Designed by Lockheed's creative genius, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, the prototype F-104 rolled out the company's high-desert Skunk Works and made its first flight on March 4, 1954 at Edwards Flight Test Center. Later, it was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous world records for speed (1,450 mph)*, altitude (103,395' without rocket assist), and time-to-climb to altitude. Because of its physical appearance and performance, the F-104 has often been called the "missile with a man in it." The design was a product of the Korean War, and was unique in several respects. The encounters with the MiG-15 in Korea caused a strong outcry among Air Force fighter pilots for a cheap, lightweight, maneuverable, high-performance fighter to confront future Soviet fighters. The result was the F-104, a fighter that overemphasized rate of climb and brute speed.
The F-104G had full all-weather capability, carrying an Autonetics F15A-41B NASARR (North American Search and Ranging Radar) fire control system. The fire control system was optimized in two basic air-to-ground and air-to-air modes--these were for bombing/navigation and target interception, respectively. In the air-to-air mode, it provided radar search, acquisition, and automatic tracking of aerial targets to make it possible to to carry out lead-collision attacks with automatic missile release. The NASAAR acted in conjunction with the director-type gun sight for the M-61 Vulcan cannon. The director gun sight gave the pilot an optical line-of-sight indication after the NASARR had computed the required lead angle. The weapons sight incorporated a basic infrared facility with common optics developed by Lockheed, which gave the aircraft some night-sighting capability. For air-to-ground modes, the NASAAR provided the pilot with range information for visual bombing computation, ground mapping for all-weather bombing and navigation, contour mapping for navigation, and terrain avoidance for low-level combat missions. The caged sight could also be used as an aiming reference for visual dive-bombing.
An important part of NASA’s flight test operations was to support the flight testing being done on all the new aircraft designs being produced; in that capacity, certain types of high speed aircraft (usually of the jet fighter type) were employed by that agency both as flight test “safety chase” (aircraft that would closely follow a research aircraft during its flight to document the mission, observe the test flight, and provide direct support to the test aircraft’s pilot) and as functional component elements of various programs and projects dealing with advanced high altitude aerospace research. The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, promoted by Lockheed publicists as ‘The Missile with the Man in it’ (although no pilot ever called it by that highly imaginative name), was soon selected as the key player on the NASA team that would eventually employ eleven of its type in aeronautical research programs.
In October of 1957, a second Starfighter was added to the NASA fleet (F-104A SN 556-0734) on loan from the US Air Force, and a third F-104 (F-104A SN 56- 0749) was added in April of 1959. Later the same year, a two-seat F-104B Starfighter (‘Howling Howland’, USAF SN 57-1303) already stationed at the NACA Ames Research Center (at Moffett Field in the San Francisco Bay Area) was sent to the Edwards facility (NASA had decided to establish all of its high- speed research operations at the new Edwards desert facility) as the fourth member of NASA’s Edwards F-104 Starfighter research team.
The first four NACA / NASA F-104 Starfighters (including ‘Howland’) had been acquired from the US Air Force under terms that designated them as research ‘loan’ airframes. In 1963 three additional Lockheed F-104G model type single seat Starfighters were personalized to NASA’s specific requirement and delivered to the Dryden facility, having been purchased directly by NASA; these
three aircraft were designated F-104N models (N811NA, N812NA, and N813NA) and had no US Air Force numbered designations. They conformed to the G specification then being built on the Lockheed production lines, having all the features of that model, but lacked standard military features like weapons and a fire control and targeting system, and also had their internal compartments configured to suit NASA flight test mission requirements. Although these three aircraft were more often used as proficiency trainers and ‘safety-chase’, they also figured significantly in many of the advanced research projects.
In December of 1966, still another Starfighter (SN 56-0790, an F-104A model) was acquired by NASA on loan from the Air Force, due to the loss of N813NA (piloted by Joe Walker) in the much publicized accident involving loss of the North American XB-70A Valkyrie on 8 June 1966. The addition of an F-104G model Starfighter (NASA N820NA, a G type produced for West Germany’s Air Force) in July of 1975 brought the NASA Dryden Starfighter fleet to a total of eight, but this was shortly reduced to seven again, when N818NA (the pioneering YF-104A and NASA’s very first Starfighter, USAF SN 55-2961) was retired to a place of honor at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. [In 1977, single seat N820NA was retired from service and was eventually consigned to the US Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio.]
Somewhat later, NASA acquired three F/TF-104G Starfighters that had been used in training German Air Force pilots. Two of these were tandem-seat TF- 104Gs and one was a single-seat F-104G; they were given NASA designations N824NA (USAF SN 61-3065), N825NA (USAF SN 61-3628), and N826NA (German SN KG200), respectively. The last Starfighter, a single-seat RF-104G model, was originally built by the Fokker Aircraft Company for the Luftwaffe and had been used for Luftwaffe pilot training at Luke AFB in Arizona. After having been demilitarized, they were used by NASA for various flight test purposes. Since 57-1303’s (“Howling Howland”) retirement in 1978, the lack of a two-seat high-speed research support Starfighter had been keenly felt, so the addition of the two new tandem TF-104G models to the NASA Dryden fleet was very beneficial.
One of 1,700 Starfighters built, our two-place G-model first served with the US Air Force, then for a while with the German Air Force, and was finally acquired by National Air and Space Administration in 1975, where it was used in safety tests, as a photo plane, and for pilot proficiency training -- one of its instructor-pilots being the legendary Chuck Yeager. After 1,127 flights, it was retired in 1985, then loaned to California Polytechnic College in 1995, and in turn to the Estrella Warbird Museum in March 2000.