Lockheed F-104C Starfighter

Last revised February 25, 2002

The F-104C (Lockheed Model 483-04-05) was the tactical strike version of the Starfighter. It was designed to meet the needs of the Tactical Air Command (TAC), which had earlier found the F-104A to be unacceptable because of its low endurance and its inability to carry significant offensive payloads.

The choice of the F-104C by the TAC after it had found the F-104A to be unsuitable seems sort of odd, but the TAC felt that it needed a supersonic tactical strike fighter to fill the void between the forthcoming F-100C and the Mach 2-capable Republic F-105 Thunderchief. On March 2, 1956, a contract was approved for the initial procurement of 56 F-104Cs. The order was later increased to 77 when a second order for 21 more F-104Cs was approved on December 26, 1956. Planned orders for another 363 F-104Cs were later cancelled when the USAF terminated all of its Starfighter production plans.

The first F-104C, unofficially designated YF-104C, took off on its maiden flight on July 24, 1958. The F-104C was powered by a General Electric J79-GE-7 engine rated at 10,000 lb.s.t. dry and 15,800 lb.s.t. with afterburner. This thrust was almost a thousand pounds greater than the -3A/3B of the F-104A/B. This increase in power was made possible by increasing the diameter of the turbine by 3 inches.

The F-104C could also be equipped with a fixed but removable inflight refuelling probe attached to the port side of the fuselage.

The F-104C was designed mainly for delivery of tactical nuclear weapons, which it could carry on a centerline pylon attachment which had a 2000-pound capacity. It could carry the Mark 28 and Mark 43 nuclear weapons. Although some references claim that a 225 US gallon droptank could be carried on this centerline pylon, it was exclusively a weapons pylon and was not plumbed to take fuel ports.

The F-104C was equipped with the improved AN/ASG-14T-2 fire control system which replaced the F-104A's AN/ASG-14T-1. It made the F-104C capable of operating in clear night as well as in day conditions, although the F-104C was not truly capable of all-weather operations.

The F-104C was equipped to carry bombs or rocket pods on underwing and fuselage points. The upward-firing Lockheed C-2 rocket-boosted ejector seat was standard. The internal 20-mm rotary cannon of the F-104A was retained, as well as the ability to carry a Sidewinder air-to-air missile on each wingtip. It has been reported that the F-104C was not actually equipped with an internal cannon until the improved M61A1 became available, but this appears to be wrong since the F-104C was equipped with the M61 from its first delivery to the 479th TFW.

The first F-104Cs began to reach the TAC in September of 1958. It served with four squadrons (434th, 435th, 436th, and 476th) of the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing based at George AFB. It was primarily intended for nuclear strike, but it could also carry out ground attack missions with conventional weapons.

On December 14, 1959, an F-104C flown by Captain Joe B. Jordan boosted the world's altitude record to 103,395.5 feet. This was the first time that an aircraft taking off under its own power exceeded the 100,000-foot mark. During the flight, the aicraft also reached a speed of Mach 2.36 and established a time-to-height record to 30,000 meters (98,425 feet) of 15 minutes 4.92 seconds from brake release.

In October 1961, F-104Cs were subjected to Project Grindstone, a program in which the Lockheed factory modernized the fighter. Among the changes made was the addition of a catamaran-shaped device which enabled another pair of Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to be mounted underneath the fuselage. When this device was attached, the nuclear weapon could not be carried. The device was not popular in the feeld as it had an extremely high drag and the glass seeker heads of the Sidewinder missiles tended to get badly pitted by dust and debris kicked up by the nose wheel. The aircraft was also given the ability to carry and deliver a larger variety of air-to-ground weapons, including 2.75-inch rockets, napalm, and gravity bombs.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the 479th TFW's F-104Cs were deployed to Key West, Florida to carry out air strikes against targets in Cuba in case an invasion proved to be necessary. Fortunately, the crisis was peacefully resolved.

The F-104C had a number of operational problems with various components. The major offender was the J79-GE-7 engine--forty serious mishaps occurred over a five-year period, destroying 24 aircraft and killing 9 pilots. This led to Project Seven Up, a General Electric modification program for the engine which began in May of 1963 and ended in June of 1964.

