This story was written by Canadian pilot Al Seitz ca. 1990.
Thanks for sharing by Canadian pilot John Dunlop.

The Lockheed/Canadair CF104/F104G Starfighter gave the RCAF the Fastest Climbing Fighter of its Day.
In sub-zero mid-winter or warm midsummer nights at some farmyards in Alberta or Saskatchewan, or villages in western Europe, the only signs of life might be vertically rising columns of vapour emanating from house and barn. All occupants, human, canine or bovine were enjoying their well-earned hibernation. Into many such pastoral scenes came alien, but not unfamiliar, intrusions. Sounds that began as hints of insane blizzards, rising with incredible speed into ear splitting crescendos, then receding equally swiftly, but with marked changes of tone; disgruntled, blood-thirsty werewolves bemoaning the escape of intended victims. Dogs would surely howl and livestock trample nervously. Farmers and villagers, 'bauers und burghers', probably cursed and muttered in disturbed wakefulness and undoubtedly mental compositions of many letters to local or federal politicians were begun. The disturbances were caused by one or two men encased in roughly eight tons of metal and electronics, plus up to 11,000 Ibs of kerosene. The farms and/or villages were located on the training routes of a banshee officially known as the Starfighter. Anytime over ten or more tons of mass moves at from 750 to 1,000 feet per second, audible evidence of its passage will be very evident to all within earshot.

Through some quaint accident of design the F-I04's engine, the General Electric J-79, emits a sound that is positively supernatural. A high- pitched wailing scream, its tone seems to vary with the angle of the ear to the fore and aft axis of the turbine. It has one thing in common with most jet engines - LOUD! One of the noisy bastards for some years, I learned to fly the 104 at CFB Cold Lake, Alberta. Later I was a member of No. 422 Strike Squadron at Baden Soelingen, West Germany, then back at Cold Lake as an instructor at No. 417 Training Squadron. The vehicle for training, and in squadron service, was the CF-I04 Starfighter. The F-104, designed by Lockheed in the USA, and built in Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan, was flown by more Air Forces in the western world than any other Jet fighter/bomber/reconnaissance aircraft. It is still in use by a number of countries. Many versions exist; air to air interceptor, air/ground attack, nuclear strike, recce, etc. etc..  It has been called the "Missile With A Man In It", the "Wingless Wonder", the "Widow Maker", and many other terms both affectionate and otherwise. It was introduced into the Canadian air works in the early '60s. It is an improbable-looking bird. With its long, streamlined, coke bottle shaped fuselage and the shortest and thinnest wings ever mounted on an operational military aeroplane it seemed more suited to a launching pad than a runway. Like the bumble bee it had so little wing it should not fly. A sailplane it is not, but it is still one of the most impressive looking machines flying.


From the date of the official announcement by the Department of National Defence that the 104 had been selected to replace the F-86 Sabre in our Air Force every "Tiger" in the outfit began manoeuvring for an assignment to its cockpit. It was like announcing that Porches were to be available to a bunch of would be A.J. Foyts who had been tinkering with VW Beetles. Along with the rest I applied at the earliest opportunity. One of the qualifying requirements was at least one tour on other fighter types. i.e. the F-86 Sabre or the CF-IOO "Clunk". All acceptees had at least one or more of those and perhaps instructional tours in training Command. Personally I had about 3,000 hours in Vampire, F-86 and T-33 jet birds at the time. I was fortunate enough to be selected among the fourth group to be checked out in the "Thing". The course in the art of flying the '104 began with something between 75 and 100 hours of ground school to be endured before we got to fly the wingless near aeroplane. It is a complex piece of machinery even by today's standards. The sophistication at that time was not even matched by larger, equally modem aircraft. Fuel, electrical, hydraulic, stability augmentation, automatic pitch control and auto pilot systems; inertial, dead reckoning and radar navigation systems; all had to be understood in all aspects of their usage had to be understood before we were allowed near the flying hardware. Additionally, of course, check lists and emergency procedures had to be committed to memory. The Simulator was invaluable in this phase. The checklist for the ' 104 we used was of the size and thickness of a soft-covered novel. In the Emergency section, 17 items were considered CRITICAL and 21 so called Less Critical. On studying these it was small comfort to read that the final solution to many of them was the word "EJECT"! There are a fair number of warning lights in the cockpit and also a MASTER CAUTION PANEL with a dozen or more lights with captions that illuminate whenever any of the bird's innards feel an illness coming on. Needles to say, full attention is paid to any warning lights. When airborne, the pilot of a single-seat jet fighter rarely finds it practical, or even possible, to consult a printed list of emergency procedures. The real emergencies are usually over, one way or another, before the list can be taken in hand, let alone read. To cite one example, a pilot taking off for a routine Maintenance Test Flight felt and heard his engine explode a second or two after lift-off. Just seconds from eternity, he reacted correctly, and survived. The total time from brakes off, take-off roll, explosion, ejection and to parachute landing was little more than 30 seconds. He was slightly singed by the final fiery self-destruction of his erstwhile conveyance.


