QF-104A drones – the aircraft

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 take off and landing and inside another aircraft when flying in the sky. The conversion of the (Y)F-104A to QF-104A was approved on 19 Februar 1960 by the USAF. Testing of the QF was conducted during the period of 9 Januar 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 QF-104A aircraft

The individual history of all used drone aircraft can be found inside this chapter (between brackets the number of missions flown as QF) :

55-2957 (4)

After a period of being a JF-104A test aircraft it was converted to QF-104A at Palmdale in 1961. It departed Palmdale on March 10th, arriving at Eglin the next day. From November 1st, that year, the aircraft was selected for drone test operations modifying it to JQF-104A. on July 29th, 1965 its test program had ended and it returned back to the operational drone fleet at Eglin as QF-104A. On 19 July 1967 it 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. The mission went ok and aircraft landed safely at Eglin again. On 8 August 1967 it was shot down as a drone.

55-2963 (1)

In 1961 this aircraft was modified to QF-104A and added to the AFSC section for drone testing at Eglin in September that year and prepared for the first unmanned operations while flown by pilots. On 1 February 1962 it 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 and was the very first QF-104 shoot down.

55-2965 (5)

This ex JF-104A test aircraft was modified to QF-104A at Lockheed Palmdale in 1962. It was however delivered to McClellan AB on July 30th, 1962 where it was put in storage. In July 1964 it was taken out of storage and prepared for drone operations. It was delivered to the 3205th Drone Squadron at Eglin Air Base, November 6th, 1964. They modified it immediately to JQF-104A test drone aircraft for testing new modifications.  On March 1st, 1967 this Starfighter was "killed" as drone by a AIM-4D missile from another jet.

55-2966 (3)

Just as its sister aircraft 2965 also this ex JF-104A test aircraft was modified to QF-104A at Lockheed Palmdale in 1962 and put in storage in July 1962 at McClellan. It arrived at Eglin in March 1965 where it was modified to JQF-104A test drone aircraft. On 21 March 1967 this Starfighter returned base from an unmanned mission. But during the landing the aircraft lost the anti-skid brakes and blew both main tires. The aircraft stopped without any damage and could fly soon again. During an other unmanned flight on 14 June 1967, 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. 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 for the other QF-104s.

55-2968 (2)

This old pre-production aircraft had been in storage since December 1959 when being repaired after it encountered an accident (ARDC)  on May 3rd, 1957. The USAF selected this aircaft to become a drone and it left MASDC storage facility for Lockheed Burbank in July 1960. In November 1960 it was transported to Lockheed Palmdale and then again moved to Burbank in February 1962 where it was modified finally to QF-104A. In April 1962 it arrived at the drone flight at Eglin Air Base. On 14 September 1962 it was lost in the Gulf of Mexico. It happened during its second unmanned flight and seems to be caused by technical problems (likely loss of control).

55-2969 (25)

This General Electric test aircraft had been returned to the USAF in August 1961 and directly transferred to Lockheed Palmdale in September. In February 1962 it was transported to Lockheed Burbank and in August 1962 it arrived at McClellen for IRAN overhaul but also QF-104A modifications and preparations. It was delivered to Eglin on June 11th, 1964. At Eglin it got nickname "Capt Sassey" due to the fact that it"s engine always made a "Sassling" sound. On July 1st, 8th and 14th, 1965, this QF-104A flew similar drone test missions at 35 MFT at a speed of MACH 1.8. All missions went as planned. On the 23rd that same month it repeated this tested mission followed by being a target for a missile shooting exercise. The missile pulled 25 G's while tracking the Starfighter. The Starfighter was avoided and the Starfighter could land again safely.
On September, 28th, 1968 it flew an unmanned drone mission. During this mission it was hit under its left wing by an AIM-9 missile fired by a USAF F-4 Phantom. Gladly the aircraft could be brought/controlled back home and it landed ok. The controller only encountered some trouble controlling the heading on landing. There was no other damage and the aircraft could be repaired.
On January 26th, 1971 the end of this Starfighter was a fact when it was shot down as drone by a AIM-4H missile fired from a USAF F-4E Phantom. This was on its 25th mission.

55-2971 (11)

This ex USAF test aircraft which had sustained a lot of accidents during its career, was selected to become drone in 1960. It arrived at Lockheed Palmdale in November 1960 and was transferred to Burbank for final modifications in February 1962. On April 24th 1964 it was delivered to Eglin as new drone and was added to their operational drone fleet.
Not all the missions flown were "shoot to kill". Many were programmed misses just to check missile tracking capabilities, contact ranges etc. For example July 8th, 1964 when this QF-104A flew such a type of mission. It had 7 missiles fired at but there were no hits.. On December 8th, 1965 it was hit in its engine nozzle area by an AIM-4 missile during an unmanned mission. It 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. On April 26th, 1966 it flew the first socalled "weather penetration" mission for a QF-104, which went as planned. There were no problems. On June 21st, 1966 it became 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. Finally on October 27th, 1966 the aircraft was lost. It was shot down by an AIM-7 missile.

