The first fighter to fly twice the speed of sound, the Lockheed F-104 was a controversial design. Now, decades after retirement, the Starfighter is taking on a new role.

If you asked an eight-year-old to design a jet fighter, the end result might resemble the Lockheed F-104.

The F-104 looks less like a plane and more like a rocket with some extra bits added as an afterthought. Its long thin fuselage – with a tiny cockpit perched behind its pointy nose and short stubby wings either side – make it look state-of-the-art even today; one can only imagine how revolutionary it seemed when it was unveiled in the 1950s.

The F-104, designed just after the first jet-vs-jet air combat in The Korean War, was created to fly as fast as possible, hurtling past all the previous speed records. Less than a decade after test pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the speed of sound, it became the first jet to fly more than twice the speed of sound.

On top of a military career which lasted nearly 50 years, the F-104 found itself serving as an experimental testbed – a rocket-powered spacecraft stand-in that allowed pilots to practice the kind of rocket-thrust manoeuvring astronauts would use to control a spacecraft.

Now, some 60 years after the prototype first flew, the F-104 has found another role – as the launch vehicle for a new generation of tiny satellites.

It’s a surprising rebirth for an aircraft born almost at the very start of the jet age. The F-104 was the brainchild of the same man who would later design the world’s fastest plane, the SR-71 Blackbird. Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson interviewed fighter pilots who were shocked at the high performance of the Soviet Union’s MiG-15 fighter in Korea – which could outrun and out-turn any Western fighter – and asked them what they needed.

The F-104 is the perfect example of the compromises that come with trying to design high-performance aircraft

“They wanted a lot more speed, altitude, and maneuverability,” says aviation historian Ray Panko, of the Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii. “The F-104 gave them the first two but sadly not the third.”

In order to meet the need for speed, the F-104’s wing was very small and very, very thin. That helped create less drag, but it also prevented it from being able to turn tightly – and also cut down the amount of fuel that could be carried internally. The F-104 is the perfect example of the compromises that come with trying to design high-performance aircraft.

The F-104 first flew in March 1954, less than a year after Lockheed had been given the go-ahead to build a prototype. It made an almost immediate impact. The needle-nosed jet quickly earned the nickname ‘the missile with a man in it’; its official name was the Starfighter.

One pilot compared the experience to ‘driving a car while sitting on the hood’

The pilot sat close to the nose, in the plane’s cramped cockpit; he could only see his wings if he looked in rearview mirrors. Behind him was the General Electric J79 engine, an incredibly powerful engine that could push the aircraft to Mach 2 (1,500mph) and beyond. One pilot compared the experience to “driving a car while sitting on the hood”. As soon as the aircraft’s engine was revved up for take-off, the F-104 would shake and vibrate, Panko says, like a dog straining on its leash. When the brakes were released, the rocket-shaped F-104 would sprint down the runway.

Its rate of climb was exceptional. The F-104 was designed to catch up with enemy aircraft before they could release their weapons – a role known as ‘interceptor’ – which meant it needed to reach its targets very quickly. A Starfighter pilot could reach 48,000ft (15 kilometres) in one minute, a feat still impressive 60 years later. The Starfighter would fly fast and straight, firing its missiles from many miles away, and turning back to base before its target had time to respond.

The F-104 was blessed with exceptional speed and climb, but also its fair share of idiosyncrasies – some of which made this rocket-shaped fighter incredibly challenging to fly. Because of the turbulence created by the small wings, the tailplane – essential for control – had to be moved to the top of the tail. This made the aircraft very hard to control at low speeds, and at high angles of attack (the direction of the wing relative to the air flow, such as when a plane is climbing). If it stalled, the plane wouldn’t drop nose down, allowing it to pick up speed and recover, but would drop tail first. At low level, that could be disastrous.

The high tailplanes also led to a very interesting design modification – because of the danger of an escaping pilot hitting the tailplane at high speed, the first F-104s had a downward-firing ejector seat. This made it almost impossible to escape from a low-level. (Later versions had more powerful seats fitted that could clear the tailplane even at high speeds).

Even at the high altitudes for which it was designed, the F-104 could be a handful

Even on the ground, the plane could still be dangerous. Ground crew had to install safety caps on the leading edge of the wings – which were sharp enough to cut paper – to stop them injuring themselves.

Even at the high altitudes for which it was designed, the F-104 could be a handful. One very nearly claimed a very high-profile victim. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, flew a specialised version of the F-104 during his time at the Aerospace Research Pilot School in the 1960s. These three Starfighters had a rocket motor fitted so the aircraft could be flown to incredibly high altitudes. Once there, thrusters in its nose and wingtips helped the pilot control it for around 80 seconds; the air was so thin that the short stubby wings couldn’t generate enough lift to keep it aloft. It was the nearest anyone could get on Earth to the conditions astronauts would be controlling their spacecraft beyond the atmosphere.

