Article by Rich Thistle ©

Manned Missile by Rich Thistle © In the closing weeks of 1952, a new aircraft began to take shape in the minds of a small, select group of specialists under the direction of Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson, the same Kelly Johnson who had, with a similar group in 1943, designed and built, in a scant 139 days, the prototype of what was to become the F-80 Shooting Star.

Their secluded offices were in stark beige hangars in Burbank California, known as the “Skunk Works”, after a foreboding, noxious-smelling factory in the comic strip Li’l Abner where the mountain moonshiners brewed Essence of Skunk, the last ingredient in their “white lightnin`”. Here they tackled the task of developing a new aircraft which would meet and exceed the characteristics most desired in a combat aircraft by those who actually flew them.

Earlier that year, Lockheed had whisked Johnson to war-zone forward air bases in Korea to talk to fighter pilots as they returned from their missions against the Soviet fighters flown by the north. What did they want in a new fighter aircraft? The answer was simple: speed and altitude. Appropriately, Johnson’s response was also simple. Build a pilot’s fighter which did not compromise on performance, one which could outmatch anything in the Soviet arsenal including the MiG-15.

The resulting design would carry one powerful, multi-barreled gun, a simple radar gun sight, a pair of the new heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles then under development for the US Navy, be powered by a single, potent engine and fly higher and faster than anything in service anywhere. What’s more, it would be affordable.

Ultimate performance for the new fighter meant low drag and high power. Abandoning the swept-wing twin-engine concept of the Lockheed XF-90 which had been developed from the massive German research data captured by the Allies at the end of world war II, the Skunk Works team settled upon a straight wing of very slender section. Its exceedingly thin leading edge and minimum camber would decrease shock waves and give relief from the weight and complexity of swept wings. However, the wing would have to be considerably thinner than five per cent, and the only answer to producing such a thin, straight wing was to make it extremely short. The impact of first seeing the tiny wing of the F-104 is obvious to anyone who has stood beside one. “Where are the wings?” asked Tony LeVier, the first pilot to take the Starfighter off the ground, when he first saw it.

Powered by a Wright XF65 (license-built Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire) the XF-104 first flew on February 7, 1954 at Edwards AFB. It had incredibly small knife-edged wings, sharply drooped to improve stability, a long, needle-nosed fuselage, a tall “T” tail, and open, half-circle intakes behind the cockpit. It was so futuristic in appearance it was soon dubbed by the Lockheed marketing department, “the missile with a man in it”.

Further development led to the production F-104A which included a lengthened fuselage to accept the more powerful General Electric J-79 turbojet, a taller fin, and the addition of half-cone bodies to the fuselage side of the engine intakes to modify and smooth the shock waves thrown by the intake lips at supersonic speeds.

The first production Starfighter flew on February 17, 1956. The aircraft proved extremely fast and a bit twitchy. It could easily exceed Mach 2. Although it was obvious that considerable extra thrust was still available at the limiting airspeed of Mach 2.2, if the pilot considered pushing it through, a “slow light” lit up on the control panel just as a reminder. It was also a very hot aircraft with a high landing speed of 170 knots. And in a dead-stick landing, even at 240 knots, its tiny wings were of little value and its blown flaps, which normally had engine exhaust directed over their surface during low speed, became inoperative. All these factors as well as developmental difficulties with the unproven J-79 engine, and structural tail problems, created several serious mishaps during the test program. Numerous Starfighters and their pilots were lost.

Deliveries to the USAF began in January of 1958. But three months later, all F-104s were grounded and refitted with the improved J-79-GE-3B engine and a ventral stabilizing fin. Shortly after the F-104A entered limited service in the US Air Force, a Starfighter flew to a record altitude of 91,249 feet and four days later another flew to a world record speed of 1404.9 mph. The F-104 had become the first aircraft to hold both records simultaneously. Surprisingly, the F-104 remained in service with US Air Defense Command for less than two years. In fact the Americans had completely lost interest in the Starfighter for their own forces and only 296 were delivered. The concept had not found a real home in the USAF. However, the potential of this manned missile was to be fully realized in a different way.

By the mid fifties, the search was on in Canada to replace the Avro CF-100 interceptor to uphold our NATO commitments. Until it was suddenly canceled on February 20, 1959, the front runner was the CF-105 Avro Arrow. By the late 1950’s, Canada was also searching for a replacement for their Canadair (North American) F-86 Sabres. Years had been spent evaluating many types including the Blackburn Buccaneer, Douglas Skyhawk, Fiat G-91, Grumman Super Tiger, McDonnell F-4 Phantom, Republic Thunderchief , Northrop N-156 (later designated F-5), Vought Crusader and the Lockheed Starfighter. By 1959 the search had been narrowed to two types, neither of which completely fulfilled the specified guidelines.

