Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was the result of an attempt to reverse the trend towards
ever-increasing weight and complexity in fighter aircraft. When it first appeared in the
mid-1950s, it had a futuristic look about it, and its small wing area and needle-nose
earned it the appelation of "missile with a man in it". The F-104 was the first
operational interceptor capable of sustained speeds above Mach 2 and was the first
aircraft ever to hold the World Speed and Altitude records simultaneously.
The Starfighter was destined to serve only briefly and in relatively small numbers with
the air force of its country of origin. It was to be in the service with the air forces of
other nations that the Starfighter was to achieve its reputation. The Starfighter won a
large contract for NATO's next-generation multi-role fighter capable of delivering nuclear
weapons, and was built in large numbers by a European consortium of aircraft manufacturers
from Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Canada as well as the USA. The
Starfighter became an important part of NATO's nuclear deterrent during the 1960s and
1970s, and served with the air forces of Denmark, the Netherlands, West Germany, Italy,
Belgium, Greece, Turkey, Canada, Spain, and Norway. It was also built under license in
Japan. The Starfighter also served with the air forces of Jordan, Taiwan, and Pakistan.
Although the Starfighter has been superceded by later types in most of the air forces with
which it was originally associated, the Starfighter still serves in fairly large numbers
with the air forces of Greece, Taiwan, and Italy,
A total of 2580 of all Starfighter types were produced, making the aircraft one of the
most important Western postwar military aircraft. However, in the mid-1960s when the
Starfighter first entered service in significant numbers, the aircraft was involved in a
large number of accidents. Because of the high accident rate, the Starfighter became a
controversial aircraft and there were charges that the aircraft was an intrinsically
flawed and dangerous design. However, in retrospect, the Starfighter was not intrinsically
any more dangerous to fly than lots of other military aircraft of the day, and the high
accident rate can be blamed more on inadequate and insufficient crew training rather than
on any flaw with the basic design.
The Starfighter had its origin in a November 1952 unsolicited proposal by Lockheed's
Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson for a lightweight and relatively unsophisticated
air-superiority fighter. Weight and complexity would be minimized in the pursuit of
unmatched speed, altitude, and maneuverability. Johnson had visited Korea in December of
1951, and while there he had talked to fighter pilots then flying in combat over North
Korea. He asked them what kind of fighter plane would be ideal. Their general consensus
was that the trend toward ever-increasing weight and complexity had gotten completely out
of hand, and they would gladly trade in their existing fighters for a lighter, less costly
fighter with clearly superior speed, ceiling, climb rate, and maneuverability. Following
his return to the USA, Johnson tried to convince Lockheed management that they should
design a new type of fighter plane, one that was uncomplicated, lightweight, and
inexpensive but one that would be able to outperform any other fighter in the world.
Lockheed's head start was just too much for the competitors to overcome, and in January
of 1953, Lockheed's proposal was selected. On March 12, 1953 a letter contract for two
prototypes was issued under Weapon System 303A (WS-303A). The designation XF-104 was
assigned. Lockheed assigned the aircraft the company designation of Model 083-92-01.
The first XF-104 (53-7786) was ready in early 1954, and was trucked out to Edwards AFB
in high secrecy during the night of February 24-25. Veteran Lockheed test pilot A. W.
"Tony" LeVier was to do the initial testing. Taxiing runs began on February 27,
1954. On February 28, 1954, the XF-104 made an scheduled short hop of about five feet off
the ground during a high speed taxiing run. Its first official flight took place on March
4, 1954. During that flight, the landing gear would not retract. After a low-speed flight
of about 20 minutes, Tony LeVier landed. Some adjustments were made, and LeVier took off
again, but the landing gear still would not retract. The problem turned out to be low
pressure in the hydraulic system, which was fairly easy to correct. However, inclement
weather kept the XF-104 on the ground until March 26, when flights three and four were
carried out with the landing gear retracting adequately.
