When the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter first flew in 1954, it was a state of the art interceptor capable of achieving speeds in access of Mach 1 or the speed of sound. The single seat, single engined fighter and its sleek slender silhouette would go on to serve with a number of Air Forces worldwide including not only the United States Air Force, Italian Aeronautica Militare, Royal Canadian Air Force and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force. Nowhere would the reputation and service of the F-104 be more diverse and defined than in the service of the West German Luftwaffe. In West Germany, the Starfighter would be developed into a fighter bomber with nearly 35% of all F-104s produced by Lockheed being manufactured for Luftwaffe service.
The aircraft was designed as a high altitude interceptor by legendary Lockheed aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson. Part of the appeal of the aircraft was its radical wing design utilizing a small trapezoidal shaped wing positioned midbody of the fuselage versus the standard swept wing design of most fighter aircraft. The stabilator was mounted atop the vertical tail fin to reduce the effects of inertia coupling in high speed flight and the type utilized the power of the General Electric J79 turbojet engine to propel it to supersonic speeds. As a result of its design, the Starfighter had excellent acceleration capabilities, rate of climb and top speeds however the aircraft had poor turn performance at sustained speeds and was sensitive to control inputs which could prove unforgiving in the event of pilot error. Under license from Lockheed, F-104s would be manufactured by some of Europe’s finest aeronautical firms including Dornier, Fokker and Messerschmitt of West Germany, Fiat of Italy and SABCA of Belgium. A total of 915 F-104s would be delivered to the Luftwaffe with 30 of these airframes being F-104F standard, 444 being F-104G models operated as multirole fighter bombers, 136 TF-104G trainers and 355 RF-104 reconnaissance variants
The first F-104s to be operated by the West German Luftwaffe were F-104F models, two seat versions of the Starfighter used in the United States to train Luftwaffe instructors on the aircraft type. These initial airframes carried United States Air Force livery and serial numbers and were operated out of Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. After the initial pilots graduated from flight training, the airframes were turned over to Waffenschule 10 based out of Nörvenich in North Rhine-Westphalia. Upon arrival in West Germany, the airframes received a new Luftwaffe paint scheme and serial numbers and thus began the conversion of Luftwaffe pilots from the earlier F-84 Thunderstreak and F-86 Sabre airframes to the new F-104G Starfighter.
The first unit to begin operational conversion to the type was Jagdbombergeschwader 31 ‘Bölcke’ of Fighter Bomber Wing 31 ‘Bölcke’ also based at Nörvenich. Type conversion began in July 1960 with the Wing being declared fully operational in 1963. Following the fielding of JBG-31 with F-104Gs, additional units equipped with the type were Jagdbombergeschwader 32 based in Lechfeld, Jagdbombergeschwader 33 based at Buchel, Jagdbombergeschwader 34 based at Memmingen and Jagdbombergeschwader 36 located at Rheine-Hopsten. These units operated the type as multirole fighter bombers with two fighter wings being designated to use the type as solely interceptors. These units were Jagdgeschwader 71 located at Wittmundhafen and Jagdgeschwader 74 located at Neuberg. The RF-104G reconnaissance variant was operated by two Aufklärungsgeschwadern or Reconnaissance Wings. These units were Aufklärungsgeschwader 51 located at Manching and Aufklärungsgeschwader 52 located at Leck. The West German Marineflieger operated two naval air wings of F-104Gs these were Marinefliegergeschwader 1 at Schleswig and Marinefliegergeschwader 2 at Eggebeck. Marineflieger F-104G’s were operated in the reconnaissance and anti-surface warfare roles.
The F-104G would also be a main weapon in the Luftwaffe’s nuclear delivery component. The nuclear weapons under the control of the United States, would be leased to the West German military for use. In the event of a nuclear strike, an F-104 would mount a single B43 one kiloton nuclear weapon along the centerline of the fuselage. Nearly 250 Luftwaffe Starfighters were committed to the NATO nuclear deterrent force with each wing maintaining six nuclear armed F-104s on twenty four hour alert status as part of NATOs Quick Response Force. As part of the QRF, Luftwaffe aircraft would be fueled and ready for launch within seventeen minutes of receiving the order to strike Warsaw Pact or Soviet targets. In this mission, Luftwaffe pilots utilized the Starfighter’s high speeds reaching operating speeds of Mach 1.4 to penetrate hostile airspace and deliver its deadly payload. After delivering their weapons, pilots would return to airfields in West Germany and be rearmed with additional nuclear weapons and redirected to secondary targets for further nuclear deployment.
In the conventional strike role, the F-104G would typically carry the Lepus flare bomb, CBU-33 cluster munitions, 500lb iron bombs and LAU-3A unguided rocket pods. Marineflieger Starfighters would mount the Kormoran anti-ship missile on underwing pylons. The Kormoran had a range of nearly 23 miles and utilized delayed fuses for penetration of a ship’s hull structure before subsequently detonating deep within the vessel. The weapon was intended to detonate just above the ship’s waterline in an effort to inflict the maximum damage possible.
