Lockheed f-104 – my flight with the starfighter

Walter Wolfrum, in II. A World War II fighter pilot on the Me 109 with 137 kills, 1962 German Aerobatic Champion and 1966 member of the team representing the Federal Republic of Germany at the World Aerobatic Championships in Moscow, he is well known to the readers of Flug-Revue through his test reports on well-known sports and business aircraft. Here we bring the report of Walter Wolfrum about his flight with the Starfighter.

1966: My flight with the Starfighter

It was almost exactly 21 years ago that I last sat at the controls of a fighter plane. Since then, flying has been a pleasure, a hobby and a sport for me. What has remained for me from those days is the attraction of fast aircraft; since my flying experience was inevitably limited to sports and touring aircraft, this interest has often become a secret longing in recent years.

Soon after the new Air Force was established, the first veils of secrecy were lifted on an entirely new fighter development from Lockheed Works, the F-104. From the outset, this aircraft was uncompromisingly designed for the requirements of supersonic flight and therefore had a strongly futuristic appearance compared to the more or less conservative-looking aircraft of the time; on a rocket-like slender fuselage with a needle-shaped tip, there were short wing stubs with a razor-sharp leading edge about halay down the fuselage. With such a design, the performance data that became known also seemed credible; with a fabulous climb performance and twice the speed of sound, this aircraft was almost 100% better than the standard fighters of the 1950s – a leap in performance that had hardly ever been seen before in the history of aviation! With full justification, therefore, the F-104 became the "Starfighter.".

My burning interest to see this super airplane with the magic formula "Mach 2 The fact that I had the opportunity to get to know this aircraft in person was even more pronounced when the unfortunate series of accidents began and the hot controversy about this aircraft type started a year ago. To get a halay clear picture out of the jumble of reports, messages and comments resp. to distinguish what was right, half-right or wrong, or even what was said and written about it for political and electoral reasons, was neither possible for me nor for any other German citizen. I was happy when finally in March d. J. the permission for some flights at the dual controls of the TF-104 G, the two-seater trainer version, was granted.

Four weeks later, things got serious. For me it was very important that I did not have to complete the flights anywhere, but could choose the fighter-bomber squadron 31, i.e. the unit of the German Air Force that had been one of the first to convert to the Starfighter and therefore also had the greatest practical experience.

It was very interesting for me to hear that the squadron initially flew virtually accident-free on the F-104 for about two years after the conversion, until the series of accidents began in other Starfighter squadrons as well in 1965. Does this fact make the Starfighter problem even more mysterious, or does it perhaps hold an important key to ending the losing streak?? It is not my task to pursue this question; let us concentrate on whether this super machine, whose outstanding performance is undisputed, can really still be called an airplane, perhaps even a dream airplane, with a clear conscience because of its characteristics and its entire behavior in the air, or whether this spawn of technology no longer has anything to do with flying and requires robots with the fatalistic attitude of kamikaze pilots who have been trained for years to master it.

Equipment of the Starfighter pilots

Lockheed f-104 - my flight with the starfighter

In addition to the usual equipment, consisting of helmet, breathing mask, parachute, combination and boots, the starfighter pilot still has to wear tinny "spurs, to which thin steel cables are attached in the airplane in order to tie the legs tightly to the ejection seat in case of catapulting out; without these "foot ropes" there would be a considerable risk of injury. In this outfit, after the obligatory all-around check of the aircraft by the pilot, I climbed into the rear seat of the TF-104 and was first pleasantly surprised by the comfort offered; seating position and spaciousness are in no way comparable to the cramped conditions of a Me 109; also the visibility conditions leave nothing to be desired, even to the front it is easy to overlook the lowered front seat. My pilot introduced me to the cockpit and its equipment. It turned out that the instrumentation is not as complicated and overwhelming as I had imagined based on reports.


