Quick Facts

Lockheed F-104C Starfighter

The Missile with a Man in it!

Era: Jet Age

On Loan from the United States Air Force Museum

Location: Flight Discovery Center

During the Korean War, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson toured operational units and talked with F-84 and F-86 pilots who were desperate for up-to-date hard­ware which could be effectively used against the far superior MiG-15s. What was needed was a plane with much greater speed, faster rate of climb and a higher operational ceiling. Upon return to the United States, Kelly Johnson and Bill Ralston designed the first fighter capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2 to enter service with the USAF. The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter would become known as the "missile with a man in it."

Outwardly the Starfighter was unlike any other existing or projected designs. Nearly all the plane's equipment was packed into the fuselage, including the fuel tank and landfng gear. But the most unexpected feature was the wing design, with a very short wingspan and a leading edge so sharp that ground crews were in some danger when working in close proximity as it was razor sharp. The pilot was provided with a downward-ejection seat because of danger from the high T-tail. This ejection seat was  to cause a great deal of trouble as its performance did not prove satisfactory.

Although the F-104 can be considered an excellent air­craft, troubles with the engine hampered the A and B series while the extra weight of the new equipment in the G variant caused many accidents and gave the plane a reputation of being dangerous to fly.  Partley because of the Starfighters problems and realization that it took more than sheer speed and exceptional operational ceiling to make an outstanding interceptor, the USAF deployed F-104A and B series aircraft for only a year. F-104s did however enjoy spectacular commerical success abroad and were still operational thirty years after the "missile with a man in it" made its maiden flight.