Problems began to arise almost from the beginning of the introduction of the aircraft into Luftwaffe service. At the time of the introduction of the Starfighter in 1961, there were two crashes. An intensification of flying regimens saw an increased accident rate with the type. As the years progressed, so did the number of crashes in the type. The year 1962 saw seven crashes, 1964 saw 12 F-104s lost, and in 1965 nearly 28 aircraft were lost in accidents. The lost rate calculated to nearly two aircraft lost each month. In 1966, sixty one F-104Gs would crash claiming the lives of thirty five Luftwaffe pilots. The alarming rate of loss of the aircraft soon became known as the ‘Starfighter Crisis’ with alarming records surfacing. The Crisis would peak with a loss rate of 139 aircraft for every 100,000 flying hours. The unsafe nature of the aircraft in Luftwaffe service sent the German media into a feeding frenzy giving the type derogatory nicknames such as Witwenmacher ‘Widowmaker’, Fliegender Sarg ‘Flying Coffin’, Fallfighter ‘falling fighter’ or Erdnagel ‘Ground Nail’. The surrounding controversy over the accident rate of Luftwaffe Starfighters also led to the rather unflattering joke of How does one own a Starfighter? Just buy property anywhere in West Germany and wait and sooner or later one would crash into the property.
The problem of the Starfighter Crisis, lie in the fact that the aircraft was extremely unforgiving in cases of pilot error and was extremely sensitive to control inputs. At the time of the types introduction, the F-104G was one of the most technologically sophisticated designs to enter service with the fledgling Luftwaffe and many of the pilots and ground crews of the Luftwaffe were accustomed to civilian jobs at the end of the Second World War. The lapse in aviation operations threw many pilots beyond the learning curve and they failed to keep up with the technological advances of jet powered aviation. As a response to this Luftwaffe pilots were sent to relatively short refresher courses in first generation jet aircraft which were underpowered in terms of the supersonic plus Starfighter. Luftwaffe ground crews were also introduced to the type with minimal to no maintenance experience on turbine engines, a reflection of the problem of national conscription into military service. As crews would come up to speed in learning to maintain the type, their service obligations would be completed and they returned to civilian life requiring a new technician to learn the maintainers course from the beginning.
Terrain and weather differences were also a factor. Luftwaffe pilots flying out of Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Luke Air Force Base in Arizona grew accustomed to operating the aircraft in the relatively favorable weather of the southwestern United States. When they returned to West Germany, many pilots found the north western European weather to be relatively poor. Flights in inclement weather coupled with flying at relatively high speeds, at low level through the hilly terrain of West Germany attributed to a great number of accidents designated as controlled flight into terrain or water.
On the airframe side, the F-104G was an improved version of the standard Lockheed F-104 Starfighter with a strengthened fuselage and wing structure. Other modifications included larger fuel tanks for increased fuel capacity, an enlarged vertical tail fin, strengthened landing gear complete with larger tires, revised flaps for improved control in combat maneuvering, as well as improved avionics suites like the Autonetics NASARR F15A-41B radar which was capable of both air to air and air to surface mapping capabilities, Litton LN-3 Inertial Guidance System and an infrared targeting sight. With the improvements to the airframe, it did not change the fact that the intended purpose of the aircraft was to be a high supersonic high altitude interceptor. In Luftwaffe service, the type was operated as a fighter bomber which often took the aircraft out of its intended element placing it in the unusual confines of low altitude operations. For operations in the low altitude environment the aircraft relied on the inertial navigation system which added additional weight to the airframe thus hampering its performance. The inertial navigation system was widely criticized as being a cause of distraction for the pilot as he would be monitoring the status of the system in low level rather than paying attention to the terrain around him in the low altitude structure. German media outlets often referred to the Starfighters as overburdened by technology and labeled F-104 pilots as overstrained and overburden aircrewmen.
Further damage to the Luftwaffe Starfighter fleet would come when the German media accused officials in the West German government of accepting bribes in the acquiring of the F-104 in West German service. The fallout and frequent scandals revolving around the crisis would lead to the passing of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977 by the United States government which restricted any American businesses, trading securities, citizens, nationals or residents from engaging in any corrupt practices regardless of whether or not they are present on United States soil and it governed payments of anything of value involving foreign officials, candidates, dignitaries or parties that could effectively involve national interests.
Not to say that all loses of the type were induced solely by the pilot many accidents were also attributed to many causes which burden all methods of aerial transportation. Many accidents were attributed to bird strikes where a bird ingested into the engine could cause problems, lightning strikes, pilot spatial disorientation, hypoxia and mid air collisions. Other causes included technical issues involving the J79 engine itself with its variable afterburner nozzle, contamination of the pilot’s liquid oxygen system for high altitude operation which led to loss of consciousness and malfunctions of the aircraft’s automatic pick up limiter system.
Compared to the NATO average of Starfighter pilots flying twenty hours per month, West German Luftwaffe pilots received roughly only thirteen to fifteen hours per month. The F-104 required thirty eight to forty five hours of maintenance for every hour flown and with hastily often poorly trained maintenance crews, the aircraft typically did not receive the required level of maintenance and the results were catastrophic.