Lockheed f-104 - my flight with the starfighter

After about a quarter of an hour, I was familiar with the instruments and controls necessary for the flight. Starting the powerful jet engine is child’s play, it starts just as easily and willingly as a modern piston engine. Also the taxiing did not show any unusual difficulties, the maneuverability on the ground can be compared with any normal nose wheel aircraft. I was astonished to see how promptly and precisely the engine responds to every throttle change, because as is well known, this was one of the main problems with the older models, but especially with the German jet fighter of World War II, the Me 262.

At the take-off point, a short check similar to any other aircraft, flaps to take-off position, and then, with the brakes applied, the engine is run up, initially to 100%, in technical terms "military power", and then the afterburner is turned on; the pilot has nothing else to do than to turn the throttle "around the corner The Starfighter can be pushed forward, exactly the same maneuver that was necessary in the fighter planes of the last war, in order to demand emergency power from the engine, for example, when a Spitfire or Mustang tried to attach itself to the rear.

Brakes released, and with an acceleration I had never experienced before, the airplane shoots away on the runway. 100 Kt/h are exceeded in no time, at 150 knots the nose wheel is up and with about 185 knots = 335 km/h the machine takes off; I try to estimate in the furious haste, hardly 800 m takeoff distance are covered until then. The speed increase seems to become more and more rapid, one has to do to retract the landing gear below the permitted limits of 250 Kt/h. Shortly after the airfield boundary 350 knots are reached, snout up, and the aircraft races steeply into the sky. Although the airspeed indicator now remains constant, at the incredibly rapidly increasing altitude the actual speed continues to rise, as can be seen from the Mach meter, whose needle is approaching Mach 1, the speed of sound.

This afterburner climb out of the starting gate was a truly stunning kickoff. Before I could really keep up, the first cloud layer, a ruptured cumulus layer, was behind us, seconds later the next cloud layer, an altostratus veil, was pierced, and before I knew it, I was looking down on the cirrus, the third and last cloud layer, from above. Within a minute and a half since releasing the brakes, the tropopause was in 36.000 feet altitude reached. The afterburner was switched off and the engine was regulated back to an economical cruising power of 90-92%, the speed kept around Mach 0.9 in level flight.

I take the controls of the Starfighter

Lockheed f-104 - my flight with the starfighter

I was now able to take the controls on my own and found that the aircraft basically felt and behaved no differently than any other fast aircraft in terms of rudder response and control pressures; the Starfighter’s directional stability is quite excellent, making it particularly suitable for precise instrument flight. The situation is different when turning; a normal turn of 30-60° can still be flown as usual, but if you take the airplane even steeper and tighter around, the machine or more precisely the stick immediately begins to shake, and if you pull even further, the moment comes when the control stick is pushed forward automatically and with irresistible force – an automatic stall protection. At this moment one becomes aware again with all clarity that one no longer has an aeroplane in one’s hand, but a machine designed according to the aerodynamic laws of supersonic flight.

The aerodynamics of flying in the subsonic range, where the aircraft was still at that time, on the other hand, show considerable differences, and it is understandable that various compromises had to be made and technical tricks employed in the F-104 to ensure the necessary flight stability and safe controllability below Mach 1. I believe I can say with a clear conscience that this task, which is certainly not easy, has been solved satisfactorily in the case of the Starfighter. Flying rolls is much easier than turns; because of the extremely short wings, the airplane can be moved around its longitudinal axis with a unique ease and agility. It would be possible to keep taxiing without effort, just by holding the stick on one side. The pedals are not needed for this maneuver any more than for any other normal maneuver.

"Mach-2-run" and landing

Lockheed f-104 - my flight with the starfighter

Now came the next big event, the "Mach 2 run."! It was new to me that the machine ca. It takes four and a half minutes to accelerate from Mach 0.9 to twice the speed of sound. In the area around Trier, we switched to Mach 1 in almost 40.000 feet altitude with a southerly heading the afterburner on. The "sound barrier was passed immediately, with no sign of it in the airplane, the starfighter breaking through this barrier like butter; only the hands of the altimeter and variometer bobbed downward briefly, the only sign that this threshold, once so difficult to cross, was behind us.