56-730 (14)

Lockheed converted this ex JF-104A to XQF-104A prototype in June 1960 after USAF was interested in a possible drone program. It flew tests at Eglin Air Base in December 1960 and moved back to Lockheed in November 1961. There it was modified back to generic QF-104A drone and transferred back to the 3205th Drone Squadron at Eglin Air Base in October 1962.
On June 6th, 1963 this QF-104A toke off for a mission but during this take-off it lost its canopy. The aircraft could be recovered and was ok. A few days later, June 10th, it encountered a barrier engagement on landing.
On May 17th, 1967 the aircraft toke off for an unmanned mission. During the take-off the doors failed to close. The controller re-cycled the gear and tried to close the doors again, which succeeded. The aircraft went on and flew a good mission.
On October 26th, 1967 it was lost while it 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 a correctly operating destruct package.

56-733 (?)

In August 1967, after modifications and overhaul at McClellan, it was delivered to Eglin Air Force Base as QF-104A. On May 31st, 1968 this Starfighter encountered a severe class A landing accident at Eglin AFB but they thought it could be repaired soon again. In October 1968 it was brought over to Wright Patterson (Lockheed detachement) for repair but it was damaged more than expected and transferred to the Lockheed facilities at Palmdale. There the damage was estimated as too severe (structural damage) and the airframe went into storage and lateron withdrawn from use. Nowadays it can be found preserved at Tyler Air Base with 83FiS markings.

56-734 (11)

After being used by USAF and NASA for various test programs it ended up with Lockheed Palmdale in January 1961. It received maintenance and upgrades and was converted to QF-104A drone. As QF-104A it was delivered to Eglin Air Force base on June 14th, 1962 and added to the drone flight. While returning from a flight on August 10th, 1962, it engaged the barrier on landing at Eglin. Gladly everything went fine and there was no damage. On September 7th that year it engaged the barrier again and again it did not systain any damage. Then 5 days later it sheared its nose-gear on landing. The damage was minor and aircraft could be repaired soon. On February 6th, 1963 the aircraft engaged (again) the barrier on landing. The aircraft did not brake and did not pull out its dragchute. This could have been the result of a failure of "weight on nose gear switch" mal-function. The aircraft could however fly again soon. Finally on August 1st, 1963 the aircraft was shot down as umanned drone, by a BOMARC missile.

56-735 (11)

After manufacturing in January 1957 this Starfighter stayed with Lockheed to test new updates and versions. When there was no need anymore to keep this aircraft it was modified to QF-104A drone in September 1961 and delivered to Eglin AFB. With the 3205th Drone Squadron, on one of its missions in May 9th, 1963 this aircraft made a bad landing damaging its nose gear. Gladly it could be repaired. In February 1964 it returned back to service at Eglin. On September 2nd, 1964 it engaged the barrier on landing after it did not brake and did not pull its dragchute. The aircraft was made fly-worthy again soon after some repair. Finally the aircraft was shot down as drone when on June 17th, 1965, by an AIM-7 missile which was shot from a US-NAVY F-4 Phantom. It was completely destroyed.

56-736 (5)

After being used by the US Navy at China Lake for two years and subsequent MASDC storage period it went to Lockheed Palmdale in November 1960 for maintenance and upgrades and to Lockheed Burbank in February 1962 for QF-104A drone conversion. In April 1962 it was delivered to Eglin AFB for drone operations. On its 5th unmanned flight, on October 4th, 1962, this drone was shot down by a missile during a shooting exercise.

56-737 (21)

After a period of being used as test aircraft with the USAF and missile firing by US Navy at China Lake, this aircraft arrived with Lockheed, Burbank for QF-104A conversion in June 1960. It was used for a lot of drone test missions for many years at Eglin from around November 1961. Ten years after delivery, on May 4th, 1971 this aircraft flew an unmanned mission at 19m feet and 1.1 Mach. Again a 72 degree bank was flown at missile firing. After this mission it made a bad landing which resulted in a bent nose gear axle. On June 25th, 1971 it was hit by an AIM-9 sidewinder missile. The drone was damaged in the right rear fuselage resulting in a fairly large hole in the side. The controller had some trouble controlling the heading on final approach but at the end he was able to land the aircraft safely. Of course there was a lot of repair neccesary to get it back in operation. A year later, after repair, on June the 1st, 1972, it returned from an unmanned mission and everything went well during the landing until it entered the end of the runway. It ran off to the right side of the runway and returned back on the runway and could continue taxying to the flightline. It resulted only in minor damage, it could fly again on June, 16th.
Finally on July 3rd, 1972, the aircraft was lost when it was shot down by an AIM9J sidewinder missile at 10 M Ft, at 0.95 Mach speed from an other fighter. It was the last day that a QF-104 was lost during the QF-104 drone program.