Flown by Capts Kelly Kovach, Tom Sweeny and Craig Richmond over Bavaria


Check lists are studied after an emergency to confirm the rightness of your action or yourself, or to a Board of Inquiry if the incident was serious enough. If a pilot has done his homework, he will react as instinctively as a striking cobra. Then, having done all in his power to make up for fallibility of man made gadgetry, he either leaves the bird to its own devices or lands it with or without having expended some perspiration. Either way, he will feel cleansed. A cockpit full of adrenalin is a magnificent destroyer of over confidence. The Big Day finally came; my first flight in the CF-104! Two-seat as well as single-seat versions were available. The first three trips would be in the dual with an instructor riding shotgun. This was a good thing! After that first flight most of us were saying "Hail Marys" for that voice in back. Oh, most of us would like to think that we could have gotten it up and down without bending it, but it would have been a wild ride. You see, very few Canadians pilots had any previous experience with afterburners. To pilots not accustomed to the acceleration of an AB, the take-off performance of the 104 was not just surprising; it had the demoralizing effect of riding a runaway train. That first flight itself? After a month of preparation, strapping, starting it and taxiing were almost anti-climactic. Pre-take-off check was just like in the simulator. Whaddaya know? Now, on the runway, a positive grip on stick and throttle, and let's do it! On the brakes, throttle to full military power, 100% RPM, all vital gauges in the green, and release the brakes. The Starfighter starts a sprightly roll forward ... but as the throttle goes outboard and fully forward she sags as the jet exhaust nozzle opens wide. Then - WHAM! - that conglomeration of metal, fuel and us trembles with energy as a white hot fire ignites in the tailpipe. Inertia slams me back in the seat as the bird leaps forward. There are five engine gauges you are expected to check before reaching the Line Speed Marker, a go-no- go point 2,000 ft. ahead. This is where a pre-computed airspeed must be showing or the take-off aborted ... The cockpit is a blur and I've missed the Marker. I hear the voice in the back...: Line speed OK. Rotate NOW! GEAR UP!" My, he's impatient. "OK, flaps up and watch your attitude. Pull the nose up. Look at the Mach!" Christ! I can't see over the nose now. I missed the Line Speed, the 170K Rotation Speed, the 190K Lift Off and almost the 260K Undercarriage Up speed. Now he's yakking. about Mach. Whereinhell is the ASI? There! We are just nudging supersonic going through 12,000 feet. I pull the nose up to what seems vertical before the speeds begin to bleed back. The voice again: "Remember to level of at 35 thou. You want to lead that about 3,000 feet early." By the time I find the altimeter we are nearing 40,000 feet. The "Man" takes over long enough to pull us out of burner and ease us back down to where we were supposed to be. And had I entertained thoughts of flying this bomb without benefit of dual instruction? Level without AB, the '104 flies very much like any other jet fighter. There is one marked difference, however. Just sub-sonic, at 35,000 feet, this bird can take very little "G" before a gentle airfrarne buffeting begins. Yes, stall warning even though the TAS is over 500K. There really isn't much wing out there. A few turns and other manoeuvres show that while it is somewhat heavy on the controls it is fantastically responsive; a hint of aileron and it is inverted. 360 degrees of roll is completed before the stick can be moved fully to one side. An aileron/rudder limiter is in effect when the gear is up and/or the flaps are not in Land Position. Without this limiter, at high speed, full aileron deflection would rotate this bird at over 700 degrees per second. You can't hardly use that kind of roll rate! We do some stall approaches, and I do mean only STALL APPROACHES. If the '104 is fully stalled the effectiveness of its high-mounted tail plane is considerably reduced by airflow interference of the wing. Some lift from the unstalled fuselage tends to bring the nose up further. Then she tries to walk on her .tail like a Marlin trying to spit out a hook. This is an exotic manoeuvre call "Pitchup", from which it can take