Cold War: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. US Air Force

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was developed for the US Air Force as a supersonic interceptor. Entering service in 1958, it was the USAF's first fighter capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2. Though the F-104 set a multitude of airspeed and altitude records, it suffered from reliability issues and possessed a poor safety record. Briefly used in the Vietnam War, the F-104 was largely ineffective and was withdrawn in 1967. The F-104 was widely exported and saw service with numerous other countries.


The F-104 Starfighter traces its origins to the Korean War where US Air Force pilots were battling the MiG-15. Flying the North American F-86 Sabre, they stated that they desired a new aircraft with superior performance. Visiting American forces in December 1951, Lockheed's chief designer, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, listened to these concerns and learned firsthand the pilots' needs. Returning to California, he quickly assembled design team to begin sketching out a new fighter. Assessing several design options ranging from small light fighters to heavy interceptors they ultimately settled on the former.

Building around the new General Electric J79 engine, Johnson's team created a supersonic air superiority fighter that utilized the lightest airframe possible. Emphasizing performance, the Lockheed design was presented to the USAF in November 1952. Intrigued by Johnson's work, it elected to issue a new proposal and began accepting competing designs. In this competition, Lockheed's design was joined by those from Republic, North American, and Northrop. Though the other aircraft possessed merits, Johnson's team won the competition and received a prototype contract in March 1953.


Work moved forward on the prototype which was dubbed XF-104. As the new J79 engine was not ready for use, the prototype was powered by a Wright J65. Johnson's prototype called for a long, narrow fuselage that was mated with a radical new wing design. Employing a short, trapezoidal shape, the XF-104's wings were extremely thin and required protection on the leading edge to avoid injury to ground crews.

These were combined with a "t-tail" configuration aft. Due to the thinness of the wings, the XF-104's landing gear and fuel were contained within the fuselage. Initially armed with a M61 Vulcan cannon, the XF-104 also possessed wingtip stations for AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Later variants of the aircraft would incorporate up to nine pylons and hardpoints for munitions.

With construction of the prototype complete, the XF-104 first took to the sky on March 4, 1954 at Edwards Air Force Base. Though the aircraft had moved quickly from the drawing board to the sky, an additional four years were required to refine and improve the XF-104 before it became operational. Entering service on February 20, 1958, as the F-104 Starfighter, the type was the USAF's first Mach 2 fighter.

F-104 cockpit
Cockpit of a F-104C Starfighter. US Air Force


Possessing impressive speed and climb performance, the F-104 could be tricky aircraft during takeoff and landings. For the latter, it employed a boundary layer control system to reduce its landing speed. In the air, the F-104 proved very effective at high-speed attacks, but less so in dogfighting due to its wide turning radius. The type also offered exceptional performance at low altitudes making it useful as a strike fighter. During the course of its career, the F-104 became known for its high loss rate due to accidents. This was particularly true in Germany where the Luftwaffe grounded the F-104 in 1966.

F-104G Starfighter


  • Length: 54 ft., 8 in.
  • Wingspan: 21 ft., 9 in.
  • Height: 13 ft., 6 in.
  • Wing Area: 196.1 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 14,000 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 20,640 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Power Plant: 1 × General Electric J79-GE-11A afterburning turbojet
  • Combat Radius: 420 miles
  • Max Speed: 1,328 mph


  • Guns: 1 × 20 mm (0.787 in) M61 Vulcan cannon, 725 rounds
  • 7 Hardpoints: 4 x AIM-9 Sidewinder, up to 4,000 lbs. bombs, rockets, drop tanks

Operational History

Entering service with 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron in 1958, the F-104A first became operational as part of the USAF Air Defense Command as an interceptor. In this role the type suffered teething problems as the squadron's aircraft were grounded after a few months due to engine issues. Based on these problems, the USAF reduced the size of its order from Lockheed.

F-104 Starfighter
Lockheed F-104A Starfighter of the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Taoyuan Air Base, Taiwan, on 15 September 1958, during the Quemoy Crisis. US Air Force

While issues persisted, the F-104 became a trailblazer as the Starfighter set a series of performance records including world air speed and altitude. Later that year, a fighter-bomber variant, the F-104C, joined the USAF Tactical Air Command. Quickly falling out of favor with the USAF, many F-104s were transferred to the Air National Guard.

With the beginning of the US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1965, some Starfighter squadrons began to see action in Southeast Asia. In use over Vietnam until 1967, the F-104 failed to score any kills and suffered a loss of 14 aircraft to all causes. Lacking the range and payload of more modern aircraft, the F-104 was quickly phased out of service with the last aircraft leaving USAF inventory in 1969. The type was retained by NASA which used F-104 for testing purposes until 1994.

An Export Star

Though the F-104 proved unpopular with the USAF, it was exported extensively to NATO and other US-allied nations. Flying with the Republic of China Air Force and Pakistan Air Force, the Starfighter scored kills in the 1967 Taiwan Strait Conflict and India-Pakistan Wars respectively. Other large buyers included the Germany, Italy, and Spain who bought the definitive F-104G variant beginning in the early 1960s.

Featuring a reinforced airframe, longer range, and improved avionics, the F-104G was built under license by several companies including FIAT, Messerschmitt, and SABCA. In Germany, the F-104 got off to a bad start due to a large bribery scandal that was associated with its purchase. This reputation sank further when the aircraft began suffering from an unusually high accident rate.

Though the Luftwaffe endeavored to correct problems with its F-104 fleet, over 100 pilots were lost in training accidents during the aircraft's use in Germany. As losses mounted, General Johannes Steinhoff grounded the F-104 in 1966 until solutions could be found. Despite these problems, export production of the F-104 continued until 1983. Utilizing various modernization programs, Italy continued to fly the Starfighter until finally retiring it in 2004.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). Cold War: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Cold War: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).