Tag Archives: F-104 Starfighter

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “One such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

The last ever operative flight of the legendary F-104 Starfighter, 12 years ago today

On Oct. 31, 2004, the Italian Air Force flew the last operative mission of the iconic F-104, the “missile with a man in it.”

Of the 15 nations that had one of 2,580 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter produced (including prototypes) in their fleet, Italy is the one that more than any other, linked its fortune to this extraordinary interceptor. Employed also in the ground attack (both conventional and strike) and in tactical reconnaissance roles, the “Spillone” (“Hatpin”) marked, for better or worse, the daily life of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF), influencing its ambitions, choices and abilities for almost half a century.

Throughout this period of time, seven different versions of the F-104 were employed by the Italian Air Force: 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) for slightly less than one million flight hours.

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Although its very last flight with the Aeronautica Militare (the last air force to operate the Starfighter) took place few months later (as described in the book “Italian Starfighters” by this Author), the F-104 wrote the final chapter of its extraordinary career within the ItAF on October 30th, 2004, when the aircraft undertook the last QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) shift after being on alert, “ready in five” (ready to take off in 5 minutes from the alarm) for 40 years.

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The 24-hour QRA shift for the 10° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 9° Stormo (Wing) at Grazzanise airbase, ended on Oct. 31 at 08.25 local time, with a Tango Scramble (a Scramble for training purposes) carried out by Maj. Aurelio Covotta, commander of the 10° Gruppo, and by Lt. Rolando Pellegrini, of the 9° Gruppo.

After the two armed aircraft had landed, the homage to this undisputed star of +40 years of history of the ItAF was entrusted to a very special formation whose leader was Gen. Pietro Valente, commander of the “Aquila” Division; number 2 Col. Vittorio Iannotta, commander of the 4° Stormo; number 3, Col. Gianpaolo Miniscalco, commander of the 9° Stormo; number 4, Maj. Giovanni Balestri, commander of the 20° Gruppo; and number 5, Gen. Settimo Caputo, Deputy Chief of Staff of Comando Squadra Aerea, who proudly wore on his flight suit the patch attesting 3500 flying hours on the Starfighter!

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The aircraft (MM6890/4-50, MM6934/9-31, MM6930/9·99, MM6876/9-39, MM6850/4-16) took off in rapid sequence and engaged the sky field some minutes later to perform a series of fly-bys that were greeted with deep emotion and with a hint of sadness by the staff of the 9° Stormo and by those who had gathered along the taxiways of the operational area of the 10° Gruppo. After the last fly-by, the aircraft landed.

All except one: the 9·99 of Col. Miniscalco, that flew some high-speed passes in front of the public before the last pass at transonic speed with a vertical climb that preceded the landing that marked the official end of the longstanding permanence of the F-104 in the front-line units of the Aeronautica Militare.

After Oct. 31, 2004 the Starfighter continued to fly on the Italian skies for little less than a year with the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, mainly as a chase plane for the unit’s Eurofighter Typhoons.

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Check out these stunning videos of the iconic F-104 Starfighter flying for the first time in 33 years in Norway

A civilian-owned CF-104D Starfighter flew for its first time in 33 years in Norway. And here are some of the coolest clips filmed during the historical “first flight.”

On Sept. 28, CF-104D Starfighter “637” / LN-STF in the colors of the Royal Norwegian Air Force flew again in Bodø, Norway, 33 years after its first flight.

Chased by a dual seater F-16B of the RNoAF, the aircraft, brought back to airworthy conditions in 13 years by the Norwegian Foreningen Starfighterens Venner (Friends of the Starfighter Association) flew for about 50 minutes becoming the first “Zipper” (or “Missile with a man in it” in accordance to one of the several nicknames the legendary plane has had during its long career) to fly in Europe in more than 11 years: the last flight of an F-104 in the Old Continent took place in Italy, on Jul. 27, 2005, when the Italian Air Force retired its last aircraft (a two-seater TF-104, the same type of aircraft this Author had the opportunity to fly in November 2000) after more than 40 years of service.

Eskil Amdal, a Norwegian test pilot, flew the Starfighter “637” during its newest “first flight” that was broadcast live on Facebook.