up to 35,000 feet to recover. Few pilots intentionally indulge in this kind of excitement. In a stall approach the most important instrument is the Automatic Pitch Control gauge, really an Angle of Attack indicator. It is monitored through the airframe buffeting, Stick Shaker and Kicker. These last two are just what they are called. At a certain angle of attack the APC system sets up a vibration in the control column. At just over five knots above the stall a 70 lb force pops the stick forward. If you argue with the 'kicker' you may tumble through five or six miles of sky whether or not it is available to you. Not unnaturally this device is out of operation in landing configuration. You really wouldn't want the stick to pop out of your hand ten feet up in a minimum speed landing. But you haven't lived until riding in a Dual as passenger seeing the stick blur in final turn. Next on our schedule is a supersonic flight and we proceed to the range area under radar control. Clearance received; I push the throttle to full AB. It lights and the bird lurches forward. I watch the Mach Meter with some fascination. It reaches One. The altimeter and VSI twitch, and we exceed the Speed of Sound! There is a new sensitivity in the' 104. The airframe seems to announce that she is now in the milieu for which she was designed. Acceleration is fairly slow until we reach Mach 1.45, then begins increasing more rapidly. The IAS is approaching 700K. This is because the '104D fuselage, with its bulbous double canopy, is now providing sufficient lift for level flight and the wings are approaching a negative angle of attack. The tip tanks are not stressed for this. The single-seater with its smaller hood does not have this limitation. On reaching 1.8, I simply pull the throttle out of burner. Deceleration is brisk but she will remain supersonic for some time at full military power. "I have control. I want to show you some- thing." The instructor takes over and bends her into a fairly hard turn, holding the angle of attack just under the shaker range. It responds quite happily but without AB the speed falls off quick- ly. "Hold the turn", he says. "Watch the Mach and tell me if you notice anything when we get back subsonic." I watch. The needle retreats through One and right now there is a positive stall warning airframe shudder. "If you should ever have occasion to do some violent supersonic maneuvering, remember there is no airframe stall warning above Mach One! You have control." Yeah. The guy at Ground school did say that supersonic airflow breaks away in a clean shock wave, not in rough burbling like ordinary wrecked air. Point taken: supersonic snap rolls are a thrill I can do without. Half to two-thirds of our fuel has been burned up and it is time to return to the roost for a couple of tries at putting her back on the ground. 90% RPM, Take Off Flap setting when speed recedes below Mach .85 and point her back to the circuit. The circuit and landing in the '104 are flown very much like other jet fighters except faster in spots, but unlike landing procedures in most other aircraft. The pattern is joined at the initial point three miles from the approach end of the runway. Over the button the machine is hauled around into variations of a slowing and descend-ing 360 degree turn to landing. There are a number of operational reasons for this type of pattern, not the least being that it is the fastest way to bring down a large number of aircraft, singly or in formation. We hit the Initial at the prescribed 325K, advise the tower and aim down the runway. Now! Over the button, bank and pull three "G". Downwind the speed has bled down to 260K gear speed and down it goes. Abeam of the button at 240K. I select flaps to land position and roll into the base turn. Maintain power and at least 200K in the turn. Should be lined up at least one mile back and 300 feet up. Let the speed bleed back to not less than 170K (for minimum landing weight) and fly her down. "Don't cut power on roundout," the man had said. Speed brakes out and she greases on with a dual squeak of tires and throttle closed. Touch and go; we do it again. Flaps to Take Off position. Speed brakes in. Three zots of forward trim and full Military power. Shed of the majority of parasitic fuel load she doesn't know her burner isn't lit. We're airborne again in less time than it takes