The XF-104's original yaw damper was ineffective, allowing the nose to wander left and
right. This problem was corrected by revising the rudder-centering device.
The XF-104 could not exceed the speed of sound in level flight when powered by the
nonafterburning J65-B-3 turbojet. However, Mach 1 could be easily exceeded during a slight
descent, and the transition to supersonic speed was quite smooth.
In July of 1954, the J65-B-3 non-afterburning engine was replaced by the long-awaited
afterburning J65-W-7 turbojet rated at 7800 lb.s.t. dry and 10,200 lb.s.t. with
afterburner. In that same month, 17 more service test aircraft were ordered. They were
also to be powered by the J65-W-7.
With the afterburning engine installed, the performance of the XF-104 was markedly
improved. Maximum level speed was Mach 1.49 at 41,000 feet, and an altitude of 55,000 feet
could be attained in a zoom climb. Mach 1.6 could be attained in a dive.
The second prototype (53-7787) flew on October 5, 1954. It was fitted with the
afterburning J65 from the start. Since it was to be the armament test bed, it was fitted
with the 20-mm Vulcan cannon and was equipped with an AN/ASG-14T-1 fire control system.
Initial aerial firing tests with the Vulcan cannon were successful, but on December 17,
there was an explosion during a firing burst, and the J65 engine started to run rough.
Test pilot Tony LeVier immediately shut down his engine and glided back to make a
successful dead-stick landing at Rogers Dry Lake. An investigation later showed that one
of the 20-mm cannon rounds had exploded in the breech, blowing the bolt out the rear of
the gun and into the forward fuselage fuel cell. Jet fuel gushed into the gun bay, and
leaked out of the gun bay door joints and into the left engine air intake. The engine
immediately flooded with fuel, choking it to death. Tony LeVier was lucky to be alive.
XF-104 number one achieved a top speed of Mach 1.79 at 60,000 feet on March 15, 1955.
Lockheed test pilot J. Ray Goudey was at the controls. This was the highest speed achieved
by either of the XF-104 prototypes.
The second prototype (53-7787) was lost on April 14, 1955 when test pilot Herman R.
"Fish" Salmon was forced to eject during gun-firing trials at 50,000 feet. The
gun malfunctioned during a test firing, and severe vibrations began to build up which
knocked loose the ejection hatch on the belly of the plane. Cabin pressure was immediately
lost, and Salmon's pressure suit pumped up and covered his face so that he could not see.
Recalling Tony LeVier's harrowing experience with the exploding cannon shell the previous
December, Salmon believed that the same thing had happened to him and that he had no
option but to eject. This he did. He later found out that he could have saved 53-7787 by
simply bringing it down to a lower altitude and waiting for his pressure suit to deflate.
With the loss of the armament testbed, Lockheed engineers were forced to find an
alternative. Armament trials were continued on a modified Lockheed F-94C Starfire.
The first XF-104 was accepted by the USAF in November of 1955. XF-104 number 1 was lost
in a crash on July 11, 1957, when it developed an uncontrollable tail flutter while flying
chase for F-104A flight tests. The entire tail group was ripped from the airframe, and
Lockheed test pilot Bill Park was forced to eject.
Consequently, no XF-104 prototype survives today.
In July of 1954, the USAF decided to purchase 17 service test aircraft under the
designation YF-104A. This was done under a "fly-before-you-buy" philosophy,
under which these aircraft would participate in development tests before any commitment to
large-scale production was made. If large-scale production was actually undertaken, these
YF-104As could later be brought up to full production standard and delivered to
Fearing that the General Electric J79 turbojet might not be ready in time, the first
service test Starfighters were to be powered by the afterburning J65 turbojet. However,
the J79 engine was flight tested by the Navy in a borrowed Navy XF4D in December of 1955,
and it was concluded that early versions of the General Electric J79 engine should be
available by the time that the YF-104A was ready, and the service test aircraft were built
with the General Electric engine in mind.