On 10 December 1963, Yeager flew his modified Starfighter above the California desert. He activated the rocket motor, which tilted the aircraft up and pushed it past 100,000ft (around 30,500m). He then prepared to use the rocket thrusters. These, however, pushed the aircraft into a flat spin. Yeager stayed inside the spinning jet, hoping that he’d be able to regain control when the Starfighter entered heavier air closer to the ground.

The test pilot only put out the fire inside his suit by removing a glove and fanning the flames with his bare hand

Yeager soon realised his Starfighter was doomed – he couldn’t stop the aircraft from spinning. He launched his ejector seat, but as his parachute opened his helmet visor was struck by the bottom of the seat. Molten propellant from the seat’s rocket motor burned through the visor, turning to flame as it reached the oxygen in Yeager’s pressure suit. The test pilot only put out the fire inside his suit by removing a glove and fanning the flames with his bare hand. Yeager floated to the ground – his face and half his hair burned out, and an eye socket cut from the collision with his chair – landing not far from the charred remains of his plane.

“The fact that Yeager was capable of regaining enough control to eject is an incredible testament to his flying abilities,” says Panko. “This is even more true because the problem occurred when he was above much of the atmosphere in his F-104 with an added rocket in its tail.”

Test pilots may have found plenty of use for the F-104, but military service was something different; the US Air Force quickly realised the Starfighter’s limitations, and cut its requirements. Less than 300 F-104s would end up flying in US service.

The problem is, for a great part of their lifetime, the Starfighter ended up doing jobs it was not designed for

However, European countries in the Nato alliance were in desperate need of new aircraft to counter the Soviet Union’s vast air forces. Lockheed pitched the F-104 – built to fly high and fast – as a jack-of-all-trades, from interceptor, to low-level attack and high-speed reconnaissance.

It became known as ‘The Deal of the Century’. So many Starfighters were ordered – no less than 1,000 by the West German Air Force alone – that Lockheed had to arrange licence production across the world. Their own factories couldn’t keep up with demand. Hundreds more served with air forces from Turkey to Norway, Denmark to Italy, and Japan to Canada.

The size of the deal – the majority of the nearly 3,000 F-104s built – embroiled Lockheed in a series of bribery scandals; in 1975 it turned out that the company had paid out more than $22m to foreign dignitaries to make sure their countries bought the Starfighter. The fallout tarnished Lockheed’s reputation for years.

For a great part of their lifetime, the Starfighter ended up doing jobs it was not designed for, even if – at first glance – the needle-nosed, stubby-winged F-104s seemed a good choice.

“For low-level, high-speed flight, small wings mean that the airplane bounces around a lot less, giving a smoother ride,” says Panko. “However, its small size meant limited fuel and therefore range. Range was increased somewhat in later models, but was never enough. For European air forces, whose missions were carried out over shorter ranges than those in the US, saw this as less of a problem.

They quickly found other problems, however.

Ferry van der Geest was one pilot who flew the Starfighter in a reconnaissance squadron of the Dutch Air Force. He flew the F-104 for a few years in the 1980s. Now an airline pilot, he remembers the exhilaration of flying the F-104 so close to the ground.

It wasn’t an easy plane to fly – Ferry van der Geest, Starfighter pilot

“We were flying extremely low and extremely fast, and on top of that we were unarmed. The gun was removed and all the ammo, and we had extra fuel tanks.” The reconnaissance Starfighters were designed to fly at low-level height, taking pictures of enemy units or infrastructure in a single high-speed pass. “In my squadron, taking pictures at low-level and surviving meant doing it as quick as you could. We could take razor-sharp pics flying in at 600 knots (1,110km/h).

“In training,” says van der Geest, “the lowest we were allowed to fly was 250ft (75m)... but in war time it would have been much lower.”

Barreling across the flat plains of Holland and the grey expanse of the North Sea at hundreds of miles an hour required concentration. “It wasn’t an easy plane to fly,” says van der Geest. “What made them so difficult to fly was that if you pushed the boundaries just a bit too much, you lost control of her.”

The Nato air forces found Kelly Johnson’s ‘missile with a man in it’ much more challenging outside the hot, dry desert California air it was test-flown in. At such low altitudes there was the added danger of bird strike. And just a few hundred feet above the ground, there was very little time to react if something went wrong.

It was West Germany’s Luftwaffe that had the most problems. Out of the 1,000 F-104s it bought, nearly 300 were lost in accidents. German pilots dubbed the Starfighter the ‘Widow Maker’ or ‘Lawn Dart’. One widely known joke went: “How do you get your hands on a Starfighter? Buy a field – and wait.”

