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)
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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.

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.

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