The Fastest Show on Earth
How two Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became airshow stars.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
That’s important with any airplane, but it is especially true of the Starfighter, an airplane revered for its performance but long maligned by people who never flew it. Its design originated with Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson quizzing veteran pilots in Korea in 1952, whose F-80s, F-84s, and F-86s had a hard time going up against North Korea’s MiG-15s. We want more speed, a better climb rate, and a higher ceiling, they told him. Something simple and light. Johnson returned to California and, unsolicited by the Air Force, designed an airplane. If you build it, they will come, he believed, and sure enough, a year later the Air Force issued an order for a lightweight air superiority fighter. The airplane that Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier first flew on March 4, 1954, the XF-104, was an engineering tour de force. It was all fuselage, a long, clean dart with stubby, straight wings so thin they were essentially big double-edge razor blades. Two small engine intakes on either side of the cockpit were the only interruptions to air flow. In 1956 it became the first fighter to exceed Mach 2 in level flight. The Air Force ordered 147 single-seat F-104As. Within three years Starfighters shattered every record in the book: speed (1,404 mph), altitude (103,395 feet), and seven time-to-climb records. Later, rocket-powered NF-104s would unofficially reach 130,000 feet, Chuck Yeager would fail to recover from a flat spin in an NF-104 at 104,000 feet and eject at 11,000 feet, and air racer Darryl Greenamyer would set a low-altitude speed record of 988 mph, which still stands, in a homebuilt 104.
For all its remarkable performance, however, by the time the 104A was delivered, the Air Force was looking at multi-mission-capable aircraft like the F-105. The 104A could not carry bombs, a deficiency that reduced its utility as a tactical fighter. Bugs in the original J79 powerplant rendered it unreliable. And its ejection seat, designed to eject downward because pilots may not have cleared the T-tail at high speeds, was a killer: 21 pilots died in downward ejections. Of the 722 Starfighters eventually ordered by the Air Force, only 296 were delivered, and most of those soon found their way to Air National Guard squadrons.
Thoroughbred though it was, the 104 might have disappeared in ignominy if Germany and NATO hadn’t selected the G model in 1958 as their main platform to deliver tactical nuclear weapons against the Warsaw Pact. Compared with the A and C models (the B and D models were two-seat trainers), the F-104G could carry 8,000 pounds of external stores and the avionics for all-weather capability. But pilots died in it. German pilots crashed two in 1961, seven in 1962, 12 in 1964, and 28 in 1965. By the time Germany retired its 104s, 270 aircraft—nearly 30 percent of its total force—had been lost to accidents, and 110 pilots had died.
Still, over the next three decades, some 2,580 Starfighters had been produced, most under license from Lockheed, in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and Japan. Although the Luftwaffe operated 35 percent of all 104s built, Starfighters were eventually flown by Italy, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan, Jordan, and Pakistan. Even today, Italy flies 64 highly upgraded F-104S models.
Ask Delashaw about the 104’s checkered reputation and he scoffs. Is a race-prepped Ferrari an easy car to drive? If you handed the keys to your teenage son, would he live to tell the tale? German pilots went from the “all-visual subsonic F-84 and F-86 to a Mach 2, low-level, all-weather fighter,” he says. “That’s a huge leap in performance.” And most had little or no experience in any kind of airplane. “The Germans learned to fly in 150 hours at Wichita Falls, Texas. Then we’d give them 150 hours on the 104 at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Then they’d go back to Germany and get a European check and be tossed out on their own. You had pilots with 500 hours of time flying this high-performance airplane in bad weather at 200 to 400 feet; it was a very difficult and intense work environment.”
Pilots like Delashaw who mastered the Starfighter loved it like no other. Spain, he points out, never lost a 104. And in 56,000 hours of flying time Norway suffered but six crashes.
With Delashaw on his team, Rick Svetkoff was off to join the flying circus. “Rick’s theory,” says Delashaw, “was that people at airshows don’t care if you fly a biplane that can do weird stuff; what they really want is something loud, sexy, and fast,” preferably with multiple aircraft in formation, basically the stuff of the military jet teams.
Every December ICAS holds its annual convention, where airshow acts sell themselves to airshow producers for the coming season; Svetkoff attended his first in 1995. “Everyone had these big booths,” Svetkoff says, “and that first year we had no money and just three little photos of the planes, but we had more people hanging around our area than anyone. They were all saying ‘Are you guys actually going to show 104s?’ ” Broke and unpracticed, Svetkoff’s Starfighters, Inc. booked only two shows that season. But over the next year Delashaw checked Svetkoff out and taught him the finer points of flying the high-performance jet, and the two developed a simple routine based on Svetkoff’s premise: lots of high-speed passes and pullups showcasing the airplane’s howling sound, speed, and unparalleled rate of climb. The next December they came to the convention with a big booth, lots of photos, and a sound system pumping out that howl. They’ve barely paused since, performing at 12 to 15 shows a season, mostly big military shows like this one at Selfridge.