The Grumman Super Tiger was the clear leader in the replacement contest. A development of the standard Tiger, Grumman’s trans-sonic US Navy fighter, the new Mach 2 version sported a pinched, area-rule fuselage, and the same J-79 engine as the Starfighter. It was found to be highly capable and was strongly recommended by the Canadian pilots who did the evaluation flying comparing the Super Tiger and the Starfighter. Grumman’s entry seemed a shoe-in for the job. As a result, when the winning replacement fighter was announced to the Canadian public, most involved in the process were shocked. The F-104 Starfighter was coming to Canada. Apparently the Super Tiger, of which only two were ever built, was the victim of a well-developed lack of interest on the part of the US Navy.

Subsequently, Lockheed’s Starfighter was to become a success story without precedent. Eventually flown in improved versions such as the multi-role F-104G, the Starfighter became the most ubiquitous and one of the most useful combat aircraft in the west’s arsenal. Total Starfighter production was 2,282 units. Starfighters were license-built by a multi-national European consortium and in Japan and Canada. Its principal users included Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Taiwan, Turkey, USA, West Germany and, of course, Canada.

Canadair was to build an initial 200 of the F-104G, a strike-reconnaissance version designated CF-104, as a replacement for the RCAF Sabre 6s operating with Canada’s NATO forces in Europe. A further 140 were produced by Canadair for the US Military Assistance Program (MAP) to provide fighters for NATO counties with no adequate aircraft industries of their own. Orenda Engines of Canada manufactured the General Electric J-79 engines for all Canadian-built Starfighters.

Between 1961 and 1965 a total of 378 CF-104s, including 38 Mk I and 2 two-seat trainers, rolled off the line at Canadair. The Canadian-built Starfighters differed from the standard F-104G in navigation and other equipment which included a Tactical Analogue Bombing (TAB) computer, an inertial navigator which provided guidance to any one of twelve pre-selected targets and other navigation and avionics systems. The standard gun pod was normally replaced by an extra fuel tank and reconnaissance cameras were carried in a remotely-controlled pack under the fuselage.

The CF-104 entered service with the RCAF in 1962. The Air Division was established with six strike and two recce CF-104 squadrons and their aircraft were delivered to Europe where these squadrons quickly built - and through the ‘60s - maintained, a reputation for outstanding operations, also excelling in NATO competitions. By 1970, through gradual downsizing and political maneuvering about Canadian nuclear policy, Canada’s Starfighter squadrons had been reduced to three, based at Lahr and Baden-Soellingen. The Air Group, as it was now called, adopted a conventional strike role, and the now aging fleet of CF-104s was refitted for this role, including adding the famous Vulcan 20mm Gattling gun. Quickly retraining for this role, Canadians upheld their reputation as NATO “top guns” in conventional strike.

Although its pilots couldn’t have been more pleased with the Starfighter as a strike platform, the end of the CF-104s service life was definitely in view. Its age was beginning to show. The fleet was dwindling in size. Maintenance was becoming more difficult. Fewer than half of the original 239 aircraft were left. By June of 1981, 100 had been lost in crashes. Eventually a total of 110 Canadian Starfighters crashed with the loss of 39 crew. Canada had again joined the hunt for new and improved aerial hardware and on July 29, 1982, the CF-18 Hornet flew for the first time. On October 17, 1983 the last CF-104 flight in Canada was logged. Soon the Starfighters era would come to a close as the last CF-104s were replaced by Hornets.

F/L Jack Woodman, who had test-flown the Avro Arrow for the RCAF had been one of the two pilots to originally evaluate the Starfighter for Canada. His comments at the end of an early report on the CF-104 proved prophetic. He wrote “...when the airplane is fully operational, the RCAF will have a flexible and potent weapon ... (and) a CF-104 squadron will be the most sought-after posting in the RCAF.” Safe to say, his prediction came true.

My painting MANNED MISSILE, the first in an ongoing series on Canadian jets of the fifties and sixties, contains two views of this legendary airplane. One is a recce aircraft of the Air Division with its ventrally-located camera pod. The other is a CF-104 as flown by the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE).

  • original painting available