The seventeen YF-104A service test aircraft were powered by early experimental versions
of the General Electric J79 engine instead of the J65 engine which powered the XF-104s.
The YF-104A aircraft were initially fitted with the General Electric XJ79-JE-3 turbojet,
rated at 9300 lb.s.t. dry and 14,800 lb.s.t. with afterburning. The YF-104A differed from
the XF-104 in having a 5 feet 6 inch extension in the length of the fuselage to
accommodate the new J79 engine. The vertical fin was slightly taller, raising the overall
height from 12.7 feet to 13.49 feet. A forward-retracting nosewheel replaced the
rearward-retracting unit of the XF-104, in order to provide improved ejection seat
clearance out of the bottom of the aircraft. A narrow dorsal spine was added to the upper
fuselage. Two additional fuel cells were installed in the fuselage. The air intakes were
modified in shape and were fitted with half-cone center bodies which had been omitted from
the two XF-104s. The fixed-geometry central intake shock cone had an internal bleed slot
which exhausted some intake air through the fuselage for afterburner cooling and helped to
reduce the aircraft's base drag. An AN/ASG-14T1 fire control system was fitted, plus
AN/ARN-56 TACAN. There were provisions for four underwing and one under-fuselage stores
With an empty weight increased only slightly to 12,561 pounds, the YF-104A maximum
takeoff weight (clean) rose to 15,700 pounds for the XF-104 to 18,881 pounds. With
provision for four underwing and one fuselage stores pylon, the maximum takeoff weight was
The first YF-104A (55-2955) was completed in February of 1956, and was trucked out in
high secrecy to Edwards AFB. It made its first flight there on February 17, 1956, with
Lockheed test pilot Herman "Fish" Salmon at the controls.
On February 16, 1956, the second YF-104A (55-2956) was used for a media-covered official
rollout ceremony at Lockheed's Burbank factory. This was the first display of the
Starfighter to the public. Before that, there had been only rumors in the aviation press
about the existence of a truly revolutionary new fighter aircraft, plus a few speculative
drawings. The engine air intakes were covered with temporary fairings, since the Air Force
didn't want people to see the half-cones in the air intakes.
An initial order for production F-104As was issued on October 14, 1956.
Together with the first 35 production F-104As, all seventeen YF-104As were used for
flight-test and to evaluate early versions of the J79 (the -3, -3A, and -3B) engine, the
Vulcan cannon, the AIM-9 (formerly GAR-8) Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the
wingtip-mounted fuel tanks. Airframe strengthening and local redesign were progressively
introduced. Various forms of flap blowing were tested, and a ventral fin was introduced to
improve directional stability at supersonic speed. Some YF-104As were also used to test
wingtip racks for either 170 US-gallon drop tanks or Sidewinder infrared-homing air-to-air
On May 7, 1958, Major Howard C. Johnson reached an altitude of 91,249 feet in a zoom
climb at Edwards AFB in California, setting a new altitude record. On May 16, 1958,
Captain Walter W. Irwin flying a YF-104A set a new world's air speed record of 1404.19 mph
flying over a 15/25 kilometer course at Edwards AFB. For the first time in history, the
same aircraft type held both the world speed and altitude records at the same time.
F-104A, first production version
The F-104A (company designation Model 183-92-02) was the initial production version of
the Starfighter. In a contract approved on March 2, 1956, the USAF ordered 146 production
F-104As. This brought the total F-104A procurement to 170 aircraft, including the service
As compared to the service-test YF-104As, production F-104As featured a strengthened
airframe that was stressed for 7.33-G maneuvers. An aft-mounted ventral fin was fitted on
the centerline to improve directional stability at high speeds and high altitudes. Various
flap-blowing boundary layer control systems were fitted. The interim AN/ASG-14T-1 radar
fire control system was installed, which was later replaced by the more capable
AN/ASG-14T-2 fire control system.