During the early days of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, North Vietnamese fighter aircraft became a problem for attacking USAF and US Navy strike aircraft. On April 3, 1965, three North Vietnamese Mig-17s attacked a strike package near the Dong Phuong Thong bridge and damaged a Crusader and then escaped unscathed. The next day, two MiG-17s attacked a flight of four F-105s and shot two of them down. In order to meet this new threat, an EC-121D College Eye unit was dispatched to extend radar warning coverage over NVN, and TAC was asked to deploy F-104s to escort the EC-121s over the Gulf of Tonkin and to provide a MiG screen for USAF strike aircraft over NVN.

In April of 1965, a single squadron (the 476th TFS) of the 479th TFW deployed with their F-104Cs to Kung Kuan AB in Taiwan, with regular rotations to the forward base at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam. Their job was to fly MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP) missions to protect American fighter bombers against attack by North Vietnamese fighters. They flew these missions armed with their single M61A1 20-mm cannon and four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The effect of F-104 deployment upon NVN and PRC MiG operations was immediate and dramatic--NVN MiGs soon learned to avoid contact with USAF strikes being covered by F-104s. During the entire deployment of the 476th only two fleeting encounters between F-104Cs and enemy fighters occurred.

As the MiG threat abated, the 476th TFS was tasked with some weather reconnaissance and ground attack missions. A few of these were against targets in North Vietnam, but most of them were close air-support missions against targets in the South under forward air controller direction. The F-104s were fairly successful in this role, gaining a reputation for accuracy in their cannon fire and their bombing and capable of quite rapid reaction times in response to requests for air support. During this period, the 476th F-104s maintained an in-commission rate of 94.7%, a testimony both to the quality of 476th maintenance personnel and to the simplicity and maintainability of F-104 systems. However, an F-104 went down during a sortie 100 nm SSW of DaNang on June 29. The pilot was rescued with minor injuries.

The 436th TFS assumed the 476th's commitment in DaNang on 11 July, and the 436th began flying combat sorties the next day. Although a few MiGCAP missions were flown, the majority of the missions were quick-reaction close-air support missions in support of ground troops. On July 23, Capt. Roy Blakely attempted to crash-land his battle-damaged F-104C at Chu Lai. Blakely successfully set his aircraft down gear-up, but died when his F-104 swerved off the runway into a sand dune.

The 436th TFS had a bad day on September 20, 1965. F-104C pilot Major Philip E. Smith managed to get lost while flying an EC-121 escort mission over the Gulf of Tonkin. After several equipment failures and incorrect steering commands, he managed to wander over Hainan Island and was shot down by a pair of Chinese MiG-19s (J-6s). He ejected and was taken prisoner. While the rest of the squadron was out looking for Major Smith, two other F-104s had a midair collision while returning to their base. Both pilots ejected and were recovered unharmed.

A week later, another F-104C was shot down by enemy AAA, and its pilot was killed.

After these four losses, the remnants of the 435th were rotated back to George AFB in November of 1965 and the F-4Cs of the 390th TFS assumed the 435th's escort mission at DaNang. Although the F-104s had not shot down a single MiG, their mere presence as escort aircraft had diminished MiG activity to the point where MiGs were no longer considered as a primary threat to USAF aircraft flying missions over North Vietnam.

In the early months of 1966, the MiG threat began to re-emerge, with the supersonic MiG-21 beginning to appear. In response, a new contingent of F-104Cs returned to Vietnam in June of 1966 and were assigned to the Udorn base in Thailand. In the first deployment, eight F-104Cs of the 435th TFS landed at Udorn, Thailand on June 6, 1966. At the time of the F-104's second deployment to SEA, TAC was in the process of phasing-out the type, and the 479th TFW was in the process of converting to F-4 aircraft and they were attached to PACAF's 8th TFW. An additional 12 F-104Cs joined the 8th TFW on July 22.

They 8th TFW F-104s were initially involved in escort missions in support of F-105D strike aircraft hitting targets in North Vietnam. They were involved in escorts of EF-105F Wild Weasel. One of the problems was that the F-104Cs were not initally equipped with electronic countermeasures gear, and had to rely on F-105s for warnings of lock-ons from enemy radar facilities. However, once again the mere presence of these F-104Cs managed to keep enemy MiGs away from the strike packages.