One of the most notable accidents involving the Starfighter in Luftwaffe service occurred on 19 June 1962 at Knapsack, North Rhine-Westphalia when a formation of four F-104F two seat variants of the Starfighter were practicing formation flying to celebrate the types introduction into active service. The aircraft crashed together following a descent through a cloud formation killing three Luftwaffe pilots and one United States Air Force pilot. The cause of the crash was determined to be spatial disorientation of one of the inexperienced Luftwaffe pilots causing his aircraft to fly into his wingman. All four aircraft were destroyed and this incident resulted in the Luftwaffe instituting a policy of forbidding an aerobatic formation flying display team.
In 1966, Johannes Steinhoff, a veteran Luftwaffe pilot of the Second World War accredited with 176 aerial victories took over command of the Luftwaffe as the Inspekteur der Luftwaffe ‘Chief Inspector of the Air Force’. One of Steinhoff’s first moves following his instatement as the head of the Luftwaffe was to ground the entire F-104 fleet. He was determined not to release the aircraft back into active service until he felt the underlying causes to the high loss rate of F-104 Starfighters was resolved if not eradicated. During his investigation, Steinhoff noted that F-104s of the United States Air Force and other non-German Air Forces had significantly lower accident rates in the aircraft. With further investigations, Steinhoff and his Deputy Inspector Günther Rall also a fellow World War II veteran would journey to the United States to learn to pilot the F-104 Starfighter under instruction and supervision by the type’s designers at the Lockheed facility in Burbank, California. During their period in the United States, Steinhoff and Rall annotated the lack of inclement weather and mountain flight training combined with the handling characteristics such as sharp high G turns could lead to accidents.
Upon return to West Germany, Steinhoff and Rall introduced a redesigned training regimen for Luftwaffe Starfighter pilots and as a response loss rates dropped to being comparable to those of other Starfighter operators. With an improved safety record, a new problem soon emerged in the form of structural failure in the wing structure. The F-104 design calculations had not taken into consideration the high number of G force loading cycles that would be exerted on the airframes operated by the Luftwaffe. Another issue that Steinhoff and Rall noted lie in the ejection seat operated in Luftwaffe Starfighters. Lockheed had initially supplied the Luftwaffe F-104Gs with the C-2 ejection seat which used a powerful 10100 booster rocket manufactured by the Talley Corporation. The use of the Talley rocket was said to give the ejection seat a zero-zero capability however they caused a destabilizing effect following ejection from the aircraft. On 8 March 1967, the F-104 fleet was grounded again and all C-2 series ejection seats were replaced with improved Martin Baker Mk-GQ7A zero-zero ejection seats.
Initial successes in the improvement of the Starfighter’s safety record were soon overshadowed with F-104 crashes climbing to between fifteen to twenty aircraft each year between 1968 and 1972. The attrition rate would continue at a 9:11 ratio each year until the type was phased out and replaced by the Panavia Tornado. The subsequent jump in the loss rate of the aircraft led to the West German government in Bonn to approve the order of 50 additional F-104Gs to replace aircraft lost in accidents. Finally in 1971, the decision was made to begin the retirement of the F-104 from Luftwaffe service. The first units to withdraw the F-104G were the Reconnaissance Wings AKG 51 and AKG 52 which adopted the McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom II in its Wild Wiesel configuration for tactical reconnaissance. These were followed by JG71 and JG74 in 1972 and 1973 when they received F-4E Phantom IIs as air superiority fighters and JBG36 received Phantoms in 1976.
The first Marineflieger unit to phase out the F-104G was MFG1 which phased out its F-104s in favor of the Panavia Tornado in July 1982. The F-104G training school at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona was closed down and by the middle of the 1980s, the Luftwaffe had relegated the F-104G Starfighter to secondary roles. The last Luftwaffe unit to operate the F-104G Starfighter was JBG34 which finally retired its Starfighters upon receiving the Panavia Tornado in 1987. Only a handful of F-104Gs and TF-104Gs remained in Luftwaffe service operated out of Manching for various test, development and research programs. The last flight of the F-104G in Luftwaffe service would occur on 22 May 1991 when the F-104G a formidable airframe flew into history as part of the resurgence of Germany’s defensive capability.
By the time of its retirement, the Luftwaffe would lose some 270 F-104s to accidents, equaling roughly 30 percent of West Germany's entire Starfighter fleet. Even more costly is the irreplaceable human toll of the deaths of nearly 110 German pilots at the controls of the Starfighter. The Starfighter's legacy in German military service is one of admiration, intrigue and in certain circles discontent. Many pilots had a love-hate relationship with the type, but in the end it would be the lack of proper training, maintenance, unforeseen technical issues and operating the type in environments it was not designed to operate in that would tarnish the image of the supersonic interceptor. While certain circles champion the F-104, others still hold the aircraft in negative light unable to move past the derogatory titles such as 'lawn dart' or 'tent peg'.