The F-104 (?) drag chute mistery

In 2005 I bought an item that was sold as an F-104 drag chute. The seller claimed it was a 1969 Starfighter drag chute but as soon as I received it I found it very strange because it hadn’t the characteristic air intakes that every drag chute has and had not the correct part number 794399-3M3.
The chute has the following label:
CONTRACT No. AF-33 ( 038 ) 5603
43 G 13344
Furthermore, there’s an Italian text printed next to the label: “verificato a vista Nov. 1969” that in English means “visually verified Nov. 1969”.

The chute diameter is 12 ft so it is larger than a pilot chute and smaller than a drag chute. The pilot chute is the little parachute that helps the drag chute to deploy. In the following sequence it is the smaller one, white colour.

The pilot chute it’s extremely important for the deployment: the F-104 landed very fast and without drag chute it need the safeland barrier or the arrestor gear to prevent overrun. The following pictures show the last XX Gruppo TF-104 special colour landing at Pratica di Mare during the F-104 reunion on May 30th 2004 without the drag chute (pictures by Giovanni Maduli).

In 1950, the F-104 was a project, so the chute was most probably used with another purpose and on another kind of aircraft (since ’50s aircraft use canopies with segmented panels not a solid one). I’m pretty sure it is not a drag chute simply because it is a solid canopy and not a slotted type with the characteristic segmented panels. Just look at the following pictures (some of which ItAF courtesy) to see how a Starfighter drag chute looked like.

The seller explained that her uncle, a former F-104 pilot, gave it to her and she had twice of them (I also saw a picture of the other one that was identical to the one I purchased) and for a short time I thought it could also be the pilot’s own parachute, the one used with the C-2 ejection seat, even if the previous and current C-9 canopies are white, green, orange, larger and most probably thinner than the Hoffman one.
I’ve tried to find on the internet some info about Contract No AF-33 ( 038 ) 5603 but haven’t found any detail. Furthermore, I think that 43G13344 could be either a P/N or a model type. I’ve tried also to look for HOFFMAN Radio Corp, and I found this company produced radios and many other interesting things, some of which in the military field.
At least in 1969 my drag chute was verified by someone in Italy meaning that it was still in use (even if there’s no way to know if it was in the Italian Air Force, Army or Navy). The strange thing is that the “owner” is the HOFFMAN Radio Corp. but there’s also a possibility that it was used as a recovery chute for an air- or rocket-launched radio equipment or special weapon.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered that the Hoffman Radio Corp. produced the TACAN used on the F-104 (at least on the American ones) and maybe some UHF radios. However I think this doesn’t mean that the parachute is surely somehow linked to the Starfighter.
By searching for more infos on the Internet I found some interesting things dealing with Hoffman Radio Co. The first is that the Hoffman was awarded a contract by the US Navy to design and build sonobuoys and accompanying aircraft radio equipment. This is an excerpt from the R. I. ‘Scibor-Marchocki’ website ( that has plenty of information on the Hoffman sonobuoys: “In the mid-1950’s, I was an in-house consultant and technical supervisor of the Hoffman Laboratories. In that capacity, I had designed the Sonobuoy that we manufactured for the U. S. Navy. What is a Sonobuoy? A Sonobuoy is a cylindrical device, which was deployed dropped) from a low-flying airplane. The buoy portion, which contained a two-way radio and antenna, would float vertically on the surface of the ocean. Depending upon the model, either mounted directly on the bottom of the buoy or hung at the end of a cable, there was a hydrophone (the sono portion, from the word “sonic”), a piezo-electric transducer which either passively or actively would listen acoustically for submarines. By placing several (at least three, usually five or six) Sonobuoys in a specific pattern, one could triangulate the position of the submarine. The two-way radio communication between the airplanes that deployed and then controlled and listened to the Sonobuoys employed “frequency hopping””.
Between 1957 and 1979 the ItAF was equipped with the Grumman S-2 Tracker an antisom aircraft and it is possible that they were equipped with the Hoffman sonobuoys. Therefore, it is also possible that the Hoffman chute was used to drop them in the water.
The unexplained would be: why an F-104 pilot got it and why did he tell his relatives that it was a Starfighter drag chute?

