Enjoy This Walkaround Of The TF-104G-M “Black Beauty” at Kennedy Space Center

Black Beauty TF-104G-M walkaround
Piercarlo Ciacchi, Starfighters’ Director of Flight Operations, explains some of the details of the TF-104’s ejection seat. The NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building can be seen in the background. (Screenshot from the YouTube video below)

Piercarlo Ciacchi, Starfighters’ Director of Flight Operations and former Italian Air Force F-104 pilot, introduces us to the two-seater TF-104 (with many interesting, little-known details).

Back in January, we reported about the stunning black paintjob of one of the TF-104 (actually, a TF-104G-M) aircraft of Starfighters Aerospace. The jet, dubbed “Black Beauty”, is one of the seven F-104s owned by the company, of which four are currently airworthy, and based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to be used for research and development flights.

“Black Beauty”, which now sports the civilian registration N991SF, is one of the five former Italian Air Force F-104s that were purchased after the service retired the type from operational service in 2004. Before being retired, this two-seater TF-104 operated for more than 30 years as MM54258 with the 20° Gruppo (Squadron), the Italian F-104 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) based at Grosseto.

Actually, the original “Black Beauty” was another F-104 based at Grosseto, the F-104S ASA-M (Aggiornamento Sistemi d’Arma – Modificato / Weapon System Upgrade – Modified) MM6873/4-9 of the 9th Gruppo Caccia (Fighter Squadron). The latter, which is now a gate guardian, was of the latest and most upgraded Starfighters operated by an Air Force and received a black paintjob to celebrate 40 years of service of the F-104 with the 9° Gruppo.

Anyway, back to today’s “Black Beauty”, Starfighters’ Director of Flight Operations and former Italian Air Force F-104 and Frecce Tricolori pilot, Piercarlo Ciacchi, provided a detailed walkaround of the TF-104G-M. Ciacchi was one of the last pilots to fly the F-104 before it was retired from service and even broke the F-104’s unrefueled flight duration record during its final flight before moving to the F-16ADF, landing after two hours and 50 minutes of flight in the special-colored F-104S ASA-M MM6930/9-99.

Ciacchi provided many interesting and little-known details worth a note during his walkaround, beginning from the 3:00 mark, where he showed two hatches on the bottom of the fuselage of the Starfighters TF-104. These hatches were inherited from the first F-104s which had downward ejection seats, as technology at the time did not allow to have ejection seats efficient enough to clear the Starfighter’s T-tail during an ejection. An even more curious fact is that the flight manual mentioned that, in the event of a low altitude ejection, the pilot had to roll the aircraft upside down before pulling the seat’s handles, so he would be ejected away from the ground.

Another interesting detail is the air intake of the TF-104G-M at the 9:40 mark. At the beginning of the F-104 program, the intake was considered a secret and kept under covers when on the ground. This split, three-dimensional air intake uses a design similar to the one of the SR-71’s air intakes. The cone in front of the air intake is fixed, instead of the moving one used by the Blackbird, in a position that is optimized for a certain range of speeds. The cone generates two shockwaves that help to slow down the supersonic airflow to subsonic speed inside the air intake. In addition to that, a slot behind the cone bleeds the boundary layer to obtain a more efficient airflow for the engine.

Another function of this air intake design is to act as a pre-heater and pre-compressor before the airflow reaches the engine. When we consider the fluid dynamics involved in a variable cross-section duct like an air intake, the variation of air pressure, air speed and cross-section are linked together thanks to the Mach number. This way, the air intake duct can increase the air pressure at the expense of the kinetic energy of the ingested airflow (and vice versa) just by varying the cross-section, without the need of mechanical work.

Also, since the air temperature and density are subject to variations concordant with the variations of the pressure, at the end of the air intake duct the airflow will have also an increased temperature. A practical example mentioned by Ciacchi is an F-104 flying at Mach 2 at 50,000 ft (with some modifications, the Starfighter could even reach 100,000 ft) , where the air intake is able to generate an increase of the temperature of about 200° C before the airflow reaches the first stage of the engine’s compressor.

Moving on, at the 20:30 mark, Ciacchi explained the origin of the unique design of the Starfighter. The design came from the famous Skunk Works, with Clarence “Kelly” Johnson mentioned saying “I want the most powerful and biggest engine available and I want to wrap around it the minimum quantity of airplane”. This left very little room to house systems and accessories needed by the aircraft, requiring a swiveling design for the landing gear to retract inside the fuselage. With this special design, the landing gear fits so tight inside the fuselage that a later modification, which increased the safety by using a little wider tire, required a new landing gear door with a “bubble” that allowed to obtain the minimum required space for the new tire.

Finally, at the 47:00 mark, the tour continues inside the cockpit, which has been heavily upgraded.

While much of the original side consoles and some of the instruments have been kept, many have been replaced by more modern commercial avionics, like the two Garmin G5 Electronic Flight Instruments and the GTN 650 Touchscreen Flight Navigator, new UHF and VHF radios and an iPad connected to the GTN 650’s GPS (Global Positioning System) and WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System). An interesting note is that the radar is still installed on the aircraft, but its controls have been removed.

In the video, Ciacchi mentioned that a new walkaround is in the works and it will feature one of the Starfighters Aerospace’s single-seater F-104s. There are some differences in the two airframes that were already introduced in this video, but we will patiently wait for the new detailed video that will explain all the extra features of the single-seater F-104, together with new in-flight videos of this legendary aircraft.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.