The Fastest Show on Earth
How two Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became airshow stars.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 2 of 5)
A primitive, pulsating howl cuts the air. Hooowha. Hooowha. The two sky-blue Starfighters taxi down the runway in formation, 1,500 feet from the crowd, emitting a scream that brings to mind dragons and dinosaurs. It’s a sound unique to -104s with GE-J79-3, -7, or –11 engines, says Delashaw, due to the configuration of the primary and secondary exhaust nozzles on the tailpipe. At certain engine speeds, exhaust gases rushing past the gap between the primary nozzle and the secondary, which is larger in diameter and aft of the primary, produce the howl the same way that blowing over the opening of a beer bottle produces a distinctive note. Earlier models of the F-4 Phantom were howl-capable, Delashaw says, but to a much lesser extent. “We accentuate it by moving the throttle in a particular range,” he says. “It’s a real attention getter, one aspect among others setting us apart from other jet acts.”
Mesmerized, the crowd stares at the blue missiles screaming down the runway and lifting into the clear air. “It’s rocket time!” Delashaw calls out, and Svetkoff echoes him. Svetkoff has done this dozens of times but his heart is beating fast, adrenaline flooding his body. Delashaw, at 64, has done it too many times to count, from Hahn, Germany, to Key West to Da Nang. But it’s making him feel young again, keeping him alive, he says.
They lift the nosewheels off and are flying at 205 mph, and by the time they’re hitting the end of the runway a second later they’re already passing 350. “Break now,” Svetkoff, in the lead, calls, and banks hard to the right. It’s the signal for Delashaw to pull the stick back and pitch straight up, like an arrow coming out of a bow; then he rolls inverted, quickly levels off at 7,000 feet, and accelerates to catch Svetkoff. Around they come in close formation in a 2.5-mile oval. “Starting the turn,” Svetkoff says, pushing the speed to 400. “Rolling out for the first pass. Call the howl,” Svetkoff says, and adjusts his power setting until Delashaw can hear that unique scream emanating from Svetkoff’s airplane. Delashaw matches the power setting, and together, at 200 feet, they dart down the flightline like blue lightning bolts.
This is exactly what Svetkoff imagined it would be like, hurtling along in his Starfighter, the audience oohing and ahhing, when he first got the idea in 1988: He would buy a fighter. Not just any fighter, but one of the fastest ones in the world, the one rolling and plummeting to “High Flight” when a TV station signed off late at night, the one that still holds a low-altitude speed record. “From the time I was a kid, the 104 had been my favorite airplane,” Svetkoff says. “It’s just beautiful and it accelerates like a rocket ship.” The idea was crazy; Svetkoff had never flown a 104 in his life. And civilians who own and fly rare warbirds and high-performance jets are usually by necessity rich, and Svetkoff isn’t.
“Yup,” says Delashaw, a white-haired retired Air Force fighter pilot, “I heard through the grapevine about this crazy airline pilot who was trying to buy a 104. I couldn’t understand how he was going to finance it.”
Svetkoff, who flew Navy jets in the 1970s and has been a Continental Airlines captain for 15 years, started small: At first he’d just wanted to own and fly something fast—an F-86 maybe. But then he heard that a couple of government contractors who had imported five 104s from the Jordanian and Norwegian air forces, hoping to use them as test beds for research-and-development contracts, might put the aircraft up for sale. The idea was captivating. Owning one of these exotic craft would be like marrying Raquel Welch or Marilyn Monroe. And then it hit him: airshows. He’d been to his first, here at Selfridge, as a kid back in the early 1960s. If I could get something so sexy, so top-shelf, that people would drop their hot dogs and stare when I fly by, he mused, then sponsors would pay to have their name on the side of my airplane.
In 1995, after taking out a third mortgage on his home, Svetkoff married the sexiest icon of his youth. (The deals were helped along by the financial woes of the F-104 owners before him.) He became the owner of a Canadian two-seat CF-104D and a single-seat CF-104, both flown by the Norwegian air force, and a low-time but unflyable F-104B from the Jordanian air force.
Perhaps the most important acquisition was Delashaw, who had tracked down Svetkoff when he heard that Svetkoff was in the market for a 104. First checked out in the 104 in 1961, Tom “Sharkbait” Delashaw is a veteran of the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing, the only U.S. wing to fly the 104 in combat. He flew two tours of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including 100 sorties over North Vietnam, mostly combat air patrol in F-104s and night strikes in F-4s. He also flew the 104 as a maintenance test pilot, graduated from the Air Force Fighter Weapons School in Nevada, wrote some official weapons manuals for it, and still holds his unit’s speed and altitude records: 1,500 mph and 92,000 feet. With 2,700 hours logged in 104s, Delashaw was still nuts about the airplane. As a hobby, he keeps tabs on every 104 flying. Although retired from the Air Force since 1987, he is a self-described “time hog,” designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct in and give check rides for the few civilian owners of 104s, F-4s, F-100s, and Hawker Hunters. He is also a formation instructor in the warbird community and teacher of air combat for Texas Air Aces in Houston. And his best friend is Ben McAvoy, a Lockheed Starfighter maintenance rep since 1956 and a former crew member for Darryl Greenamyer’s record-setting 104, which had been built from spare parts (see “Back in the Race,” Aug./Sept. 2000). Delashaw could teach Svetkoff how to fly 104s, and his friendship with McAvoy put the foremost authority on the aircraft’s technical ins and outs a mere phone call away. “Tom had a total knowledge and understanding of the plane,” Svetkoff says.