Starfighter – Kill or be Killed




Throughout its service career the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter had the unenviable reputation as a ‘widow maker.’ As a pure interceptor it had no equal. Its accident rate, however, was the highest of any USAF Century Series Fighter with the Royal Canadian Air Force suffering the most.

To be fair to the F-104 it was not alone. Indeed, accident rates for all jet fighters in the 1950s were appallingly high. In USAF service the accident rate for the F-104 was 30.63 accidents per 100,000hrs. For the F-100 Super Sabre and Convair F-102 Delta Dagger it was 16.25 and 14.2 accidents per 100,000hrs respectively. The Spanish Air Force, however, lost none.

The accident rate for the F-104 seemed to vary widely and could be tied directly to the operator and the conditions under which it flew. The German Air Force lost 30% of its F-104s with the Canadians losing 46% of it Starfighters (110 of 235). It must be remembered that the Germans and Canadians used the F-104 as a fighter-bomber – a roll for which it was never designed. Combined with Europe’s poor weather conditions the F-104 was considered by many to be unsafe and dangerous to fly in that role

Was the F-104s’ accident rate due to poor piloting or was it a case of using the Starfighter in various roles for which it was never designed? If peacetime losses were high, what would they have been in an actual shooting war?



One thought on “Starfighter – Kill or be Killed

  1. Thank you for the piece about the Starfighter. However, you haven’t told the full story and I would like to add a bit. I have about 1200 hours flying that bird and can honestly say that it was the best jet fighter I ever had the privilege to fly. I’m certain that every other member of the Canadian Starfighter Pilots Association would say the same. No one that flew the machine called it The Widow Maker. That was the moniker crafted by the media….and you know what they are. The Missile with the Man in It is more appropriate for a fuselage that is 57’ long with only a 7’ wing on each side. Surely one should expect some excitement flying a plane with such characteristics. I prefer to use the word excitement rather than danger here because fighter pilots are highly motivated by excitement whereas danger is a word that seldom features in their vocabulary.
    Several of the early prangs were the result of a combination of engine failure and role. You haven’t many options when you have engine failure at 250 Ft. in a plane that has the gliding characteristics of a brick. To penetrate enemy radar and ground to air defences our role demanded very low, high speed flying, sometimes as low at 50 Ft. and at .95 Mach, night and day and in all-weather conditions. Flying into a bird in such conditions can spoil ones whole day There’s no doubt, we were flying the hottest ship in the most dangerous role But after the pilots and technicians had got a little experience flying and maintaining the plane, we were able to coax some incredibly good results on our training flights After a 500 or 600 mile flight to drop a practice bomb within 10 meters of a target within 10 seconds of a specified time was fairly common place. It was a standard that I don’t think was matched by anyone else.
    For several years Canada had 12 aircraft, armed with large nuclear bombs, on standby, ready to instantly launch against strategic Warsaw Pact targets With a second wave of forty or fifty more ready to follow them within 30 minutes or so. There is no question that the Royal Canadian Air Force played a most significant part in the NATO Deterrent Strategy that caused the Warsaw Pact countries to blink and eventually bring an end to The Cold War.
    The loss of a hundred or so Starfighters together with 37 pilots was a small price to pay to have prevented the world from being plunged into what would surely have been another global war with millions of casualties. The sacrifice made by my 37 colleagues who died flying the Starfighter was just as noble as being killed by a sniper’s bullet or a road side bomb. They fought and won the Cold War without firing a shot in anger, a conclusion to a war that hasn’t been emulated since

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