QF-104 drones

This page is totally devoted to the story of the QF-104A Starfighter operations performed in the US in the 60s. This story has also been published inside former ZIPPER magazines and we thank Charles "Chuck" Dildine for his valuable input. Chuck has been working with the 3205th Drone Squadron at Eglin AFB during the QF-104A drone operations and knew a lot of interesting information about the program and what happened to the participating Starfighters.

The QF-104A was a special modified version of the (Y)F-104A Starfighter which could be flown remotely controlled. The control was done by F-104 pilots on the ground during start and landing and inside another aircraft during in flight operations. The conversion of the (Y)F-104A to QF-104A was approved on 19 February 1960 by the USAF. Testing of the QF was conducted during the period of 9 January 1961 to 16 October 1961. The reason for converting the (Y)F-104A was the need for high altitude, high mach targets for the development of ground-to-air (BOMARC) and air-to-air (AIM7 - AIM9 - GAR2B - MB1 - AIM4) missiles.

The first unmanned mission was flown on 17 October 1961 being probably QF-104A "55-2957". There are conflicting numbers on the total QF-104A's manufactured. Lockheed says 24, Chuck Dildine's records show 22 that were actually delivered to the USA. Chuck can document that 20 of them were actually killed as targets and one crashed during a test flight (pilot ejected safely). There must have been one other lost that Chuck cannot find any record of.

Most QF-104 missions were flown at Eglin AFB, Florida. However, some were flown at Holloman AFB in New Mexico and a small number at Point Magu NAS, California (US NAVY).   

CHUCK's story

First off, "Chuck" Dildine returned from SEA in December 1966, after his tour at Udorn AFB with the 435th TFS (479TFW) flying the F-104C. In Januar 1967 "Chuck" arrived at Eglin AFB and was assigned to the "drone branch" of the Test Operations of the Armament Development and Test Center (ADTC), Eglin AFB. The "drone branch" had a Commander and roughly 12 to 15 operations pilots. Three of them were combat returnees from SEA. Two flew F-100 Super Sabre's and "Chuck" flew F-104C. By 1969 three of "drone" pilots had over 1000hrs each of F-104 time. The other pilots were younger and had much less 104 time, anywhere from just checking out to several hundred hours.

All of them (including "Chuck") were also current in the T-33. The individual time in the T-bird also varied from low time to 1900hrs. The T-33's called DT-33's (Director T-33) were used to control the QF-104A from launch to the firing range and then to return the QF back to the landing airfield area. A typical mission required 8 pilots from launch to recovery. Five of these were flying and three of them were doing ground jobs, i.e. launching the drone - controlling the QF on the range - and then landing it after the mission.

Chuck Dildine would like to interject here that it broke his heart every time they launched a QF-104A, knowing that it might not survive the mission. He just could never accept destroying an F-104 purposely.

Up to June 1967 the drone pilots did not have two-seat Starfighters at Eglin AFB. In late June 1967 two drone-pilots went to George AFB and picked up two F-104D Starfighters, 57-1331 and 57-1332. "Chuck" had flown both aircraft while stationed at George AFB. Also he got to see old TAC friends while he was there.              

The Starfighter drones.

Before starting the story about the use of the QF-104's through the years first an overview of the aircraft which have been modified to QF-104A. Beneath the 20 aircraft Chuck Dildine could trace inside his records since these aircraft have been lost while performing their duties as target aircraft. Two more aircraft (serials not known at this moment) have been used:

YF-104A 55-2957, 55-2963, 55-2965, 55-2966, 55-2968, 56-2969, 55-2971.
F-104A 56-730, 56-734, 56-735, 56-736, 56-737, 56-739, 56-741, 56-743, 56-745, 56-746, 56-747, 56-796, 56-836.
F-104D 57-1331, 57-1332 (Eglin ADTC Base-flight)

The story beneath has been written in "time" mentioning certain facts which happened during "unmanned flights" in the drone-period. All of the numbers, missions, kills and details about the kills are fact. Chuck Dildine found a friend who managed to salvage the actual logbook that the unit kept on each unmanned mission. I think we must be very gratefull that Chuck and his friend brought these information into daylight and to us. It is very valuable and historical very interesting information!!!