Dierk Pieter Merklinghaus was one German pilot who flew the F-104, and survived to tell the tale. “I flew it from 1970 through to 1973,” he says.

We lost many planes and pilots – Dierk Peter Merklinghaus, German Starfighter pilot

German pilots trained at lower altitudes than the Dutch. “In northern Germany, we could use the North Sea, and our minimum altitude was 150ft. In some areas that went down to 100ft.”

The Germans had to train this low because Soviet aircraft were expected to fly at this height – and higher altitudes would have made them an easier target for ground-launched missiles.

“The secret was, you had to fly it in the ‘environment’ it was meant for. If you tried to fly it slow, or at high angles of attack, or make high-g turns, well it wasn’t built for that.

“The German Air Force learned that the hard way. We lost many planes and pilots, but that’s because the plane was being flown in an environment it wasn’t meant for,” says Merklinghaus.

Most air forces phased out their Starfighters by the mid-80s, replacing them with aircraft more suited to the roles the supersonic jet had struggled to fill. But the F-104 soldiered on in a non-combat role elsewhere. Nasa had become one of the first operators in 1956, shortly after the aircraft first flew. In nearly four decades of service, Starfighters were used to train pilots who would later fly the hypersonic X-planes, as well as testing new materials, such as the heat-resistant tiles that were used on the Space Shuttle. The Starfighter only left Nasa service in 1994, and flew in Italian service – in a high-altitude interceptor role the aircraft was originally designed for – until 2004.

History may have been unkind to this groundbreaking plane, says Ray Panko, especially as it was designed at a time of incredibly rapid technical advances. “The Starfighter is a good example of the fact that a lot of the time, they didn’t understand the problems until the aircraft was in service for some time.”

I just think they’re beautiful aircraft. I’ve been drooling over them my whole life – Dustin Still, Cubecab

The F-104’s top speed is as fast as today’s fighter jets. “The things is, speeds have not really increased,” says Panko. “Designers realised that most battles take place around Mach 1 – and even an aircraft like the F-15, which can go really fast, it’s still optimised for combat at Mach 1.”

Take away the need to fly very fast and very low above the German countryside, and the Starfighter’s safety record would improve immensely. And there is one company that plans to take the 60-year-old fighter into service for some years to come.

Cubecab plans to launch very small satellites – known as cubesats – using a rocket that weighs a similar amount. It’s much smaller, and therefore cheaper, than any other launch  method currently available.

How will CubeCab launch these tiny satellites? Simple – they’ll use Starfighters.

Cubecab will strap its lightweight rockets, each carrying a satellite weighing around 10kg, on to the kind of underwing ‘pylons’ usually used to fire missiles. And Starfighters Inc, a Florida-based company which still flies a handful of F-104s, will take their pint-sized payloads up to the edge of the stratosphere and fire them into orbit.

It’s chief operating officer Dustin Still is something of a Starfighter fan. “I just think they’re beautiful aircraft. I’ve been drooling over them my whole life,” he says. “I’ve always said that if I came into a chunk of money – like a modest lottery win – well, this is something that I might be able to buy for $1m. And I would!”

For thousands of pilots the ‘104’ was really something very special – Ferry van der Geest

Still had been working on an idea for launching tiny satellites on the smallest possible delivery system for some years – and by random chance ran into someone from Starfighters Inc, who were wondering if their aircraft might be an efficient delivery system for small satellites. Currently, if you want to launch small cubesats , you have to wait until space is available on a conventional rocket, and you can’t choose the orbit.

“We intend to have very fast times between ordering and launching,” says Still. “We aim for 30 days from order to launch, most launch providers work on the timescale of about two-to-three years from order to launch. A typical mission might be getting an order from a college to launch a cubesat into a specific orbit.

“Within a few days later we should get the cubesat and load it into a rocket we have set aside for launch in Florida for regular equatorial orbits, or another facility or almost any location for a polar orbit launch.”

Still hopes the Starfighters will launch their first satellites sometime in 2018. The F-104s will fly over the Atlantic Ocean, their pilots taking the jets to around 60,000ft, the jets climbing at an acute angle to give the rockets the right trajectory to leave the pull of the Earth’s gravity. Once more, a Starfighter pilot will look out of the confines of his cockpit and see the curve of the Earth, the sky a rich blue-black above.

Ferry van der Geest, for one, is excited that this old jet is coming out of retirement.

“It is great that the guys in Florida keep this great lady aloft,” he says. “For thousands of pilots the ‘104’ was really something very special.”

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Stephen Dowling is BBC Future’s associate editor. He is @sjdowling on Twitter.

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