Ruminations on the F-104

by Walt BJ, Zipper pilot, ret (Not by choice)

I was in the 319 FIS at Homestead AFB from 1964 to 1967. Prior to that I had amassed 600 hours in the F-86 and 1500 in the F-102. My last tour had been at Thule in the Deuce, and at 40 below it was a sprightly performer. Like a takeoff roll of 1300 feet! But my first ride in the F-104 - hey, I'd been on test hop orders since 1960 and was used to checking gauges on the roll! But after releasing the brakes on the F-104B I'd managed to check 3 of the 5 gauges one checks after the burner light and my IP said quietly 'Rotate!'. We were nearing 180 KIAS! BTW If you don't get the gear handle up as the aircraft breaks ground at 186 you could trap the main gear doors open. No big deal; just nose up to slow below 250 KIAS and cycle the gear. No blow except to one's pride.

Anyway - the 319th was the ONLY combat flying outfit I've ever been in where we had payday afternoon off. The availability rate was limited ONLY by parts. The airplane was extremely reliable. The radar cold be changed in 20 minutes; the engine in 2 hours. Every comm/electronic box could be changed at the end of the runway in the quick check area in matter of a few minutes - and was. Our Quick Check crew had spare boxes in their van and saved many a sortie.

ADC had an exercise where they put up targets in a racetrack and tested the unit on how many sorties it could crank out. One afternoon we put 60 sorties up in three hours. The pilots were RTB'ing in AB and the ground crews were giving us 15 minute turnarounds!

The F-104 is the ONLY airplane I ever heard of where the squadron dog would exceed all the Flight Manual red line limits - 750 KIAS, M2.0 and 100C engine inlet temp, and the SLOW light which came on at 121C in the generator cooling air duct. The bird originally had the GE J79-3B engine, and by the time I got to fly it that engine was getting worn out. The engine frames were so warped now that hot air leaks would set off the AFT OVERHEAT light if one got too slow at altitude (generally under 315 KIAS or so). Finally a fine officer and gentleman Col (now BGen, ret) Dave Rippetoe got us the J79-19 engine. This is the same engine that is in the F-104S and a variant of the F-4E engine. The replacement was simple enough so that the majority were installed in the squadron.

The -3B engine gave us 9600 lbs in military and 14000 in AB - when it was new, that is. The -19 gave us 12850 in military and 18900 in AB, later reduced for peacetime longevity to 11870/17500. Suffice to say the increase in performance was outstanding. The old bird would take about 4 minutes to get to Mach 2 from .9, covering about 100 miles and using about all the fuel one could spare. The new bird took 1 minute 45 seconds, 27 miles, and 1000 pounds of fuel!

We normally flew 1:20 sorties clean (no ext tanks); now we could fly 1:30. The bird now cruised at 35000 at 315 KIAS at 2700 pph. Two reasons for greater efficiency, a new nozzle and a higher compression ratio in the compressor. With 2 x 165 gallon tip tanks we could now go HST (Homestead) - Big Springs, TX, BGS to Palmdale. 2 hop XC from FL to CA.

We intercepted U-2 fairly often on their training flights, usually above 60000. Of course we had to wear p-suits. Fuel was our limitation on the old bird; we couldn't afford to wait more than about 5 minutes if he was behind on his ETA. But with the new bird! I was fortunate enough to fly the first U-2 mission and during prebrief the controller at MOADS and I talked it over. Of course he had nothing in his computer about the bird's new performance. I asked to be rolled out 35 miles behind the U-2 at .9 mach at 35000. He did just that. I selected full AB and started accelerating. As the bird pass 1.4 I started a gentle climb. At something like 18 miles (on a 20 nm scope) I saw his blip on our 'spinscan' ASG14 radar. I glanced at the gauges and saw we were 1.8 M passing 58000! I don't recall what the fuel gauge read but it was nothing to worry about. Completed the intercept and peeled off for home with about 2400 pounds of fuel left! In the old bird if we had 1200 left then we were in fat city!

Gs. Yeah, just about everybody could out turn a -104 in the usual subsonic dogfight area. But the only birds that gave us a hard time - with the old engine! - were the F-106 and the F-8. The secret was never slowing down and using the vertical to the maximum. We had a good gun and sight combo and practiced (some of us) deflection shooting out to 3500-4000 feet. We got to where we could hit the dart (5x12 feet) about 85% of the time at ranges exceeding 2500 feet using the radar ranging gunsight. The plan was to force the bogey into a turn and then phase our attacks so one bird was always threatening the bogey. This is the TAC lead wingman switch concept. We thought of it and flew it as 'fluid four' without the wingmen, covering each other and the responsibilities switching according to the fight. Our unit sent people up to Tyndall to fight the F106s when they were trying to sell the 106 as a deployable air superiority team. The -19 F -104 waxed the 6. Later some of the guys (not me, sob - I was going to the F-4 now) went out to Edwards to fly against some of the oppo birds. later while working for Air Florida I talked to their 737 chief pilot. He was flying a very capable oppo bird against the USAF planes as was curving in behind what he thought was a lone F-4 at about 25000. All of a sudden he saw a F-104 pull up vertical off the F4s wing - and knew he was in trouble!

