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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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.

“People like thunder and noise,” says Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bankstahl, who, as director of the Selfridge Air Show, booked Starfighters, “and anything more than a solo act is a real bonus. These guys fit the bill.” And it doesn’t hurt that while the Blue Angels require services and support worthy of a superstar entourage, including 55 hotel rooms, police escorts, an army of cars and vans, and ’round-the-clock security, Starfighters needs only two cars, three hotel rooms, two auxilliary power units, and an oxygen cart.

“Here they come!” someone yells…and they’re gone, Svetkoff and Delashaw completing the first photo pass at a measly 400 mph, that wailing sound pressing over the crowd like the end of the world. They bank right, loop around, and here they come again. “Flaps,” calls Svetkoff in the lead, and both pilots retract the flaps. “Sector,” Svetkoff says, and they push the thrust up and accelerate into “sector burner,” the initial afterburner setting. The air is cool and dry and the 104s leap forward like there isn’t any air at all; in an instant they’re nosing Mach .92, over 700 mph, a few hundred feet above the ground. “Pull now,” Svetkoff says, and Delashaw pitches vertical, pulling 7 Gs, shooting straight up at 1,000 feet per second. The F-104, as pilots like to say, is not “power limited.”

After Delashaw blasts skyward,  Svetkoff spirals into a series of 700-mph corkscrew rolls, rolls out, and banks right to loop around for another pass. Delashaw, at 15,000 feet, has disappeared into the blue.

Svetkoff is flying his dream, but all isn’t quite perfect. The F-104 Starfighter was built for national militaries to fly, not airline pilots. Every second he’s up there he’s burning money faster than the airplane is sucking fuel. Tires can cost up to $500 apiece and last for just 12 to 15 takeoffs and landings. A thorough engine inspection costs $200,000. The aircraft are so expensive to fly and maintain that Delashaw and Svetkoff spend a few days before the season practicing and then pretty much fly only for shows. Bales receives but a stipend for his weekends on the airplanes and Delashaw is not paid. And to keep them flying takes a full-time crew chief, who doesn’t come cheap. The current schedule alone, Svetkoff figures, costs upwards of $400,000. Shows pay up to $15,000 an appearance (Selfridge paid $12,000), although they throw in a car, hotel rooms, food, and fuel. Luckily, spare parts remain plentiful (a 104 awaiting restoration in the hangar at Clearwater is often cannibalized for parts), and the Starfighter is an unusually reliable airplane. And Svetkoff occasionally gets a few days of work flying his 104 as a test platform for military contractors. Still, Svetkoff won’t be able to continue, and won’t be able to fly a third 104, unless he can find a way to underwrite his act. ICAS president John Cudahy thinks it will happen. “Sponsorship in the airshow industry is increasing significantly,” he says, “because corporate America sees an opportunity to get its message in front of a lot of people without a lot of clutter. When a performer flies, he’s alone in front of his audience for 15 minutes. And Starfighters bring a lot of the excitement and raw speed and power that audiences like to see from contemporary military aircraft.”

After six passes, Svetkoff banks right and touches down, drag chute popping out as he rolls out of sight. Delashaw is close behind, touching down on the main gear, holding the nose high almost the length of the runway in a display of aerodynamic braking. Seventeen minutes and a thousand gallons of fuel after takeoff, Starfighters’ show is over.

“It’s amazing that something man-made can make that much noise and go that fast,” says spectator John

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