“Black Beauty”: One Of The Last (And Most Beautiful) Special Colored F-104 Starfighters Of The Italian Air Force

"Black Beauty" forms up with the camera ship during an aerial photo session at the end of 2003. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

Many consider “Black Beauty” the coolest F-104 Starfighter in special color scheme of the Aeronautica Militare.

Of the 15 nations that flew the 2,580 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jets produced, Italy is the only one that operated the aircraft the longest. The history of the F-104 in Italian service begins in March 1963, when the first aircraft is delivered to the 4° Stormo (Wing) at Grosseto, and ends 42 years later, at Pratica di Mare, on July 27, 2005.

Seven different versions of the F-104 were employed by the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) in four decades: the F-104G, RF-104G, TF-104G, F-104S, F-104S/ASA, F-104S/ASA-M and TF-104G-M, equipping ten different Wings and fifteen Squadrons (other than the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, the Italian Air Force Test Wing) for slightly less than one million flight hours.

MM6873/4-9 during an aerial photo session at the end of 2003. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

In four decades, several F-104s were given special liveries to celebrate anniversaries or achievement, and in the second half of 2003, as the aircraft approached their retirement, the 9°, 10° and 20° Gruppo, the last three squadrons that still operated the “Spillone” (or “Hatpin” as the aircraft was nicknamed in Italy),  started working on special liveries to celebrate their last year of activity with the Starfighter.

Many large formations were arranged before the type was retired in 2004. In this shot four standard F-104s fly in formation with the “9-99” and “Black Beauty” specials colors. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

The long-awaited celebrative aircraft of the 10° Gruppo, the first in the history of the squadron based at Grazzanise, rolled out on Sept. 19, 2003 (and on that very same day this Author had the honor to fly alongside the special color to get the first air-to-air shots of the Starfighter with the new livery). The MM6930 (formerly 9-53) was painted with the red, white and black colors of the 10° Gruppo and decorated with the legendary rearing horse of Francesco Baracca. Hidden underneath the fuselage was a gorgeous pike, symbol of the 85^ Squadriglia of the squadron while it lacked the typical Italian roundels. The aircraft boasted a flashy “9-99” instead of the traditional low-visibility codes in homage to the 9° Stormo and to celebrate the twinning with the Ducati. The “999” was in fact a famous motorbike model of the Italian Racing Team which sports a similar colour scheme to the one devised by Capt. Andrea Turco, a great fan of Ducati, for the special Starfighter. While the “9-99” was destined to become the most famous Starfighter in the Italian Air Force (at least in that period) and the last F-104 to land on Oct. 31, 2004, the day that marked the end of the operational activity of the Starfighter with the Italian Air Force on Oct. 31, 2004 [note: after Oct. 31 some F-104 and TF-104 aircraft continued to fly with the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, mainly as a chase planes for the unit’s Eurofighter Typhoons, until the type’s last flight on Jul. 27, 2005], many consider another aircraft the most beautiful special Starfighter of the Italian Air Force: the example MM6873/4-9.

“9-99” leads a formation made by “Black Beauty” and a standard overall grey F-104S/ASA-M of the Italian Air Force in 2004. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

Dubbed “Black Beauty”, MM6873/4-9 was the special bird of the 9th Gruppo, based at Grosseto. The livery was designed by Silvano Mainini and Andrea Scomparin of the “Old Crow Team”, that has designed and prepared some of the most famous Italian Specials. It was painted in black and white colours and wore the squadron badge on the tail. The flanks were marked by two lines that branched off the Lockheed’s star symbol, a tribute to the Starfighter’s manufacturing company. The dates “1963” and “2003” were painted on the lower surface of the wings to mark forty years of service of the F-104 with the 9° Gruppo.

The dates “1963” and “2003” painted on the lower surface of the wings to mark forty years of service of the F-104 with the 9° Gruppo. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

The aircraft flew for the first time on Dec. 3, 2003, and made its first public appearance on Dec. 11, 2003, during the speed race between a Eurofighter Typhoon flown by Maurizio Cheli and a Ferrari F2003-GA driven by Michael Schumacher. Its last flight, from Grosseto to Grazzanise, where it was withdrawn from active service, was on Oct. 14, 2004. At the time of retirement, the aircraft had logged 4,639 Flight Hours. Some of these were flown with the stunning black livery. Indeed, during its little less than one year from the first flight with the celebrative color scheme to the last one, the aircraft took part in the International F-104 Meeting on May 30, 2004, that was the official farewell airshow of the Aeronautica Militare, and to several air-to-air photo sessions.

Afterburners on for these three F-104s. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

As explained above, also the 20° Gruppo had its own special: the TF-104G-M MM54253/4-20.  In this case, the Old Crow Team only prepared a sketch of the livery as the colour was applied by the personnel of the Gruppo. The main image on the aircraft was a lion, symbol of the 20°, that appeared on both sides of the fuselage and below it in a version inspired by the logo on the “Moor of Venice”, the Italian yacht that took part in the 1992 edition of the America’s Cup. This special also sported the Lockheed’s logo on the tail. Quite interestingly this aircraft was given the code “4-20” that was also used on another aircraft at Grosseto: the MM6932 belonging to the 9° Gruppo.

The last three F-104 special colors of the Italian Air Force flying together near Grazzanise in 2004. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

Along with the “Black Beauty” the special of the 20° Gruppo, intercepted and accompanied to landing the first F-2000B of the 4° Stormo, on Mar. 16th, 2004. MM54253 was decommissioned on Oct. 25, 2004.

Formation aerobatics for the specials of the 20°, 9° and 10° Gruppo. (Image credit: K. Tokunaga/ItAF)

Both special colors have been preserved: Black Beauty is on a pole, in the 9th Gruppo area, at Grosseto; the “9-99” was moved from Grazzanise to Gioia del Colle and it is currently preserved there since 2018; the TF-104G “4-20” is at the Grosseto Base museum.

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.