Book Review
F-104 Starfighter in Combat
F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat
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by: Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]

F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat is the 101th Combat Aircraft series book by Osprey Publishing Ltd. Authored by Peter E. Davies and illustrated by Rolando Ugolini and Gareth Hector, it delivers a comprehensive account of this legendary fighter aircraft, including 30 original color plates.
    This title covers the technical characteristics of the F-104 Starfighter, one of the most widely-used and popular aircraft in history. Although built in small numbers for the USAF, the F-104C fought and survived for almost three years in Vietnam. There, it was engaged in some of the war's most famous battles including the legendary operation Bolo, where seven North Vietnamese MiGs were destroyed without the loss of a single US fighter. This small, tough and very fast fighter, dubbed 'The Missile with a Man in It', was called upon to do things it was not specifically designed for, and did them admirably. Featuring illustrations and photographs detailing the variety of nose-paint schemes and weapons configurations, this comprehensive appraisal of the F-104 Starfighter is ideal for modelling and aviation enthusiasts alike. - Osprey

The book is available in softcover, ePub and eBook formats, with ISBN: 9781780963136.

Aviation lore reeks of garbage. Many aircraft never get their due. Mark Twain said, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics!" Politics kill promising programs; competitors obfuscate the record of rivals with ignorance or malice; apples are compared to oranges. Lockheed’s infamous F-104 is considered a failure as a tactical fighter. But was it?

Korean War air-to-air combat lessons heavily influenced the concept of Lockheed's F-104 Starfighter. Razor sharp leading edges of its 21-foot wingspan cut ground crews. Airframe performance was never reached due to limited engine technology. Yet the "Missile With A Man In It" set world records and was even used to train astronauts! Starfighters were the object of "The Deal of the Century". The Starfighter was flown by every NATO member except the UK and France, plus Japan, Jordan, Pakistan and Taiwan. Italy retired the last of their Super Starfighters from service in October 2004! Most countries flew it without abnormal operational losses.

What WWII's Martin B-26 Marauder was to bombers, this late-1950's fighter was arguably the most sophisticated fighter of its time and definitely one of the period's most controversial warplanes; both were known as "widow makers" for inexperienced pilots, both were known for cutting-edge performance. F-104 was designed from the get-go as a high-altitude clear air mass air superiority fighter. Much of the jet's accident rate occurred after it was employed as a treetop-skimming air-to-ground delivery system in the scud of European weather. German Luftwaffe pilots transitioned into F-104 from the F-84 and F-86 without any experience in supersonic types, precipitating an abysmal safety record with F-104 until they learned to fly it. Despite that, Gunther Rall, the world's third-highest scoring ace, once remarked that the F-104 was the greatest air superiority fighter he ever flew! In Vietnam, the F-104C unit flew such high sortie rates that headquarters ordered an investigation, refusing to believe that single-engine jets could manage such high operational hours; a myth of the F-104 as a bad airplane evolved from misreading the data and accepting the mere month of December 1966 for the entire three years of deployment!

In the 1960s, F-104 was considered a "force multiplier" and intimidated enemies facing it. Taiwan's F-104 force claimed kills against Red Chinese fighters. Pakistan's single squadron held the larger Indian AF at bay in their first war, but was overwhelmed by nine MiG-21 squadrons during their second war. There are unconfirmed rumors of Starfighter vs Starfighter kills in the bizarre Cypriot war between NATO members Turkey and Greece.

Due to the late 1950s corporate USAF shift from tactical aircraft doing tactical things towards making everything a nuke hauler, USAF only bought 296 of all versions. USAF's schizophrenic doctrine of the era saw F-104 transferred from ADC (Air Defense Command) into Air Guard units. Those were then deployed all over the world during crises in Berlin, Cuba and Taiwan, leading to General LeMay bringing them back into USAF after asking 'Why is our best fighter only in Guard units?' Not multi-role enough for a USAF mania of "higher, faster, farther, heavier" requirements, i.e., F-111, USAF regulated the type mainly to Air Defense Command - where it routinely outperformed everything from F-101 through F-106; Tactical Air Command's sole F-104 479th Tactical Fighter Wing was rotated through Vietnam with exceptional yet misunderstood results.

In fact, F-104 was USAF's premier air superiority fighter! Even as dogfighting was phased out of USAF in the 1960s, the 479th TFW bucked the system and honed their skills, emphasizing Riccioni's "Double-Attack" tactics in lieu of the standard ‘fighting wing’ formation. Despite its reputation, F-104 had respectable turning performance when operated as designed.
    By 1962, the F-104 had established a reputation as almost unbeatable in ACM. This reputation was later justified during the USAF's Project Featherduster evaluations, the USN's F-4/F-104 maneuvering target testing, and numerous F-104 wildcard appearances at the USAF-FWS. Notably, the F-104's ACM capability was assessed by the USAF as "superior to all other aircraft evaluated at altitudes below 20,000 ft."*

The fact is the F-104, flown by American pilots trained to fight the Starfighter as it was intended to be fought, never engaged enemy fighters. F-104 was often held back as the big dog the enemy did not want unchained, or tasked with defending high-value assets.