19 February 1960:
Conversion of the (Y)F-104A to QF-104A was approved by the USAF.

9 January 1961:
This day the tests started concerning the first QF-104's.

15 April 1961:
The USAF released the first "Flight Maintenance & Repair Manual for the QF-104A aircraft" named "T.O. 1F-104(Q)A-1".

16 October 1961:
The test-episode which started 9 January came to an end. One of the aircraft, which has been used in this test period was very likely 56-739 (QFG-739) because this aircraft is illustrating the mentioned manual "T.O. 1F-104(Q)A-1".

17 January 1962: The first QF-104A loss of the drone-unit toke place this day. Drone aircraft 56-745 encountered an elevator malfunction and crashed on take off. The aircraft was destroyed. In total the aircraft had registered 2 unmanned missions before it has been lost on this 3rd.

1 February 1962:
This day the first "dronefighter" was lost as target. Former pre-production aircraft 55-2963 was hit and sequentially shot down by a BOMARC ground-to-air missile. It was totally destroyed. It toke place on the aircraft's first "unmanned" flight.

1 July 1962:
The USAF released an update of the "Flight Maintenance & Repair Manual for the QF-104A aircraft" named "T.O. 1F-104(Q)A-1".

10 August 1962:
While returning from a flight, JQF-104A 56-734 engaged the barrier on landing. Everything went fine and there was no damage.

7 September 1962:
On this day the JQF-104A 56-734 again engaged the barrier after returning to the airbase. Also this time there was no damage and everything went ok.

12 September 1962:
It looks like JQF-104A aircraft 56-734 had some problems with coming to the ground again when flying. Five days after it engaged the barrier again it encountered some problems while landing. Now it sheared its nose-gear on landing. it could be repaired.

14 September 1962:
On this day QF-104A 55-2968 was lost in the Gulf of Mexico. Chuck Dildine did not have access as to why this happened. It was flying its second unmanned flight, which ended tragically.

4 October 1962:
Again the unit lost an aircraft. Now, while flying its 5th unmanned flight, QF-104A 56-736 was shot down by a missile.

13 December 1962:
This day a QF-104A sheared its nose-gear on landing, left the runway, rolled over and burned. This was the end of 56-796 which just returned from its first unmanned flight. It was totally destroyed.

Now we continue with the important QF-104A events from the beginning of 1963. At this moment they had already lost five QF-104A "Dronefighters" due to shoot-downs and operationally also.

6 February 1963:
JQF-104A 56-734 engaged (again) the barrier on landing. The aircraft did not brake and did not pull out its drag chute. This could have been the result of a failure of "weight on nose gear switch" malfunction. The aircraft could fly again soon.

9 May 1963:
This day QF-104A 56-735 made a bad landing. During this landing it damaged its nose gear, which could however be repaired. In February 1964 it returned back at Eglin (repaired).

6 June 1963:
QF-104A Starfighter 56-730 toke off for a mission but during this take-off it lost its canopy. The aircraft could be recovered and was ok.

10 June 1963:
Again a barrier engagement on landing. This day it was QF 56-730. Chuck Dildine made on this point a personal opinion. He believed that the controllers were either careless or under-trained. There were just too many barrier engagements. Most of these were at 130 to 150kts. In later years it went down to 68 to 71kts. Chuck had controlled 46 unmanned landings and took the barrier only once at 80kts.

1 August 1963:
This day the rough career of JQF-104A 56-734 came to an end. During an unmanned flight it was destroyed by a BOMARC missile.

3 October 1963:
The only QF-104A Starfighter with a serial in the 800-series flew an unmanned-mission this day on which it was shot down by a GAR-2B missile. QF-104A 56-836 was completely destroyed.

8 October 1963:
On this day again a Starfighter was lost. This time QF-104A 56-739 was "killed" by a GAR-2B missile. Also this Starfighter was completely destroyed. It was the last important event of the Drone-squadron in 1963.