The following video shows the takeoff of the chase F-16B that performed an airborne pickup of the F-104 and the later approach and landing:

Here’s an interesting clip with footage from inside the cockpit:

The following footage shows the CF-104D from the backseat of the F-16B (taken by Helge Andreassen):

There are rumors that the Norwegian association will some day bring the F-104 back to airshows around Europe. However it looks like there are no plans (and possibly clearances) at the moment to fly this magnificient aircraft outside of Norway.

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H/T to Giulio Cristante, Bjørnar Bolsøy and all the readers who sent us links and comments!

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Watch a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter perform an insane low level pass over a Dutch airbase in the 1980s

The “missile with a man in it” was one of the most badass planes ever.

Overall, 2,580 Lockheed Martin F-104 Starfighter aircraft flew with the air forces of 15 countries in about 50 years.

As already explained several times on The Aviationist, the F-104 represented a huge leap forward for all those countries that passed from old subsonic to a bisonic jet which called for a much greater concentration on the part of pilots who were often faced with split second decisions.

The transition from the previous generation of aircraft to the high performances of the F-104 was often far from painless and that’s why some of the Starfighter‘s users were beset by numerous tragic accidents.

Although the majority of such incidents were caused by human factor or poor weather conditions or because the aircraft was pushed to its limits rather than by plane failures, the “Zipper”, as it was nicknamed in the fighter pilots community, was nonetheless undeservedly dubbed the “widow maker” by the public opinion.

An epithet that was firmly rejected by most pilots who loved the F-104 and its stunning performance.

Anyway, here is a video of a “Zipper” flying dangerously low. According to the comments on the Youtube page it was filmed in the early 1980s at Volkel airbase, in the Netherlands, and shows a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-104 buzzing spotters during an Open Day.

The forgotten father of the Eurofighter Typhoon: the F-104 CCV

Even if the last F-104 fighter jets in active service were retired by the Italian Air Force on Oct. 31, 2004, the Starfighter legacy survived in a modern combat plane: the Eurofighter Typhoon.

As already extensively explained by Andreas Zeitler in an extensive piece for the now disappeared “Classic Aircraft”, the most advanced Starfighter ever realized anywhere in the world was a very particular German F-104 testbed.

Indeed, whereas the various G, S, ASA and ASA-M variants never featured it, there was an F-104 example fitted with fly-by-wire controls which flew about thirty years before the Italian Zippers were grounded forever.

During the 1970s, Germany understood that future fighters would need to achieve high agility as well as the ability to fly at high angles of attack. These capabilities required an unstable aircraft configuration.

In 1974, in order to address the need to test how a highly unstable supersonic jet fighter equipped with a proper redundant flight control system would fly, the German Ministry of Defense authorized MBB to proceed with the so-called Control Configured Vehicle (CCV) program.

The outcome of the CCV would be a fly-by-wire testbed: the aircraft selected for testing campaign was the F-104G, which, as Zeitler discovered, was preferred over the F-4F since the Phantom was too big and too heavy, even if its size would have offered more space for test equipment than the Starfighter.

The first phase of the trials was aimed at defining the parameters for the control algorithms of the CCV and its sensors: it lasted from Sept. 27 to Nov. 4, 1976 andwas accomplished with thirteen flights.

The second phase saw the aircraft flying in two different versions, the B (for Basic) and E (with E for Ente which means “duck”, because of the canard configuration).

Flight after flight, from a stable aircraft the F-104 became an unstable platform, a goal reached shifting the neutral point and centre of gravity of the Starfighter.

The first complete mission in CCV mode was flown on Oct. 2, 1979 by the B1 model fitted with the Control Configured Vehicle software. Another variant followed the B1: the B2 with 600 kg aft and 130 kg forward ballasts.

But the first real unstable flight took place on Nov. 20, 1980 when, along with a 240 kg nose ballast, an additional F-104 elevator was mounted behind the cockpit; a version known as E1. With this variant, the neutral point was moved forward, while the E2 configuration, adding 400 kg aft ballast, shifted  back the centre of gravity.

At that point the F-104 was really unstable and 26 sorties were conducted between July and September 1981. All the flights were safely conducted and the nose trim weight was replaced with another 200 kg ballast, realizing the E3 configuration.

With this additional ballast the Starfighter could perform flights at 20 percent negative longitudinal stability.

The testing phase lasted about four years during those the F-104 CCV demonstrator was pivotal to the design and development of a delta-canard control system later adopted by the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Dario Leone for The Aviationist

Image credit: GAF via Key Publishing forum

 

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