance in pulling out for a flare and touchdown. What the manuever consisted of was basically a 30 degree dive bomb run with a pull-out which left your gear down on the runway at your bottom out altitude. It was interesting to take an experienced pilot on his initial demonstration of the L/D mission, pull the throttle back, hang out all the garbage, hold295 knots, and then go into a 30° dive with a pullout commencing at 1400 feet above the ground. The non-fighter pilots who didn't know any better often sat blandly through it, but the guy who had routinely hurled his body at the ground on the range - but at 500 knots with a relatively clean bird - and who recognized the criticality of the maneuver, would often start to fidget in his seat the closer he got to the ground. He was going to "guts you out", but I guess he would sort of wonder if that numb-nut IP in the back seat really knew what the heck he was doing. It was a very critical and demanding maneuver, but the experience we gained in practicing it and the related research in the NASA lifting bodies will soon begin to pay off as the Space Shuttle with its smiliar landing approach becomes operational.

I guess I could summarize by saying that unlike many of the multi-purpose fighters we have managed to build, the F-104 was really an optimized machine - specifically designed for high speed performance. It was much like a pure "for track use only" race car. You put it on the street in traffic and it doesn't really shine amongst the various "sporty" cars around, but get it in its element, a fast track and unlimited sky, and nothing of its day - and several days beyond - could touch it.

[Return to Starfighter in Action page.]


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