17 March 1964:
This day was the first time in 1964 that the Drone Squadron lost again one of its Starfighters. QF-104A 56-746 was completely destroyed after it was shot down by a BOMARC missile.

8 July 1964:
Chuck Dildine stated that not all the missions flown were "shoot to kill". Many were programmed misses just to check missile tracking capabilities, contact ranges etc. For example on this day in July QF-104A 55-2971 flew such a type of mission. It had 7 missiles fired at but there were no hits...

2 September 1964:
QF-104A 56-735 engaged the barrier on landing after it did not brake and did not pull out its drag chute. The aircraft was fly-worthy again soon.

17 June 1965:
This day the US NAVY was involved on the loss of a QF-104A Starfighter. Aircraft 56-735 was shot down by an AIM-7 missile which was shot from a US-NAVY fighter aircraft (probably an F-4). It was completely destroyed.

1,8,14 July 1965:
These three days QF-104A 55-2969 flew three missions at 35 MFT at a speed of MACH 1.8. All missions went as planned.

23 July 1965:
Starfighter 55-2969 again made a MACH 1.8 flight at 35 MFT but now it was shot at by a missile. This missile pulled 25 G's while tracking the Starfighter which was confirmed by telemetry. The mission went again as planned and the Starfighter could land again in one piece..

8 December 1965:
This day QF-104A 55-2971 was hit in its nozzle area by an AIM-4 during an unmanned mission. The "damaged" aircraft could be landed but blew its tire during this landing with no further damage to the QF-104. It was repaired and flew again soon.

26 April 1966:
QF-104A Starfighter 55-2971 flew this day the first so called "weather penetration" mission for a QF-104, which went as planned. There were no problems.

21 June 1966:
This day QF-104A 55-2971 was the luckiest aircraft in the world. During an unmanned mission it was struck three times by lightning. All it did was blow some circuit breakers. Nevertheless the QF-104 could be landed without any problem.

27 October 1966:
On its 11th unmanned mission QF-104A 55-2971 was lost this day. It was shot down by an AIM-7 missile. The EGT (Chuck what is meant by this term?) on the QF-104 was last seen at 900 degrees by telemetry. The aircraft was completely destroyed.

It is now 1967, the drone missions are still flown from Eglin.

1 March 1967:
The Droneflight lost a Starfighter again on this day. Ex pre-production YF-104A 55-2965 was "killed" by a AIM-4D missile.

21 March 1967:
After a mission QF-104A (ex YF-104A) 55-2966 returned for the landing. During this landing the aircraft lost the anti-skid brakes and blew both main tires. The aircraft stopped however without any damage and could fly soon again.

22 March 1967:
This day a remarkable incident happened. QF-104A 56-747 flew a unmanned drone-mission and was hit by a AIM4-D missile. The hit was in the nozzle section. The controller had trouble controlling the QF. They tried to destroy it, but the destruction package failed to operate. The QF spiraled down from 30m to 8m feet and was recovered and it landed. Its gear sheared on landing. It was repaired again and flew 8 more unmanned missions later on!

17 May 1967:
This day QF-104A 56-730 toke off for an unmanned mission. During the take-off the doors failed to close. The controller recycled the gear and tried to close the doors again, which succeeded. The aircraft went on and flew a good mission. Charles Dildine: "I tell you all this to show that we had "almost" complete control of an unmanned QF-104 if all remote functions were operating properly.

14 June 1967: During an unmanned flight of QF-104A 55-2966, the ground controller lost all pitch control. The QF oscillated between 17m and 40m feet. The chase aircraft, being a manned QF-104A, stayed with this drone. The DT-33A managed to join up and take control of the sick QF-104. Still unable to control pitch the DT-33 controller tried to destruct the drone but once again the self-destruction packed failed to operate. The QF was then put in an orbit and flown over the gulf of Mexico until it flamed out and was guided to impact in the sea. As a result of the failed self-destruct function, "again", it was determined that the loss of voltage was occurring between the batteries and the package itself, due to too many relays etc. This problem was solved - finally. QF-104A 55-2966 was no more..