Author Peter E Davis presents this history of F-104 Starfighter Units in Combat through 96 pages of six chapters and an appendices and index;
    1. Faster and Higher
    2. Cold War Clashes
    3. Vietnam
    4. Asia Goes Double-sonic
    5. Taiwan Tensions
    6. Appendices
      Color plates commentary
This book is available in paperback, PDF, and eBook, with ISBN: 9781780963136.

Mr. Davies presents the content in a well-organized and easily read style. The text is not meant to encompass the F-104 in a primary air-to-ground role as tasked by most NATO air forces. In Faster and Higher design and technical information is discussed for the F-104A through D models, with passing reference to the F-104G, J, S, and CF-104 models. Powerplant, armament, operational integration, combat capability, and nuclear capability are related in good detail through the first 20 pages. This section also deciphers just how F-104 gained the nickname "Zipper". For air-to-air enthusiasts this is a fascinating chapter as it discusses the 1965 Project Featherduster, which simulated MiGs with F-86Hs, F-5As and F-106s against all USAF fighter types. Project Featherduster resulted in a manual for dealing with MiG-17, -19, and -21s over Vietnam. F-104's fighter verses fighter performance in straight dogfights will no doubt shock many readers familiar with the type's dubious reputation.

Cold War Clashes promotes the Starfighter's legacy as the "you don't want a piece of this" USAF fighter. It recounts how F-104 fared in mock dogfights with the Navy and Marine's uberfighter F-8 Crusader. Again, your eyebrows may be raised!
    Crusader pilots escorting RF-8A reconnaissance flights over northern Cuba were often practice-intercepted by F-104s as they returned to US airspace. It was quickly established that if the Starfighter pilots maintained high speed they could control the fight and disengage at will from the F-8s…
The chapter also chronicles the assigning of the Lockheed to Air Guard units and subsequent reintegration into USAF. That topic is insightful in understanding how, as formidable as F-104 was, it became unwanted in the Pentagon's vision of an all-missile fighter force (We all know how well that worked out!) centered on the F-4 Phantom II.

recounts the Zipper's three years of MIGCAP, protecting strike forces and high-value Big Eye aerial radar platforms, Iron Hand escorts, and close air support. This chapter relates that if F-104s were not available as escorts, all missions over North Vietnam were cancelled for the day. F-104 enthusiasts will relish the comparisons of the Zipper’s performance to the F-4, dispelling myths about shortcomings of the F-104 as a fighter. F-104s were tasked as MIGCAP to protect Col. Robin Olds’ “Wolf Pack” as it baited and then devastated the NVAF MiG-21 force in Operation Bolo. Interviews with F-104 pilots dispel myths of the type as a ‘widow maker’ and confirm its good qualities as a fighter (G-force limits are mentioned), and even a fighter-bomber. This chapter makes a compelling case that F-104 was intentionally politically underutilized to favor the F-4 and “FX” – what became the F-15.

USAF's only F-104 only loss to MiGs is explained in detail in two-and-a-half pages.

Starfighters predominate air-to-air clashes were with the Pakistani Air Force against the much larger Indian Air Force. In Asia Goes Double-sonic we learn about F-104 fortes and foibles in two wars. You can read that Vice Air Marshal Farooq Umar, who racked up 1,000 hours in the F-104, believes its intimidation factor led to enemy aircraft avoiding it. The reader also learns how F-104 was employed somewhat counter to its primary concept, and how the well the weapons worked. As the F-104 is notoriously unmaneuverable whereas the MiG-21 maneuverability is legendary, it is interesting to read about the first merge between these two protagonists.

Taiwan Tensions examines the fast Lockheed in another David verses Goliath faceoff. Again, the fighter’s mystique is suggested to have kept the Red Chinese air force on their side of the Formosa Strait, except for one fight when four F-104s took on a superior number of MiGs. This chapter is short yet also explores the fighter’s use over Cyprus, and Italy’s use of it over hotspots through 2004.

The text is full of interesting technical and performance data, such as the ‘T2 reset’ that propelled the jet to Mach II, and that it could cruise supersonic without afterburner! Again, Operation Featherduster is an amazing read. The aerodynamic effects of mounting missiles or droptanks on the wingtips instead of underwing pylons are touched upon. Passing mention is made of Kelly Johnson’s work on a “big wing” F-104 version – the Lancer – which was considered as a rival to the F-15. The larger radar and AIM-7 Sparrow radar homing missile went into the F-104S Super Starfighter flown by Italy.