Because of its boundary layer control system, the landing speed of the F-104A was only
five percent higher than that of earlier fighters. The boundary layer system operated in
connection with the wing flaps. When the flaps passed the fifteen-degree mark during
extension, the bleed air valves began to open and reached the fully open position when the
flaps are all the way down at 45 degrees. The highly-compressed air needed to operate the
system was taken from the 17th compressor stage of the engine and ducted into the wing and
out over the upper flap surfaces via a set of slots lined up along the trailing edge flap
hinge line. This air flow reduced air turbulence in the boundary layer due to flow
separation, thus decreasing the stalling speed and making lower landing speeds possible.
Full-span leading-edge flaps operated in conjunction with the trailing edge flaps for
takeoff, landing, and low-speed maneuvering. The aileron system was interconnected with
the flap system in such a way that when the flaps were fully up, aileron travel was
limited to 65 percent. The entire horizontal stabilizer was pivoted aft of the fin
mid-chord line and moved as a single unit. There was no elevator. A speed brakes was
located on each side of the aft fuselage.
An automatic pitch control system provided advance warning of an impending stall. As the
stall approached, the system energized a stick shaker to warn the pilot. Should the pilot
ignore the warning and persist in maintaining the same attitude, the system would
automatically apply a forward stick force.
The first 35 F-104As delivered to the USAF were involved in a protracted series of
flight tests during which changes and improvements were progressively introduced on
successive batches coming off the production line.
The F-104A had originally been scheduled to replace the F-100 Super Sabres of the TAC
beginning in 1956. However, by the time that the F-104A was finally ready for delivery,
Air Force requirements had changed. The Starfighter's relatively low endurance and its
lack of ability to carry a significant offensive weapons load made it no longer suitable
for the TAC. Consequently the TAC lost all interest in the F-104A even before it was
scheduled to enter service. This might ordinarily have been the end of the line for the
F-104A. However, delays in the delivery of the Convair F-106 Delta Dart Mach 2+
interceptor to the Air Defense Command had at that time become worrisome, and the USAF
decided to go ahead and accept the F-104As originally destined for the TAC and assign them
to the ADC as a stopgap measure. The selection of the F-104A for the ADC was sort of
curious, since it had not been originally designed as an interceptor and it lacked an
adequate endurance and had no all-weather capability. However, its high climb rate made it
attractive to the ADC and it was hoped that the Starfighter could fill in until the F-106
First to get the F-104A was the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Hamilton AFB in
California, which became operational with the type on February 20, 1958. Next to acquire
the F-104A were the 56th FIS at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, the 337th FIS at Westover
AFB in Massachusetts, and the 538th FIS at Larson AFB in Washington.
A total of 153 F-104As were built in seven production blocks-- F-104A-1-LO to
F-104A-30-LO. The last F-104A was delivered in December of 1958. The number built was far
less than originally planned. Only 170 F-104As and YF-104As were ultimately acquired out
of the 722 originally planned. Shortages of funds due to the needs of other programs
accounted for some of the reduction, whereas the decision by TAC not to acquire the F-104A
accounted for the rest of the shortfall.
The YF-104A had already set the world altitude and speed records. In December of 1958,
an F-104A flown alternately by Lt William T. Smith and Einar K. Enevoldson over a two-day
period at NAS Point Mugu, California set several time-to-climb records: 3000 meters (9842
feet) in 41.35 seconds, 6000 meters in 51.41 seconds, 9000 meters in 81.14 seconds, 15,000
meters (49,212 feet) in 131.1 seconds, 20,000 meeters in 222.99 seconds, and 25,000 meters
(82,020 feet) in 266.03 seconds.
As one might have expected, the F-104A was not very well suited for service as an
interceptor. Its low range was a problem for North American air defense, and its lack of
all-weather capability made it incapable of operating in conjunction with the SAGE
(Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) system. Service with the ADC was consequently quite
brief, and the F-104As of the ADC were replaced by the end of 1960 by more heavily-armed
all-weather McDonnell F-101B Voodoos and Convair F-106A Delta Darts.
