The Fastest Show on Earth

How two Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became airshow stars.

The ultimate in point jets, the Starfighter is not for the faint of heart, be it pilot or audience. (Tim Wright)
Air & Space Magazine

The crowds swarm onto the base in the heady July sun to feel the ground shake and to cringe at the thunder of afterburners. Rick Svetkoff and Tom Delashaw are pleased to oblige them—all 250,000 of them, sitting on blankets and lawn chairs and coolers at the Selfridge Air National Guard base in Mount Clemens, Michigan.

“It’s rocket time!” says Svetkoff, a lanky 46-year-old in a blue flightsuit. He straps silver spurs to his black boots and climbs into the cockpit and attaches the spurs to the ejection seat of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, an airplane that, nearly 50 years after its first flight, still causes heads to turn and jaws to drop. Assistant crew chief Andy Bales helps fasten the harness  around his shoulders, torso, and legs.

“You all set?” Bales says.

“All set,” says Svetkoff, slipping on his helmet.

“Be careful up there,” Bales says.

Svetkoff’s Starfighters, Inc. of Clearwater, Florida, bills itself as “the world’s fastest flight demonstration team.” With its two F-104s, the team represents a new high on the airshow circuit: civilian-owned supersonic jets flying in formation (though speed for all aircraft is limited to Mach .98 over populated areas—no sonic booms allowed). With the planned addition of a third Starfighter this year, Starfighters, Inc. is chasing the elite of the airshow circuit, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels. Svetkoff and Delashaw routinely fly faster in both level flight and climb than either team.

“The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are the Rolling Stones of the airshow business,” says John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “When they come, big crowds come, and when big crowds come, they buy a lot of T-shirts and hot dogs and see sponsors’ products.”

Fifteen to 18 million people flock to some 425 airshows in the United States and Canada every season. The big ones—Selfridge in Michigan, Miramar in San Diego, the Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, to name a few—draw hundreds of thousands, sometimes over a million, spectators in a weekend. No one knows exactly how big the business is, but ICAS guesses $100 million  is spent in producing airshows, with at least an equal amount spent by those attending them. And the Angels were scheduled at just 35 shows last year. Svetkoff foresees a civilian team rivaling the military headliners. “We’re not a novelty act,” he asserts. “We’re a formation jet demonstration team. And we generate more thunder than anyone out there.”

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.

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