That Time the Luftwaffe Experimented with a Rocket-Launched F-104G Starfighter

Jan 12 2018 - 17 Comments
By Tom Demerly

“Zero Length Launch” Was Tested in Germany on an F-104G. Here’s the Video.

Almost every aviation enthusiast has probably seen the famous June 1957 test videos of a North American F-100 Super Saber being launched from a portable trailer using a large rocket booster.

The origin of “Zero Length Launch”, often called “ZeLL”, was the perceived necessity that aircraft would need to be boosted into flight after available airfields and runways in Europe were destroyed in a nuclear attack. Using motor vehicle highways as improvised runways, often practiced by NATO and former Warsaw Pact air forces, may not have worked as well since the aircraft would be more vulnerable to air attack. With the Zero Length Launch concept, aircraft could actually be boosted into flight using a disposable rocket booster from inside a hardened aircraft shelter, presuming no one else like hapless ground crew were inside the shelter at the time of launch.

“ZeLL” was an interesting, if ultimately impractical, concept. It could be argued that the “ZeLL” concept somehow validated the need for V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) aircraft such as the Harrier and, decades later, even the F-35B Lightning II.

What many aviation history buffs don’t know is that the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, experimented with a Zero Launch System on their F-104 Starfighters. The concept made more sense with the F-104 Starfighter, an aircraft conceived almost purely as an interceptor.

Rocketing the F-104 into flight as a sort of “manned missile”, the interceptor would rapidly climb to altitude and engage an approaching bomber formation. The Starfighter was a suitable candidate for ZeLL launch operations since it began setting altitude records as early as May, 1958, when USAF test pilot Major Howard C. “Scrappy” Johnson zoom-climbed to an astonishing altitude Record of 27,811m (91,243 feet, or 17.2 miles high) from a conventional take-off.

Interestingly, Germany had tested a rocket-powered, vertical launch interceptor during WWII called the “Bachem Ba-349 Natter”. The aircraft would be fired from a launch tower, fly to the allied bomber formations using rocket boosters and engage them with unguided high velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs) mounted in the nose. If all went according to design, the aircraft and pilot would then recover to earth using separate parachutes. The concept did not do well for the Germans in WWII, with the only manned test flight ending in disaster and the death of Luftwaffe test pilot Lothar Sieber.

Apparently undaunted by their WWII experiences with the Ba-349, the modern Luftwaffe working in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force, used a single F-104G Starfighter to test the ZeLL concept in 1963. Oddly enough, the German F-104G version of the Starfighter was a multi-role aircraft evolved from the original pure interceptor design mandate of the F-104.

Unlike its early, distant predecessor the Ba-349, the Luftwaffe F-104G Starfighter ZeLL launch tests went well. Lockheed company test pilot Eldon “Ed” W. Brown Jr. remarked after the first of eight ZeLL take-offs at Edwards AFB in California during 1963 that, “All I did was push the rocket booster button and sit back. The plane was on its own for the first few seconds and then I took over. I was surprised at the smoothness, even smoother than a steam catapult launch from an aircraft carrier.”

Lockheed company test pilot Eldon “Ed” W. Brown Jr. flew the initial Luftwaffe F-104G ZeLL tests at Edwards AFB. (Photo: Lockheed)

The first Luftwaffe F-104G used in the ZeLL test program wore a distinctive and sensational looking test paint scheme, one of many beautiful and unusual liveries the F-104 Starfighter wore in its career. The first launch aircraft was coded “DA-102” and was natural aluminum metal on the bottom of the aircraft with a brilliant high visibility orange horizontal and vertical stripe and a bright white upper surface except for the nose, which had a flat-black anti-glare panel. It also wore the modern Luftwaffe insignia crosses, making it appear all the more remarkable.

The ZeLL F-104G was moved to Germany for a total of seven ZeLL test launches at Lechfeld AB between May 4, until Jul. 12, 1966, when the program was abandoned. The German ZeLL flights were flown after the test aircraft was repainted in a more operational German camouflage scheme. The aircraft would end its career as a static display.

The Soviets tinkered with their own version of ZeLL on a MiG-19 beginning as early as 1955, but the idea died in the test phase for most of the same reasons the NATO interest in ZeLL waned.

If nothing else, ZeLL was a sensational and adventurous idea. The results were remarkable to see, confirmed by the tens of thousands of video views of the ZeLL tests using the U.S. F-100 Super Sabre today on YouTube. But the German F-104G ZeLL tests have, somewhat oddly, received far less attention. Until today.

The Luftwaffe F-104G ZeLL test aircraft was eventually turned into a static display with its unique German camouflage livery. (Photo: German Air Force)

  • leroy

    First off, those beautiful planes! I doubt they’ve been put in storage somewhere and that’s a crying shame. Too bad they’re gone forever. Makes one tear up a bit. : (

    Looks like a great idea. Too bad they dropped it. That said, it could offer practical applications today for the launch of fixed-wing UCAVs. Hide ’em in a forest, roll them out, launch and be inbound for attack, say on incoming Armatas and T-90s, in a matter of minutes. Perhaps we’ll some day revisit it. Nice article!