From Mach 1.2, the increase in speed slowed down, but the aircraft continued to fly with the same calmness, only from Mach 1.4 onwards a very slight tremor and shaking could be felt, the only perception of the tremendous air forces against which the aircraft had to fight. The four and a half minutes were up, and the Mach meter showed almost double the speed of sound; a look down through the broken cloud cover, we had arrived west of Strasbourg in the meantime. Apart from the rapid change of the map, this hardly comprehensible speed is only felt by the occupants when flying a turn. Above Mach 1, the stick can be pulled considerably harder without shake or stall indications; with 90° bank and a turn acceleration of 3 g (lt. g-knife), I pull the machine around with an improbably large curve radius, and it seems to take an eternity to reach the opposite course after a 180° turn.

With normal engine power, we return to the home base in a few minutes; of course, I continue to try to penetrate the secrets of the flight characteristics. I saw that even without afterburners one has to pay sharp attention not to exceed the sound limit without noticing it, and can now understand why sometimes a sonic boom startles us, which was neither intended nor noticed by the pilot in question. With extended dive brakes, which can be applied at any speed, the aircraft descends, if necessary just as steeply and quickly as before, to practice a few takeoffs and landings at the home airfield.

The flaps are extended to takeoff position very early and at even higher speed; I notice that this makes the airplane considerably more "manageable" in the low speed range it is easier to turn without stall warning. At 250 Kt/h in the counter approach part the landing gear comes out, with 87% engine power and an indicated speed of 220 resp. The last two turns before landing are flown at 210 knots. With the flaps fully extended and 200 kts/h we approach the runway on final approach; at the edge of the runway the engine power is increased to 100% and at the same time the dive brake is extended; at 180 to 185 kts/h the aircraft touches down safely and quietly like any other aircraft; only a quick sideways glance to the edge of the runway shows that we are a little faster than usual. As required, the brake chute is pulled sooner or later during taxiing, which quickly reduces the speed to normal taxiing speed.

First conclusions and low-level flight

Lockheed f-104 - my flight with the starfighter

My flight experience in the Starfighter had convinced me up to that point that, apart from a few peculiarities inherent in every type, the aircraft was basically just as reliable and safe as other fast aircraft. However, the necessary design for the aerodynamics of supersonic flight in conjunction with the very high wing loading force the pilot in the lowest speed range, i.e. preferably during landing, to fly particularly accurately and to follow the "procedures" consistently. Under these conditions, I consider every average pilot to be capable of flying this aircraft after appropriate training.

In the afternoon of the same day, I got to know the F-104 from another, no less important side, in low-level flight operations. The weather was slightly thundery with strong gusts near the ground; based on my previous experience with fast aircraft, I was therefore quite skeptical whether the aircraft and crew would tolerate a flight of several hundred kilometers at an altitude of 250 to 500 feet at Mach 0.8-0.9 reasonably well. My fears proved surprisingly unfounded; even gusts that would get to me in any small cruising plane are felt only slightly in the starfighter, which is no doubt an advantage of the unusually small and short airfoil. Since the visibility conditions are good and the control action is accurate, it is not as difficult and dangerous as one might think to fly in the F-104 at high speed near the ground. I could imagine that hardly any other competitor with comparable performance is as well suited for low-flying operations as the Starfighter.

Last flight and technical malfunction

Lockheed f-104 - my flight with the starfighter

During my last flight I finally got acquainted with a technical malfunction, which can never be completely avoided in such a highly complicated aircraft, a malfunction, by the way, which could occur to the same extent in any other type of similar performance and equipment. During the climb, the aircraft suddenly turned sideways, my pilot recognized within seconds the cause of the involuntary flight movement, it was a failure of the automatic rudder damping around the vertical axis, combined with a blocking of the rudder; he switched off the damping completely, and we flew, albeit strongly lurching and yawing, back to the airfield. The landing, carried out with a little more attention and concentration than usual, was as smooth as the previous ones.

This small example at the end of my report shows how vital it is for the pilot of a high-tech aircraft or weapon system, whether it is called Starfighter or Phantom, to be thoroughly familiar with his aircraft and all possible emergencies. It is my conviction that this is one of the most important preconditions for an accident-free use of such super aircrafts.

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