Some members of the Starfighter yahoo mailing list tried to find out what the parachute could be used for. According to a former RCAF military my parachute could be a deployment chute for a Gibson Girl radio. As Gary Watson explained: “the Gibson Girl was an emergency radio, approximately 24″ x 24″, with a long wire antenna that was carried aloft by a kite. A large crank was attached to the unit and you held the radio between your legs and spun the crank to generate enough electricity to send out an SOS on 500KHZ which was the original marine distress frequency. I only saw them once back in the mid 60s when they were being phased out of our C47s and Bristol Freighters in Marville. They would give you one hell of a jolt if you were touching the antenna output and the other A-holes in the shop were spinning the crank (personal experience as the receiver). They were also used quite a bit in Europe during WWII being dropped to resistance groups in the Netherlands, France etc”.

If you have any information or idea about this misterious drag chute, contact me or leave a comment.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. After reading the drag chute post, Hubert Peitzmeier wrote to me:

    Hi David,
    for me that chute has nothing to do with the F-104.
    I have no idea where it could belong to.
    A correction!
    You write:
    The pilot chute it’s extremely important for the deployment: the F-104 landed very fast and without drag chute it need the safeland barrier or the arrestor gear to prevent overrun.
    That is absolutely not true!
    The chute was normally used as “normal procedure” to reduce the stress on the wheel brakes. With a chute failure you can stop well short of the barrier without any problems, just hotter brake discs.
    We did flights to bases not familiar with the F-104 sevicing without using the drag chute.

    After receiving the email from Hubert, I asked more details to another former F-104 pilot, Pierfrancesco “Fats” Grassi, currently flying the F-16, who replied that an undeployed drag chute for sure wasn’t a good thing but you don’t always had to engage the barrier. It depended on the configuration (fuel and tanks), runway length, wind, etc. Usually the wheel brakes enabled the pilot to decrease the speed safely before the end of the tarmac. Obviously, the drag chute failure often resulted in “hot brakes”. The Italian F-104 trained also to land without the chute, even if frontal wind above 20 Kts and less than 3.000 lbs of fuel were required. He experienced a chute failure twice and in both times he was able to halt the aircraft well within the end of the runway without the need of the safeland barrier.
    Here’s his complete answer in Italian:

    Diciamo che sicuramente era una condizione non felice per un pilota atterrare e il parafreno si apriva a fiamma o ancora peggio non si apriva. Di sicuro non finivi sempre in barriera. Dipendeva da: configurazione pesante o leggera(carburante e/o pylons), pista lunga o corta, vento frontale superiore ai 15 KTS, atterraggio piu’ o meno lungo da parte del pilota (ogni atterraggio non e’ perfetto ovviamente). I freni comunque funzionavano sempre bene e consentivano in condizioni normali di fermarsi. Purtroppo a volte facevi hot brakes e ti toccava fermare l’aereo in piazzola e aspettare gli antincendi. Oltretutto il ceppo o i ceppi dovevano essere cambiati e l’aereo fermato almeno per una mattinata. A volte lo provavamo per abituarci ad atterrare senza il parafreno. Servivano almeno 15/20 nodi ora non ricordo di vento frontale (per non sfrugugliare troppo i freni) e meno di 3000 libbre di carburo. Non era troppo difficile ma l’effetto frenante del parafreno era comunque notevole, e quindi a noi non piaceva mai usare troppo i freni. Mi e’ successo due volte che si aprisse a fiamma (probabilmente non era stato piegato perfettamente o c’era parecchio vento trasversale) ma mi sono sempre fermato comodamente. Una volta delle due avevo i ceppi fumanti malamente ma nonostante questo non servi cambiarli. Il caso e’ diverso se ti toccava atterrare no flap oppure T/O flap a velocita’ quasi mostruose (tipo 240 nodi) e non ti si apriva. A quel punto la barriera era assicurata. Spero di esser stato chiaro.

  2. Hi guy,

    no doubts, it’s a (quite aged) meteorological/communication sonde parachute.


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