65 years since its first flight, the F-104s of the NASA’s KSC-based “Starfighters” continue to carry out a variety of missions for government and commercial customers.
Starfighters operates the world’s only fleet of flight-ready F-104s. The company, based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and operating under authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, has obtained some F-104 of the “S/ASA-M” variant (the latest retired from the Italian Air Force in 2004 – with a last flight in July 2005), including a TF-104G-M, that have modified (the cockpit has been heavily upgraded) so that they can carry out a variety of missions for government and commercial customers, such as:
- Captive carry of payloads and test articles
- Microgravity experiments
- Pre-launch space payload testing/qualification
- Suborbital spaceflight simulation
- Air-launch of microsatellites
- Human factors and flight physiology research
- Jet warbird type training and familiarization for pilots
- Avionics testing/qualification
- Flight suit testing/qualification
- Sponsored video production
- Surveillance and intercept
“The F-104 is a remarkable aerial platform, capable of putting research projects into microgravity, high altitude, high speed, and high G environments. The jets can mimic the ascent, descent and flight profiles of spaceflight vehicles and high performance military aircraft, and — according to NASA estimates — can provide between 60-90 seconds of microgravity during parabolic maneuvers,” Starfighters website explains.
On Jul. 11, 2019, a Starfighters’ TF-104, intercepted a Qatar Executive Gulfstream G650ER ultra long-range business jet registration A7-GCD involved in “One More Orbit” the Round-the-World record breaking flight over Palm Beach International Airport and escorted it to the Kennedy Space Center to landing at the end of the record flight.
The F-104 was piloted by Piercarlo Ciacchi, Director of Flight Operations at Starfighters and a friend of The Aviationist. “Piero” is a former Italian Air Force pilot who flew multiple fighter jet types, including the Lockheed F104, the F-16AF and the MB.339A/PAN with the Frecce Tricolori aerobatic display team, where he served for +7 years. In 2003, this Author had the pleasure to fly in an MB.339A during an air-to-air photo-shooting of four F-104S/ASA-M jets, one of those was piloted by “Piero”.
“Piero met Rick Svetkoff (President and CEO of Starfighters) during one of Rick’s F-104 acquisition trips to Italy, while he was on “alert” at an Italian air base with his F-104S. They developed a professional and personal relationship that kept them in touch until 2012 when Piero joined Starfighters Aerospace,” the Starfighters website says.
Piero has always loved filming his flights: along with those you can find online, there are plenty he shot when he flew the F-104 in the Italian Air Force, including some memorable ones filmed during supersonic runs at Mach 2.0 over southern Italy.
On Jul. 11, he filmed the interception of the G650ER piloted by Action Aviation Chairman Hamish Harding and former International Space Station Commander Col. Terry Virts at the end of their record breaking flight over the North and South poles and also the formation flight conducted on the following day as a celebration of the new world record (final flight time 46:40:22)