to tell it. The next touchdown is a full stop and she touches down smooth as silk. With the drag chute the landing roll isn't too long. Without it, as I found out a number of occasions later, it was much longer; particularly if Land flap was not available. With no flap at all, it was more than a little hairy; final approach speed being 235K and touchdown at 195K. Three dual rides was the normal requirement and first solo was in a single-seater. They gave us clean (no tanks at all) for the first solo, and it is in this mode that we reach Mach 2 for the first time. At 35,000 feet the sensation of speed just isn't there but the ASI is showing over 600K! Some time after the first solo, having been scheduled for general ups and downs flight and having completed the required exercises, I had a goodly amount of fuel remaining. I decided to experiment with that pointy-nosed pursuit ship supersonic at low level. So, into the 4,000 square mile weapons range, and I let down to the trees. In the range area I pushed the throttle into full military power and shortly we were indicating just over 600K! Unable to resist temptation, I opened it to full AB. The '104 didn't care that it was a low level and leapt forward. Below, the trees were a mere blur. Isolated deadheads within half a mile of our path rushed by like fence posts seen from a speeding car. All, but all, my attention was concentrated on the onrushing panorama ahead. I sneaked a peek at the ASI. It read 700K, about Mach 1.13. I happened to glance into the rear view mirrors mounted on the sides of the inside of the windscreen, and saw a foggy or misty trail of cloud behind me. I nearly panicked, and then realized that this was the month of March and the trees were covered with hoar-frost. The shock of our passage was knocking it off those trees. Fearing I would run out of range area, I hauled back on the post into a six "G" pull up. Through 10,000 feet we were still stomping on Professor Mach's Number One. Coming past vertical I eased off backward pressure and just kept myself in positive "G". We rolled out at about 35,000 feet, completing a Roll-Off-The-Top started from the deck!. I just sat there, reveling in sensations, marveling that I was more or less in control of the thing!
The '104 wasn't used as a fighter per se in its early career in the Canadian Air Works but as a Nuclear Strike or Reconnaissance bird. Ergo, most of its flying was at treetop height. While not a fighter in those roles, nap of the earth flying at very high speeds presents the fly boy in question with some of the greatest thrills of his life. It can be among the most exhilarating of human experiences, the lower and faster the better! A trip which cannot be duplicated in any other way! Normally, low flying is an anathema to both military and civilian authority, and violators may suffer extreme penalties. Into this role a large bunch of high-spirited fighter pilots are suddenly inserted. Talk about Cloud Nine! The course on flying the "missile" lasted six months, about 85 hours of flying time, and then it was on to Europe to a Strike or Recce Squadron. Recce was a game which could be HI-Lo-Hi, Hi-Lo-Lo, Lo-Lo-HI, or Lo-Lo-Lo, or whatever was needed to pre-determined targets of military interest. On arrival at these points, photographs were taken and verbal reports made in debriefings after the missions. Nuclear strike was quite a different occupation. Here pilots were assigned specified tactical targets, usually airfields or other military installations. Combat Profile Missions (easily hand held map folders were made up) were planned to strike targets at Specified TOTs (Times on Target) to SECOND of BOMB IMPACT! Navigational and bombing accuracy is easy enough to understand. So is a desperate need for punctuality, if you think about it twice! You see, targets meriting nuclear attention are often in relative proximity to each other. So if you should be early or late in igniting your super-flash bulb you might just vaporize a buddy in the process. Or worse, you might be the unfortunate suffering such a fate yourself! Thereby lessening the overall war effort, cost effectively. Yes! Dead accurate navigation and timing assumed far more importance than ever before in aerial bombardment history. It was much like a Sunday afternoon car rally event. But the penalty for goofing up was a bit more serious.
