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F-104: Germany's 'Widow Maker'

A Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft (Courtesy photo)

A Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft (Courtesy photo)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- While Lockheed designer C. L. "Kelly" Johnson and his "Skunk Works" are often lauded for the spectacular aircraft they produced, like the SR-71 and U-2, they also provided their share of dogs. Prominent among these was the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, dubbed by Lockheed as the "missile with a man in it" but by the German Air Force and Navy as the "widow maker."

The first futuristic-looking Starfighter flew in early 1956 and with its long circular fuselage, sharply pointed nose, and tiny, thin wings, it looked every inch the best fighter in the world.

However, the sleek looks hid a multitude of flaws. The wings were so small they could hold neither the landing gear nor fuel, which all had to be stowed in the fuselage.

There was no useful radar, and its only armament was a cannon and heat-seeking missiles, making it a day, clear weather-only fighter.

The small wings meant the Starfighter had excellent acceleration, rate of climb and top speed, but its sustained turn performance was poor. Since the wings could not carry fuel, the Starfighter had a very short range. It quickly became obvious that it was not really what the U.S. Air Force wanted, and it was quietly shunted to the sidelines.

But at the same time, several NATO nations needed a new fighter to replace their old first-generation jets, and they chose the F-104 under what was called the "Deal of the Century." Most -- more than 900 -- went to Luftwaffe and Navy air force. At its peak in the mid-1970s, the Luftwaffe and Navy operated 11 F-104 wings.

The model delivered to the Germans was not the simple daylight fighter but an all-weather, ground attack version -- the F-104G -- which was 2,000 pounds heavier than the original F-104 with the same engine. For most missions, it needed to carry four external fuel tanks, adding to the weight.

The Starfighter got off to a very bad start when, in June 1962, four F-104s were practicing for the type's "introduction-into-service" display and crashed in formation, killing all four pilots.

To avoid the European bad weather, the Germans sent their pilots to learn to fly the F-104 at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona. With almost 300 days of sunshine a year, it was an excellent place to train. But when the pilots returned to the harsh German weather, problems immediately arose.

The problems were in two areas. First, the speeds that the F-104 had to fly for approach and landing very high - much higher than the earlier jets - and went very fast, especially for an inexperienced pilot flying in seriously bad weather. Second, the Luftwaffe Starfighters' mission was low-level attack, and the aircraft was sensitive to control-input and extremely unforgiving to pilot error, especially at high speed at low level.

The result was a horrific number of accidents. By mid-1966, 61 German F-104s had crashed, with a loss of 35 pilots. The Commander of the Luftwaffe, Gen. Wernher Panitzki, was forced to resign when he said that the Starfighter purchase was politically motivated. His successor was the Luftwaffe World War II-ace Lt. Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, who immediately grounded the F-104Gs, at least partially -- and wisely -- to install a new ejection seat.

To add to the Starfighters' problems, it was learned that, in fact, Lockheed had bribed officials in Germany and other countries in the process of selling the F-104, though the German Starfighter purchase documents had been destroyed in 1962 by the Ministry of Defence.

Despite a variety of fixes, the crashes continued. Between 15 and 20 German 104s crashed every year between 1968 and 1972 and continued at a rate of about 10 F-104s per year until it was replaced. The final tally was the loss of 292 of the 916 Starfighters and the death of 115 pilots.