June 1967: Up to this time Charles and his group had no F-104D aircraft in Eglin. In late June 1967 two of them went to George AFB, California and picked up two D models being 57-1331 and 57-1332. Chuck Dildine had flown both aircraft earlier while stationed at George AFB. Also he got to see old friends while he was there. Several years ago he saw the 57-1331 again inside the Eglin Air Museum, needing some tender loving care.. 

19 July 1967:
This day QF-104A 55-2957 flew a "dog-fight" type mission, including 3G turns at 1.2 Mach at 18m feet, with a US-Navy F-4D Phantom. This was also the first mission flown with an F-104D chase aircraft. Inside the F-104D "Chuck" Dildine was flying. The mission went ok.

8 August 1967:
This day QF-104A 55-2957 was shot down as drone. No further details known.

26 October 1967:
Again a QF-104A was lost. QF-104A 56-730 flew an unmanned mission at 1.4 Mach at 30m feet when the controller lost pitch control of the QF. The drone zoomed to 40m feet, then down, then back up to 55m feet. Last airspeed recorded by telemetry was 800kts while the QF was going down again vertically. At the end the drone was destroyed by the now correctly operating destruct package.

January 1968: <added by IFS> QF-104A 56-744 was involved in an accident this month, when analyzing the aircraft record cards with the USAF. However since there are no accident reports known it must have been an accident as drone. It could have been shot down but also could have been lost in operation as drone (uncontrollable or technical failure).

31 May 1968: <added by IFS> QF-104A 56-733 encountered a severe class A landing accident this day at Eglin AFB but they thought it could be repaired soon again. In October 1968 it was brought over to Wright Patterson (Lockheed detachment) for repair but it was damaged too much and was transferred to Lockheed Palmdale. There the damage was structural enough to declare it w/o for the time being and the aircraft was put in storage at MASDC. However it never flew again.

24 July 1968:
QF-104A 56-741 toke off for an unmanned mission. Soon it flew at 1.3 Mach at 30m feet. This was "Chuck"s first mission as the rudder operator. Prior to this time he had been flying chase and DT-33 and training as rudder operator on the ground control station (landing-crew). The man he replaced was on his way to Vietnam. Sadly he was killed in less then six months (flying A-1E's).

25 September 1968:
Again exit for a QF-104. This day the 56-743 flew a low altitude mission at 0,86 Mach at 5m feet. With a 3G turn the aircraft flew into the Gulf of Mexico as it rolled out of its turn!

28 September 1968:
QF-104A 55-2969 flew an unmanned mission. During the mission it was hit under its left wing by an AIM-9 missile fired by a USAF F-4. Gladly the aircraft could be brought/controlled back home and it landed ok. "Chuck", at the controls, encountered some trouble controlling the heading on landing. There was no other damage and could be repaired.

September 1968 - Januar 1971: This was a very quite period. There were only 12 unmanned missions flown of which 9 were flown in 1970. There were several reasons for this:

(1)  USAF was considering discontinuing the QF-104 program.
(2)  The Q-2 Firebee drones were now available.
(3)  (Chuck's opinion) The war in SEA was effecting what was being tested at Eglin. Focus more at bombs than missiles.

26 January 1971:
A number of years passed without any loss but this day the QF-104A 55-2969 was killed during an unmanned mission by a AIM-4H missile by a USAF F-4E Phantom. It was said it had 24 missions logged.

24 April 1971:
QF-104A 56-741 flew an unmanned mission this day at 1.28 Mach at 24m feet. As a point of interest the QF was in a 72 degree bank turn at missile firing. It survived. "Chuck"s words: "For some reason I engaged the barrier at 80 Kts on landing. My logs don't show why and I'm too old to remember.

4 May 1971:
This day QF-104A 56-737 flew an unmanned mission at 19m feet and 1.1 Mach. Again a 72 degree bank was flown at missile firing. Chuck Dildine porpoised the QF on landing which resulted that the aircraft bent its nose gear axle.