Canada opted out of the nuclear role in the early '70s. It was too heinous a martial capability for a peace loving country such as us. And the '104s were reconfigured for a conventional weapons role; guns, rockets, iron bombs and so forth. The nuke and recce versions had not been equipped with the 20 mm M-60 Gatling Gun. Air Force authorities feared that suchly armed pilots might jettison their bombs and fight rather than be shot down. Many of us have often wondered at the thought processes of the faceless ones who make such decisions. Some of us have felt that the thinking was of the same kind that dreamed up the Bolton Paul Defiant, a World war II fighter that mounted only a four-gun side and aft firing turret, but no forward firing armament. It could fire only "broadsides" or to the rear. Even the Royal Navy Men o'War could fire forward. The Bf 109s and Fw 190s very quickly proved the fallacy of the Defiant theory. And who were those non-flyers in world War I who refused to consider giving aircrews parachutes for fear they might bale out rather than fight! In the Nuke Strike role, pilots were required to spend 24 hours in QRA, the Quick Reaction Area, every eight or ten days, to be ready to scramble in case the "balloon went up"! This requirement disappeared with the switch to conventional weapons. It was a lot more fun anyway.

Our Starfighters were always called CF-104s, and the identifying number never changed to CB-104 or even CFB-104. Even in the unarmed Strike days, those of us who had flown the F-86, and some ex CF-100 (Clunk) jocks, took occasional runs at anything military we found in the air. We very quickly found that there were damn few fighters or fighter-bombers that couldn't out turn us. The only exceptions were the F-101 Voodoo or F-105 Thunderchief (which almost could). Both had wing and power loadings similar to ours. At very high speeds, Mach 1.45 or higher, we could give a French Mirage a hard time. But not for long! Such speeds require afterburner with its ridiculously high fuel consumption. We had to play those games close to home. Playing ring-around-the-tail-chase with most fighters operating in Europe very quickly found us leading the conga line. Speed, and only speed, could get us out of such war games with any self respect. At that time, in Europe, we were permitted to fly supersonic only above 30,000 feet. However most contests took place below that altitude. Therefore we could only make a pass at a competitor indicating Mach 0.99999 (no AB) and then climb away (with AB). Before the advent of such things as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-18 Hornet nothing could climb with us.
On one given day I was practicing TACAN letdowns and GCA approaches when I spotted a contrail 40 miles away and at over 30,000 feet. So, forgetting letdowns I took a run at it. The setup was perfect. We were doing about Mach 1.97 when passing the two-seat F-100D Super Sabre. I passed within 50 feet of him. I hadn't visualized an overtake speed in the neighborhood of 600K! On passing I pulled up and away to perch for another pass at him. I was looking over my shoulder to position myself when I felt the Stick Shaker vibrate. I glanced into the cockpit. The Mach Meter read just over One, the ASI about 230K and the altimeter showed just over 66,000 feet!. Je-s-sus!  I very gingerly eased down the nose to get to more hospitable altitude, I had learned quite early in my intake of aviation lore that blood boils at altitude in the neighborhood of 63,000 feet. We hadn't been issued moon suits. If that engine quit and pressurization disappeared that aeroplane could kill you just as dead by flying too high as flying it into the ground, which you would ultimately do anyway. I resolved to do a lot more thinking about air combat tactics at very high speeds. Completion of the European tour found me back at Cold Lake instructing tyro pilots in the "Wingless Wonder". This was basically very enjoyable and satisfying work. Of course much of that enjoyment was because, when you instruct on single-seat aircraft, the students are by themselves in their own aeroplanes. However, we did have the two-seat '104Ds, and about 40% of instructional flying was in these; checkouts, radar CPMs, radar bombing, etc. This was also pretty straightforward with a couple of exceptions. The first of these was the demonstration of flap less landings. As previously noted the final approach speed without flaps was 235K with touchdown at not under 195K. The attitude was very nose-high and from the back seat of the '104D we couldn't see the runway