The ADC's F-104As were then transferred in 1960 to three Air National Guard squadrons,
the 151st FIS of the Tennessee ANG, the 157th FIS of the North Carolina ANG, and the 197th
FIS of the Arizona ANG. These three ANG F-104A squadrons were called up for active duty
during the Berlin crisis of 1961 and were deployed to Europe. Following the defusing of
the Berlin crisis, these squadrons all returned to the USA by June of 1962 and reverted to
state control. However, their F-104As were retained by the USAF and were transferred to
two other ADC units, the 319th and 331st FIS at Homestead AFB in Florida as part of the
32nd Air Division. For some odd reason, these two squadrons exchanged their all-weather
F-102s and F-106s for these day-only F-104As, which would seem at first sight to make no
These ADC F-104As remained in service for several years. From late 1967, 26 aircraft of
the 319th FIS were retrofitted with the more powerful J79-GE-19, rated at 17,900 lb.st.
with afterburner, which was the same type of engine fitted to the F-104S version developed
for Italy. The last USAF squadron to operate the F-104A, the 319th FIS, was disbanded in
December of 1969, marking the final end of service of the F-104A with active duty
In 1960, after the decision to withdraw the Starfighter from ADC, twenty-four YF-104A
and F-104A aircraft (exact ratio uncertain) deemed surplus to USAF requirements were
modified as QF-104A radio-controlled target drones. They were painted pillar-box red
overall and were operated by the 3205th Drone Squadron at Eglin AFB in Florida. These
planes could be flown by onboard pilots or they could be flown by remote control from the
ground or from other aircraft. Most of them were expended in missile firing tests.
The unsuitability of the F-104A for air defense duties with the USAF led to the release
of some F-104As for export. The air forces of Taiwan, Pakistan, and Jordan were provided
with several F-104As from surplus USAF stocks. Most of the other F-104As which had not
been lost to attrition or transferred to foreign air forces went to the boneyards at
Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona.
F-104B two-seat combat trainer
The F-104B (company Model 283-93-03) was a two-seat, dual-control, combat trainer
version of the F-104A. A second seat was provided underneath an extended canopy, with each
crewmember being provided with a separate hatch which opened to the left. A full set of
controls was provided for both crewmembers.
It was intended that the F-104B two seater would have the same performance and combat
capability of the F-104A single seater. However, in order to provide space for the second
seat, the 20-mm cannon of the single-seater had to be removed, some internal electronics
had to be relocated, the internal fuel capacity had to be reduced from 897 to 752 US
gallons, and the nosewheel once again had to be made to retract rearwards. However, the
provision for two underwing and two wingtip drop tanks was retained, boosting total fuel
capacity by 730 US gallons. The armament was limited to a pair of wingtip-mounted AIM-9B
Sidewinders, although the AN/ASG-14T-1 fire control system was retained.
The first of an initial batch of six F-104Bs took off on its maiden flight on January
16, 1967. It had been literally built by hand out of an F-104A airframe, and the larger
area vertical tail, the automatic pitch control system, and the fire control system of
later F-104Bs were not installed. It was unofficially designated YF-104B, although it was
later brought up to production F-104B standards. This airplane was later used to test
Lockheed's downward-firing ejection seat that was initially fitted to the F-104A.
NF-104A aerospace trainer
In 1963, three ex-USAF F-104As (56-756, -760, and -762) were taken out of storage at
Davis Monthan AFB and modified as NF-104A aerospace training aircraft. All of the military
equipment was removed and the original F-104A vertical fin was replaced by the larger fin
that was used on the F-104G. The wingspan was increased by four feet (to 25.94 feet) and a
set of hydrogen peroxide control thrusters were mounted at the nose, tail, and wingtips. A
6000 pound thrust Rocketdyne LR121/AR-2-NA-1 auxiliary rocket engine was mounted on the
tail above the jet exhaust pipe. This rocket engine could be throttled from 3000 to 6000
pounds of thrust, and the burn time was about 105 seconds.