4 May 1971 - 25 June 1971: In this period the group flew in total 9 good missions without any losses.

25 June 1971:
This day the QF-104A 56-737 was hit by an AIM-9 sidewinder missile. The aircraft was damaged in the right rear fuselage, as far as Chuck Dildine can remember. It was a fairly large hole in the side. On the control on the ground was Chuck himself and he remembers that he had some trouble controlling the heading on final approach. Nevertheless the aircraft landed safely.

13 July 1971:
On this day in July the drone-squadron lost again one of their QFs. This time the wellknown and often photographed QF-104A 56-747 was killed by an AIM-4H missile. In total this QF had flown 11 times unmanned before its career ended.

13 July - 29 September 1971: Chuck Dildine landed this period 6 unmanned QF's. All flights were accomplished without any withdrawals.

In December 1971 Chuck Dildine retired from the USAF! Once again the QF-104 program was to be terminated and once again it was revitalized in early 1972. The only changes in personnel was in the position Chuck held. A new man was trained for the rudder controller. He was a "high time" 104 "jock" and had occupied every position in the QF-104 program. He had also been USAF advisor to JASDF flying their F-104J's.

16 May 1972: This day QF-104 56-741 was used for an unmanned mission. Everything went fine until it had to land again. Then the control was lost on final approach to landing. The QF crashed 2-3 miles short of the runway.

1 June 1972: Sometimes problems occur on the ground on a moment you won't suspect. On June the 1st, QF-104 56-737 returned from an unmanned mission and everything went well during the landing until the QF rolled out of landing. It ran off on the right side of the runway on landing roll, returned to the runway and recovered... It resulted only in minor damage, it could fly again on 16 June.

3 July 1972:
This day is the last day that a QF-104 was lost during the QF-104 program. QF-104 56-737 flew an unmanned mission and was killed by an AIM9J sidewinder missile at 10 M Ft, at 0.95 Mach speed. Chuck's words: "What a sad way to go. It should have been at 50M Ft and 2.2 Mach in a turn. My feelings are that it was a sacrifice just to end the QF-104 program."


At the end of the summer in 1972 the QF-104 drone program had come to an end and the F-104D's were handed over to the Puerto Rice ANG which could use them very well. All of the personnel that were in the QF-104 program were reassigned to other duties and bases. One of the pilots was assigned to the Tactical Air Command (TAC) in F-4's and became the USAF's only ACE in the Vietnam conflict. (Lt. Steve Ritchie).

In total 24 QF-104's have been used by the USAF. Twenty of them were actually killed as targets and 1 crashed while flying a manned mission. The pilot ejected safely. What has happened to the other 3 aircraft is not known but it is very likely that they have been withdrawn from use. In total the drone-flight has accomplished 162 unmanned missions. Most of the QF mission were flown at Eglin AFB. However, some were flown at Holloman AFB (NewMexico) and a small number at Point Mugu NAS in California (for the US NAVY).

The following list shows the QF-104A's that were killed while performing their duties as target a/c. The number behind them are the total flown unmanned sorties for the aircraft.

55-2957 (4), 55-2963 (1), 55-2965 (5), 55-2966 (3), 55-2968 (2), 55-2969 (25), 55-2971 (11),
56-730 (14), 56-734 (11), 56-735 (11), 56-736 (5), 56-737 (21), 56-739 (1), 56-741 (22), 56-743 (2), 56-745 (3), 56-746 (1), 56-747 (11), 56-796 (1), 56-836 (2)

In the summer of 1972 the QF-104 drone-program had stopped.

The QF-104 program, systems and missions.

Most of the QF-104 missions were flown from Eglin AFB, Florida. However, some were flown from Holloman AFB in New Mexico and a small number from Point Magu Naval Air Station in California (US Navy).