On August 1, two F-104Cs were lost to enemy SAMs in a single day, and it was concluded that it was too dangerous to operate the F-104C in support of Wild Weasel missions, especially when they were not equipped with ECM gear. It was decided to withdraw the F-104C from support of strike missions over North Vietnam, unless and until the MiG threat reappeared. By late August, these F-104Cs were involved in airstrikes against targets in both Laos and South Vietnam, exchanging its role of air superiority for that of ground attack. However, losses were heavy, with three F-104s being downed by ground fire and SAMs in the next couple of months. The F-104C was not very well suited for the ground attack role, being incapable of carrying an adequately large offensive load. In addition, it could not carry out operations in bad weather and could not sustain a lot of battle damage.

By late 1966, all F-104s in Southeast Asia had received APR-25/26 RHAW gear under Project Pronto, and once again began flying escort missions over North Vietnam. The Starfighter took part in Operation Bolo on January 2, 1967, which was a successful attempt to lure North Vietnamese fighters into combat. However, the F-104s were not used to actively entice and engage MiGs, but were used instead to protect the egressing F-4 force. The F-4 Phantoms scored heavily during this engagement.

The Air Force decided to replace these F-104Cs by more efficient McDonnell F-4D Phantoms starting in July of 1967. The 435th was then rotated back to George AFB for the last time.

I don't believe that the F-104C ever destroyed a single enemy fighter during its tour of duty in Southeast Asia. In addition to the loss to MiGs over Hainan, two F-104s fell to SAMs, six to AAA and six were lost to non-combat causes.

Following the withdrawal of the F-104C from Southeast Asia in 1967, surviving F-104Cs were transferred to the 198th TFS of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard. The F-104Cs replaced that unit's elderly F-86H Sabre fighter-bombers. This ANG unit operated the Starfighter until it converted to LTV A-7Ds in July of 1975.

Serials of F-104C Starfighter:

56-0883/0938		Lockheed F-104C-5-LO Starfighter
				c/n 383-1171/1226
57-0910/0930		Lockheed F-104C-10-LO Starfighter
				c/n 383-1227/1247
57-0931/1293		Cancelled contract (believed for F-104C)

Specification of the F-104C:

Engine: One General Electric J79-GE-7 turbojet, 10,000 lb.s.t. dry and 15,800 lb.s.t. with afterburning. Performance: Maximum speeds as high as 1588 mph at 50,000 feet have been quoted, while equipped with wingtip launch rails. Stalling speed 167 mph with gear and flaps down. Initial climb rate 54,000 feet per minute. Service ceiling 58,000 feet. Normal range 850 miles. Maximum range with four drop tanks was 1500 miles. Fuel: Internal fuel capacity was 897 US gallons, and maximum fuel capacity with two wingtip tanks and two underwing tanks was 1627 US gallons. A 195 US gallon drop tank could be carried on each of the underwing pylons, plus a 170 US gallon drop tank at each wingtip. Dimensions: wingspan 21 feet 9 inches, length 54 feet 8 inches, height 13 feet 6 inches, wing area 196.1 square feet. Weights: 12,760 pounds empty, 19,470 pounds combat, 22,410 pounds gross, 27,853 pounds maximum takeoff. Armament: One 20-mm M61A1 cannon with 725 rounds in the fuselage, plus a pair of wingtip-mounted AIM-9B Sidewinder infrared homing air-to-air missiles. Up to 2000 pounds of external ordinance (bombs, rockets, napalm, drop tanks) could be carried on underwing and underfuselage attachment points. Later, an additional pair of Sidewinder missiles could be carried underneath the fuselage.


  1. The Lockheed F-104G/CF-104, Gerhard Joos, Aircraft in Profile No. 131, Doubleday, 1969.

  2. The World's Great Interceptor Aircraft, Gallery Books, 1989.

  3. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Steve Pace, Motorbooks International, 1992.

  4. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1987.

  5. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  6. The World's Fighting Planes, William Green, Doubleday 1968.

  7. American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, Third Enlarged Edition, Doubleday, 1982.

  8. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, John Fricker, Wings of Fame, Vol 2, Aerospace Publishing Ltd, 1996.

  9. E-mail from Tom Delashaw, correcting some errors.

  10. Description of F-104C service in SEA from Mark Bovankovich and Tom Delashaw, The F-104 in SEA