The first NF-104A was delivered on October 1, 1963, with the other two following a month
later. They were operated by the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB, which was
commanded at that time by Colonel Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager.
On December 6, 1963, the first NF-104A set an unofficial world altitude record of
118,860 feet for aircraft taking off under their own power. The official record at that
time was 113,829 feet, set by the Mikoyan/Gurevich Ye-66A, an experimental version of the
MiG-21 Fishbed. Later, the same NF-104A flown by Major R. W. Smith reached an altitude of
On December 10, 1963, the second NF-104A (56-762), with Chuck Yeager at the controls,
went out of control at an altitude of 104,000 feet and fell in a flat spin to 11,000 feet.
Yeager managed to eject successfully at that altitude, although he was badly burned on his
face by the rocket motor of his ejector seat. The aircraft was destroyed in the ensuing
crash. An investigation later showed that the cause of the crash was a spin that resulted
from excessive angle of attack and lack of aircraft response. The excessive angle of
attack was not caused by pilot input but by a gyroscopic condition set up by the J79
engine spooling after shut down for the rocket-powered zoom climb phase. So it wasn't
In June of 1971, the third NF-104A, with Capt. Howard C. Thompson at the controls,
suffered an inflight explosion of its rocket motor. Although Thompson was able to land
safely, the aircraft's rocket motor and half its rudder were blown away. Since the program
was about to end in any case, this aircraft was retired.
The number one NF-104A is currently on display on top of aa pylon in front of the USAF
Test Pilot School.
F-104C strike fighter
The F-104C (Lockheed Model 483-04-05) was the tactical strike version of the
Starfighter. It was designed to meet the needs of the Tactical Air Command (TAC), which
had earlier found the F-104A to be unacceptable because of its low endurance and its
inability to carry significant offensive payloads.
The choice of the F-104C by the TAC after it had found the F-104A to bu unsuitable seems
sort of odd, but the TAC felt that it needed a supersonic tactical strike fighter to fill
the void between the forthcoming F-100C and the Mach 2-capable Republic F-105
Thunderchief. On March 2, 1956, a contract was approved for the initial procurement of 56
F-104Cs. The order was later increased to 77 when a second order for 21 more F-104Cs was
approved on December 26, 1956. Planned orders for another 363 F-104Cs were later cancelled
when the USAF terminated all of its Starfighter production plans.
The first F-104C, unofficially designated YF-104C, took off on its maiden flight on July
24, 1958. The F-104C was powered by a General Electric J79-GE-7 engine rated at 10,000
lb.s.t. dry and 15,800 lb.s.t. with afterburner. This thrust was almost a thousand pounds
greater than the -3A/3B of the F-104A/B. This increase in power was made possible by
increasing the diameter of the turbine by 3 inches.
The F-104C could also be equipped with a fixed but removable inflight refuelling probe
attached to the port side of the fuselage.
The F-104C was designed mainly for delivery of Mk 12 and later US tactical nuclear
weapons, which it could carry on a centerline pylon attachment which had a 2000-pound
capacity. This centerline pylon could also carry a 225-US gallon droptank.
The F-104C was equipped with the improved AN/ASG-14T-2 fire control system which
replaced the F-104A's AN/ASG-14T-1. It made the F-104C capable of operating in clear night
as well as day conditions, although the F-104C was not truly capable of all-weather
The F-104C was equipped to carry bombs or rocket pods on underwing and fuselage points.
For nuclear strike, an MK-28 "special store" could be carried on a pylon
underneath the fuselage. The upward-firing Lockheed C-2 rocket-boosted ejector seat was
standard. The internal 20-mm rotary cannon of the F-104A was retained, as well as the
ability to carry a Sidewinder air-to-air missile on each wingtip. However, the 20-mm
cannon was not actually installed until 1964, when the improved M61A1 became available.