56-739 (1)

After a long period of being used as test aircraft and even being hired by Convair as chase-plane during testflights of their aircraft, it arrived at Lockheed, Burbank in March 1959 and selected to be modified into XQF-104A drone prototype aircraft. The test-episode for this XQF-104A, which started Januar 9th, came to an end on October 16th, 1961. The aircraft was also used for illustrations inside the manual "T.O. 1F-104(Q)A-1". In May 1963 it was added to the operational drone fleet at Eglin as standard QF-104A drone. On October 8th, 1963 it was lost when it was "killed" by a GAR-2B missile shot by an other aircraft. The Starfighter was completely destroyed.

56-741 (22)

In May 1957, after manufacturing, it was added to the Lockheed test facility for own factory testing. This ended in May 1959 when it was transferred to McClellan for maintenance. From September 1959 it flew as testaircraft for engine manufacturer General Electric until January 1960. After some months being stored at MASDC it was selected to become a QF-104A drone. Conversion at Lockheed finished November 30th, 1961 and next month it was delivered to Eglin AFB. One of the unmanned succesfull missions was flown for example on July 24th, 1968 when it flew at 1.3 Mach at 30m feet. An other example was an unmanned flight on April 24th, 1971. Now it flew at 1.28 Mach at 24m feet when the plan was to shoot it down. It was in a 72 degree bank turn at the moment of missile firing. It survived and returned base where it engaged the barrier at 80 Kts on landing.
Sadly on May 16th, 1972, the controller lost control of the aircraft on landing back at Eglin after a test mission. On final approach it crashed 2-3 miles short of the runway and was destroyed.

56-743 (2)

This Starfighter was one of a number of Starfighter being used at Edwards for verious test and chase flight (X15) duties in the early days. In April 1960 its duty ended and it arrived at Lockheed Palmdale to be converted to QF-104A drone. First used for testing the QF electronics by Lockheed at Palmdale it finally arrived at Eglin AFB in November 1967. On 31 May 1968 it made its first flight with Capt Russel Keeling. On September 25th, 1968 the 56-743 flew a low altitude unmanned drone 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 and was completely destroyed.

56-744 (?)

This Starfighter was used for the same purposes as sister aircraft 56-743 (above) until also this aircraft was delivered at Eglin AFB as drone, this time in October 1967. In January 1968 this 56-744 was involved in an accident, as drone, according USAF lists. It could have been shot down but also could have been lost in operation as drone (being uncontrollable or due to an other technical failure).

56-745 (3)

This Starfighter stayed with Lockheed after being produced and has been used for verious testing like static testing, wind tunnel testing and steep-approach testing (at NAS Moffett Field by NASA).  In October 1960 it was given back to the USAF and being converted to QF-104A drone. One year later, October 1961, it was delivered to Eglin. It was the first QF-104A which was lost by the Eglin based drone flight. It was January 17th, 1962 when this 56-745 encountered an elevator malfunction and crashed on take off. The aircraft was completely destroyed. In total the aircraft had registered 2 unmanned missions before it has been lost on this 3rd.

56-746 (1)

On March 17th, 1964, aircraft 56-746 was completely destroyed after it was shot down as drone by a BOMARC missile.

56-747 (11)

On March 22nd, 1967 this aircaft enountered quite a moment when it flew a unmanned drone-mission. It was hit by a AIM4-D missile in its nozzle section. The controller had trouble controlling the QF and 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. Although its gear sheared on landing it had survived. It was repaired again and flew 8 more unmanned missions lateron. The last mission took place on July 13th, 1971 when it was shot down as drone was killed by an AIM-4H missile.

56-796 (1)

On December 13th, 1962 this Starfighter sheared its nose-gear on landing, left the run-way, rolled over and burned. This was the end of 56-796 which just returned from its first unmanned flight. It was totally destroyed.

56-836 (2)

On October 3rd, 1963, it made an unmanned drone mission this day on which it was shot down by a GAR-2B missile from another aircraft. It was completely destroyed.

Assistance F-104D aircraft

Up to June 1967 the drone pilots did not have two-seat Starfighters at Eglin AFB. In late June 1967 two aircraft, 57-1331 and 57-1332, were received from TAC 479th TFW at George AFB. The aircraft kept their camouflage pattern but had some dayglow sprayed marks applied at Eglin.

57-1331 (Eglin ADTC Base-flight)

This aircraft arrived at Eglin for drone base operations (chase flights etc.) late June 1967. At the end of the summer in 1972, when the QF-104 drone program had come to an end, this aircraft was transferred to the Puerto Air National Guard.

57-1332 (Eglin ADTC Base-flight)

This aircraft arrived at Eglin for drone base operations (chase flights etc.) late June 1967. At the end of the summer in 1972, when the QF-104 drone program had come to an end, this aircraft was transferred to the Puerto Air National Guard.

Back to the overall (ZIPPER published) QF-104A drone article by Chuck Dildine.