Sometimes “manned” missions were flown. Often questions are heard why these missions were flown and the answers are simple:            

1 - This way QF-104’s were flown from Eglin to other locations from where target missions have to be flown.
2 - To maintain pilot and controller proficiency in the QF-104.
3 - To perform a functional check flight (FCF) on the drone system before each unmanned flight.
Every QF could be flown (manned) from take-off to full-stop without the pilot ever touching the controls.
This was done using a control box that was mounted on the top-center of the front instrument panel.

The QF-104A were of course different from the normal 104’s. The most important modifications/changes included (in reality there are a lot more...) :

1 - The QF-104A received anti-skid brakes.
2 - A smoke-generator was applied (JP-4 pumped into the exhaust).
3 - Remote control system to fly the aircraft unmanned.
4 - A day glow paint scheme was applied. It was an “eyecatcher”. Originally the aircraft serial numbers were painted white.
This was unsatisfactory as they were not highly visible against the day glow. For that reason they were changed to black lateron.
5 - A special system which is able to make in flight air-starts remotely. In fact several were successfully made over the years.
6 - Due to the high-rate of stall problems with the GE J79 3A engines the QF was re-powered by the 3B version of this engine. This solved the stall-problems.
7 -
A self-destruction device was mounted on the QF for emergency reasons. This device was remotely controlled
8 - A changed cockpit layout to support all typical QF-104 systems.
9 - Additional gun-bay and case storage fuel tanks.
10 - Optical (5) camera scoring system. Three camera’s were located in the nose radome and 2 could be found inside the left external fuel tank.

QF-104A Smoke generator.

The smoke-generator inside the QF-104 was a needed item used to locate the aircraft visually after a firing mission. It could be actuated by any controller. The system would pump JP-4 into the exhaust at the rate of a 1 second burst every 5 seconds. The smoke was white and highly visible at long distances. This enabled the safety chase and DT-33’s to acquire the QF as soon as possible and to assume control for the landing phase of the missions.

As a side-note Chuck remembers one of the QF-flights. He was flying a QF on a pre-mission FCF and had actuated the smoke. Everybody could determine that it was operating by fuel flow fluctuation. This done, Chuck turned the system off and went about the other tasks at hand. A short time later, he noticed that his fuel quantity was extremely low and decreasing rather rapidly. Being some 70 miles or so from Eglin AFB Chuck declared minimum fuel and made a high speed, steep, straight in final approach. He was well below emergency minimum fuel at touchdown. Not enough for a “go-around”. Maintenance personnel found that the smoke generator had failed in the “on” position which resulted in pumping fuel overboard. Chuck words “Another day in the life of a ZIP jock!”.

When looking into the back of the engine of the QF-104 you would see clearly a little tube (smoke generator tube) bended upwards on the bottom. This tube is located between the bottom positioned primary exhaust nozzle flaps and the secondary exhaust nozzle flaps of the General Electric J79 engine.

Some information from ex crewchief Irving C. Ostrander.

I was a crew chief on DT-33A's that flew the QF-104s in the air. was also part of the recovery crew when the 104 landed and we had to go and put pins in and hook up tow bar to tow into the hanger and after the unit was shut down and ordinance was deactivated. This all took place at Eglin Field 3! My time at Elgin was from Oct 1969 to Apr 1973. I was frozen there because my name was on a list sent to DC that I was on this program!
The QF-104s would take of and land with pilots on a truck at the end of the runway and the DT-33 would pick it up and take it off and fly it in the sky. To land it the DT-33 would bring it in and the pilot at the end of the runway would land it from the top of the truck. The front pilot flew the DT-33 and the back pilot flew the QF-104 when in flight. The DT-33 aircraft used included 53-5910, 5911, 5912 and 54-5207. We always had 4 DT-33s there.
All the QF-104s were spray painted orange and they were all orange when I arrived in 1969. I don’t remember the exact number when I got there it was 4 or 5 I think.
I remember the orange color and those were painted in the Artic Orange of the time. Florida sun can be brutal as they outside not hangered, so, some were weathered more than others. As a side note our F-104 “D” model was painted gray!

The QF-104A aircraft

For more information about the individual QF-104A aircraft please go here.