The first F-104Cs began to reach the TAC in September of 1958. It served with four
squadrons (434th, 435th, 436th, and 476th) of the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing based at
George AFB. It was primarily intended for nuclear strike, but it could also carry out
ground attack missions with conventional weapons.
On December 14, 1959, an F-104C flown by Captain Joe B. Jordan boosted the world's
altitude record to 103,389 feet. This was the first time that an aircraft taking off under
its own power exceeded the 100,000-foot mark. During the flight, the aicraft also reached
a speed of Mach 2.36 and established a time-to-height record to 30,000 meters (98,425
feet) of 15 minutes 4.92 seconds from brake release.
In October 1961, the F-104C was subjected to Project Grindstone, a program in which the
Lockheed factory modernized the fighter. Among the changes made was the addition of
hardpoints which enabled another pair of Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to be mounted
underneath the fuselage. The aircraft was also given the ability to carry and deliver a
larger variety of air-to-ground weapons, including 2.75-inch rockets, napalm, and gravity
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the 479th TFW's F-104Cs were deployed
to Key West, Florida to protect against Cuban or Russian aircraft trying to attack targets
in the United States. These planes would also have carried out air strikes against targets
in Cuba in case an invasion proved to be necessary. Fortunately, the crisis was peacefully
The F-104C had a number of operational problems with various components. The major
offender was the J79-GE-7 engine--forty serious mishaps occurred over a five-year period,
destroying 24 aircraft and killing 9 pilots. This led to Project Seven Up, a General
Electric modification program for the engine which began in May of 1963 and ended in June
In April of 1965, a single squadron of the 479th TFW deployed with their F-104Cs to Da
Nang Air Base in South Vietnam. Their job was to fly MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP)
missions to protect American fighter bombers against attack by North Vietnamese fighters.
They flew these missions armed with their single M61A1 20-mm cannon and four AIM-9
Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Unfortunately, the range of the F-104C was too short to
make it a useful escort fighter, a fact which the North was soon to discover. All they had
to do was wait for the F-104s to turn back before launching their own fighters in safety.
The 479th had a bad day on September 20, 1965, when F-104C pilot Major Philip E. Smith
was shot down over Hainan Island by a pair of Chinese MiG-19s (F-6s). His navigation
system had failed while he was on MiGCAP over the Gulf of Tonkin and he had gotten lost.
He ejected and was taken prisoner. While the rest of the squadron was out looking for
Major Smith, two other F-104s had a midair collision while returning to their base and
both their pilots were killed. A week later, another F-104C was shot down by enemy AAA,
and its pilot was killed.
After these four losses, the remnants of the 479th were rotated back to George AFB.
However, a new contingent of F-104Cs returned to Vietnam in May of 1966. This time, all
four squadrons of the 479th TFS were involved and were assigned to the Udorn base in
Thailand. These F-104Cs were soon involved in airstrikes against targets in both South and
North Vietnam, exchanging its role of air superiority for that of ground attack. The
Starfighter took part in *Operation Bolo*, which was a successful attempt to lure North
Vietnamese fighters into combat. However, the F-104s failed to engage whereas F-4 Phantoms
The F-104C was not very well suited for the ground attack role, having a relatively low
range and being incapable of carrying an adequately large offensive load. As a result, the
Air Force decided to replace these F-104Cs by more efficient McDonnell F-4D Phantoms
starting in July of 1967. The 479th was then rotated back to George AFB for the last time.
I don't believe that the F-104C ever destroyed a single enemy fighter during its tour of
duty in Southeast Asia. In addition to the MiG loss over Hainan, two F-104s fell to SAMs,
six to AAA and six were lost to non-combat causes.
Following the withdrawal of the F-104C from Southeast Asia in 1967, surviving F-104Cs
were transferred to the 198th TFS of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard. The F-104Cs
replaced that unit's elderly F-86H Sabre fighter-bombers. This ANG unit operated the
Starfighter until it converted to LTV A-7Ds in July of 1975.