The text also contains many excerpts by pilots, including unfathomable rules of engagement over Vietnam;
    ’The powers that be in Saigon purposely kept the F-104s flying missions that resulted in us having few opportunities to engage MiGs. …because the F-4 Phantom II…an effort was being made to prove what a superior aeroplane it was…. It would not have looked good if an old aeroplane such as the F-104 was shown to be just as effective in combat as the latest technology.’

What became of so many F-104s is also documented. While every airframe is not listed, which airplane was delivered to a foreign air force under MAP and which were stored with the Air Guard is noted.

Overall, the text is full of great information for the historian and F-104 enthusiast. I was hoping the text would contain some newly declassified revelations to prove the F-104 was the greatest air-to-air creation until the F-15. There isn’t any. Several times the author makes the allusion that the F-104 was so effective that the bad guys would not dare challenge it, thus preventing the opportunity for F-104 to sweep the sky of all opposition. With 100 years of aerial warfare hindsight I find that unlikely. Yet there are compelling arguments that F-104 was an intimidating presence; that subsonic enemies would beetle away as fast as possible if Starfighters were inbound; that politics obstructed its ability to test its mettle; that it was not used as intended. Colonel Don Kutyna once related that veteran fighter pilots would take the F-104 over any other fighter in USAF, except for the F-15 and F-16.

F-104s flown by American pilots never engaged enemy fighters. Through extrapolation of understood USAF performance over Vietnam, as well as the performance of small air forces fighting F-104 against numerically superior enemies, one can draw the conclusion that USAF F-104s would have turned in an amazing kill-to-loss performance.

photographs, artwork
There are no graphs or tables portraying aircraft performance, kills, weapon loads, or other data. I would have liked to find tables of cornering velocities, G-limits, rates and radii of turns, and all of those important fighter characteristics. Lockheed even produced a book about flying and fighting the F-104, illustrated comic-style with words of wisdom per '"Snake" sez', written by Glen L."Snake" Reaves. However, none of these appear in this book.

However, photographic support is excellent! Starfighters were very photogenic and existed in the era of easily obtained color film and quality cameras. The book is full of high quality color and black-and-white photographs. Modelers, artists and historians should be thrilled with this book.

Artists Roland Ugolini and Gareth Hector produced excellent full color images of the F-104 including 30 profiles. Each profile has a narrative in the appendices.

As an unapologetic enthusiast of the F-104 I am delighted with this book. It has satisfied my interest in the F-104 as an air superiority fighter. The text is not meant to encompass the F-104 in a primary air-to-ground role as tasked by most NATO air forces. It has clarified many questions I have had for decades as well as supported some notions I have held about the jet. Starfighter enthusiasts hoping to find new information debunking myths and proving the F-104 as an amazing fighter will find mixed results. I am not convinced of the author’s conjecture that the F-104 was so effective that the bad guys would not dare challenge it, thus preventing the opportunity for F-104 to sweep the sky of all opposition. I do accept his compelling arguments that F-104 was an intimidating presence; that subsonic enemies would beetle away as fast as possible if Starfighters were inbound; that politics obstructed its ability to test its mettle; that it was not used as designed.

The photographic content and artwork alone is worth acquiring the book. I have no complaints about this book. I found neither typos nor questionable factual content. Modelers, historians and enthusiasts of the F-104 should be delighted with this book and I heartily recommend it!
* "Starfighters "in Action" in Vietnam 1965-1967." International F-104 Society, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. .
Highs: The photographic content and artwork alone is worth acquiring the book.
Lows: No '"Snake" sez' illustrations.
Verdict: Modelers, historians and enthusiasts of the F-104 should be delighted with this book
  Scale: N/A
  Mfg. ID: ISBN: 9781780963136
  Suggested Retail: $22.95, £13.99
  PUBLISHED: Dec 19, 2014
  NATIONALITY: United States

Our Thanks to Osprey Publishing!
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About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR)

I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art. My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling! My interests--if built before 1900, or after 1955, then I proba...

Copyright ©2021 text by Frederick Boucher [ JPTRR ]. Images also by copyright holder unless otherwise noted. Opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of AeroScale. All rights reserved.


This is an interesting PDF: General information regarding the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter An overview of its history, specs and technology 16-05-2005 LINK In it: "Super Starfighter manoeuvring flaps result in up to 50 per cent reduction in airplane turn radius for combat manoeuvres. "
DEC 22, 2014 - 02:05 AM

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