  • Gyoz

    Very cool indeed.

  • FelixA9

    The F-104 stuff is almost as widespread as the F-100 stuff. Now the F-84 and MiG-19 ZELL. . .

  • leroy

    What I’d do to fly the Starfighter! One of the most amazing planes manufactured post-WW2. With some upgrades in avionics and electronics, especially AESA and targeting systems, IRST, glass cockpit, etc., the plane could serve as an effective interceptor even today. The perfect platform to take out intruding Russian bombers. Intercept Su-27, MiG-29/35, refuelers and AWACS. RuAF isn’t stealth so F-104 would have little problem taking them out with AIM-120D or Meteor. The plane was a marvel of engineering that was way ahead of its time. Not an aviation enthusiast that doesn’t love it!

    • Srg720

      Leroy still imagining some sort of conventional armed conflict between the west and Russia that won’t go nuclear and one in which he’ll be perfectly safe and unaffected by it all in his basement.

    • Winter_Again

      ” etc., the plane could serve as an effective interceptor even today.”

      …except that the concept of an interceptor has changed since the century series era. An F-104 would require a lot more than new instruments to survive now, and it’s still going to have a lot of trouble “taking out” 4th generation fighters.

      • leroy

        It would require a good AESA/ECM suite, a decent air-to-air missile, missile countermeasures, and an updated pilot’s cockpit panel. That’s about it. It already has the speed, external fuel for range, and can certainly get to altitude quickly enough. Sorry, but given some modernization, this amazing aircraft could still perform as an effective interceptor today. KJ knew how to make “ahead of their time” aircraft! I’d hand it over to IAI and let them do the updates.

        • Winter_Again

          How would you weigh the importance of high AOA performance, and how would you rate the F-104’s performance on that metric?

          • leroy

            It’s an interceptor, not a dogfighter.

        • Frederick Murre

          I think that as an idea for a cheap high performance interceptor, there is still some potential. Make new ones, a little bit smaller, unmanned, with a fore-belly full of amraams or HARMs, and an efficient modern low bypass turbofan.

          Use them as vangards for a strike package, or to pin a flank.
          A ZELL derivative in the defensive role could be pretty good as well.
          Kind of BOMARC-esque.

  • Sean

    So the Germans tried to make the worst/most dangerous fighter plane of the era MORE dangerous? I suspect the Luftwaffe had some former ME-262 pilots making decisions.
    That said, it looks like a fun ride.

    • Holztransistor

      The Me 262 was a good plane. Germany only lacked proper materials for the engines to make them last. The comparison with the Me 163 would be more appropriate. That thing was really dangerous because even if the pilot made it back, remnants of C-Stoff and T-Stoff could ignite on a hard landing and blow up the plane.

      The F-104G of the Luftwaffe was called “Widow Maker” because the Germans wanted it to do everything when it only was an interceptor. The load of additional equipment was too much for one pilot to control. In WW2 Hitler wanted every new German bomber to be capable of dive bombing (the lasting impression of the early Stuka success). That lead to numerous failures. The He-177 is one example. It was a very good plane. But due to the dive bombing thing, it had a twin engine configuration with 4 engines (2 per gondola). The result were overheating engines and fires were common. Soon the plane earned the names “Reichsfeuerzeug” and “Reichsfackel” (could be translated to Reichs lighter and Reichs torch).

    • Winter_Again

      How were ZELL Starfighters in service going to land? I’m pretty sure that ZELL F-100’s were supposed to be disposable, and I recall hearing that the Soviets were experimenting on ZELL for the MiG-19, but that their planes would slide onto the tarmac. In other words, under Zell, they wouldn’t have to really land and drop below the high speeds that are best for the F-104, and the rocket boosted launch (when it works) seems to jump past that vulnerable take-off roll stage. In other words, they’ve added something exotic and dangerous that may make the F-104 less dangerous.

      • Holztransistor

        I clearly can see that the F-104s still have the normal landing gear. It’s retracted when the rocket lifts the plane from the ground (in the video at 2:41).

      • Frederick Murre

        ZELL Starfighters in the interceptor role were to land conventionally on surviving roadway (Autobahn) runways, and be towed back to an assembly area for maintenance, and then re-mated with rockets and ZELL launchers, and redeployed.

        ZELL Starfighters or F-100s in nuclear strike / interdiction role would have been semi-disposable depending on target distance and progress of the conflict and battlefield. Like other TAC nuclear strike aircraft, there were possibilities for one-way max range with no recovery, fly to neutral country, recover to roadway, return to home base, bail out over neutral territory, recover in a ME or Scandinavian country, etc.

  • leroy

    Wow! Found this great documentary on the F-104 and its operation by the Italian AF:

    Great video!

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    If I were operating close to Russian style division level air defenses, I’d use something like this, or Harriers or F-35s. Another twist would be if a VTOL attack aircraft that could be easily taken apart and shipped via ground transport and assembled close to the air defense systems. That way aircraft could be launched within seconds of the onset of artillery and rocket barrages within minutes of flight time to the missile units under attack.