The -19 F-104 would go supersonic - Mach 1.05 - in true level flight at 25000 in military power. It could maintain .97 on the deck in Mil. The fastest I've had one on the deck was 750, the redline. I do know one pilot who let it run out to 825. He was at that time a bachelor and immortal. It's maximum was far beyond 2.0 at altitude. The most I've heard of is 2.4 (same bachelor) which is above the aluminum one-time limit. (2.2 for 5 minutes) I have personally flown the aircraft in a zoom climb high enough so the altimeter stopped turning at around 87000. We were still going up in a 50 degree climb. I suppose the pressure differential was too low to overcome the friction in the gears driving the needles. I know the bird will cruise at 73,000 at Mach 2.0; Paul Da San Martineo and I RTB'd from Tyndall to Homestead that way. It certainly impressed Miami Center; I remember the controller's answer when we called "Level Flight Level 730". "Roger, and you weren't lying about your true airspeed either!" (We'd filed a TAS of 1150 kts)

The bird could, on an 85 F day from sea level, at combat weight and configuration, go through 45000 in 90 seconds after brake release. This was a bird right off the line with no tweaking.

What always struck me about the aircraft was the way it could accelerate in a zero-G bunt. It seemed like it could jump from 250 to 550 in about 20 seconds. It was certainly fast enough so one had to hold the pitch trim button forward and yet still apply pressure to maintain zero-G for the unloaded accel.

Fighting the bird entailed two tactics; the deep six zoom attack with the AIM-9B and the gun pass followed by a vertical zoom and reattack at 600+. Get a radar lock-on and try for a high angle deflection shot on the planform of the bogey. The instant the gunsight was saturated - could no longer track - quarter roll wings level and zoom vertical again.

It was not uncommon to belly up through 50000 on the reattack. NO ONE could follow us in these maneuvers. Certainly not an F-4. An F-15 could, but they weren't around yet. After the second pass the F-4 was all out of airspeed. The 6 was in the same boat; it lost speed fast when it started pulling G. We could spiral climb away from them and when they paid off split ess back onto their tail.

I just wish USAF hadn't got into a hissy fit with Kelly Johnson. The CL1200 Lancer was an F-104 updated and improved. He solved so many complicated problems so simply on the -104 when I got to the F-4 I was disappointed in the crudity of the solutions to the same problems. There was some real engineering done on the Zipper; it seemed to me the F-4 team just grabbed an answer book off the shelf and leafed to the right page.

The F-104 was sort of like owning the sharpest knife in the world. It was an honest airplane; you knew what was going on all the time. but like using a sharp knife, you better not make any mistakes. it did not suffer fools at all. The engine-out landing pattern was wild; 15000 and 260 over the runway and one turn, 240 KIAS over the threshold. Drop the gear by the emergency release during the flare! Rate of descent stabilized with gear down, engine off, at 240 KIAS was about 11000 FPM. No slack there. The bird got a bad rep during its infancy - in the USAF about a third of them were lost to engine failure before GE got the bugs out of it. In the Luftwaffe a lot of accidents were due to a combination of green pilots, poor maintenance and lousy (normal) European Wx. With 4 tanks - fairly common LW configuration - the liftoff speed is around 215 KIAS. On an 8000 foot runway there is NO slack at all.

Range. Carrying one bomb (guess what kind) with 4 tanks an F-104 will go about half again as far as an F-4 on a Low-Low-Low sortie. And it will do it faster, too.

Bomb load. The TAC version can carry four but why would one want to mess up an air superiority fighter with bombs?

Deployability. The Zipper was designed before the perceived need for IFR. Because of the way its built it can be disassembled and loaded on a C-141 and flown to wherever you want it. Wings of and it sits on its gear. Tail off, elevator off rudder, load it board. Unload it at destination and reassemble it. Four bolts hold the after section on, five bolts for each wing. The Lancer could have incorporated a retractable probe and with its afterburning turbofan would have deployed nicely.

Summary. I amassed 2000 hours in the F-4D/E and grew to like it for what it could do. But love it? No way. My love was first the Sabre and then the Zipper. Both were true pilot's aircraft. The Sabre handled like it was part of you; the Zipper only came alive above 450 KIAS. But at 600 it started to hum, and at 700 . . . oh, baby!

Hope you enjoyed this - my paean to the Lockheed F-104A and to Kelly Johnson and his team!