until we were over it. Invariably just before touchdown the stick shaker would be chattering like a rattlesnake's alarm. We tried to limit these landings to once per student. The second was the demonstration of a flamed out landing. The '104's glide ratio was about three to one, about half a mile forward for each thousand feet of altitude. She needed 12,000 feet, (15,000 feet was a more realistic figure) for an engine out glide 360 degree turn. These demos were done to show students why they should never try it. You would have to have had your flame-out pretty close to home. Bellying into a pasture just wasn't on. She'd be a ball of fire on touchdown. Yet, when I was in good practise in that kind of demo, had it happened to me I might have tried it; keeping the option open of pulling the handle of course. The only time I did experience engine failure in the bird I was 15 or 20 miles north of Sardinia. I got rather wet and drank half of the very salty Mediterranean as a result of that failure of man-made gadgetry As a matter of interest, salt water in one's lungs is very much like suffering pneumonia, but without the infection. Salt water is also a very effective laxative, I discovered later that afternoon. That wasn't one of my better days; but such an experience can be OK once you're out of the hospital and telling lies at the bar. Another thing about such an adventure is that decision making is easy. You pull the handle or you die!


There is one more thing about punching out of an aircraft. A human being suffers many shocks in a normal lifetime. One of the most welcome which one can experience is the opening shock of a parachute! I don't want to leave an impression that the J- 79 engine was unreliable. It is as dependable as any other jet power plant of its vintage. However, a number of pilots died and more ejected partially because of our low-level role. We lost more '104s to bird strikes than any other single cause. Too, when one is flying at 450 to 600 knots in close proximity to the unyielding Earth, a moment's carelessness or error in judgement can result in contact with our mother planet, disintegrating both aircraft and crew. Our loss ratio was not much different from that of other air forces who used the '104 in low level roles. An unfortunate nickname was occasionally applied to the Starfighter as a result of media hype, The "Widow Maker!" No pilot ever named it that! We simply called it the "One-Oh-Four", Unlike the Brits of the RAF, Canadian military pilots usually referred to our fighters by their American or Canadian "F" numbers. Very few ever spoke of the CF-I 00 as the Canuck or the T-33 as the Silver Star. They were nearly always called by their numbers or as the "Clunk" or "Tee-Bird". But the F-86 Sabre was often called the "Sword". The recce role was slightly more challenging than the nuke strike in that the pilots had more targets available and new ones came available more often. In strike, after you had flown the same route for the umpteenth time, it began to pall. However, non-CPM missions remained interesting. We could pounce on other fighters and play around with aerobatics. As I stated earlier, the '104 performed most aerobatic manoeuvres quite normally. But it might invent some new ones if one was careless. It could be rolled with the thought. Its ailerons were so positive that it could be stopped 30 or 40 times in one multi-point role. Loops were flown normally using take-off flame and after-burner starting at 450K and utilizing eight to ten thousand feet of altitude. Four to six "G" would be pulled starting and finishing. A sloppy, oval shaped loop could be completed starting as low as 325K using about 5,000 feet of altitude. Military power loops could also be done but they were more like a strategic exercise in aircraft handling. A starting speed of 590K, minimum of 10,000 feet of altitude at start and about 12,000 feet would be gained at the top.


The F-104 was a dream to fly in close formation. Its controls were so responsive that even slipstream didn't bother it much and the throttle was such an efficient slow and go lever that relative positional changes of one inch were easy. But it wouldn't have been great for an aerobatic team because the altitude needed for vertical manoeuvres would almost take it out of sight every time. All in all, the CF-I04 Starfighter was a delightful aeroplane to fly. Along with the characteristics outlined, it was also very stable for instrument flight and could be taken down to IFR minima with full confidence. Very few aircraft were as well suited to very low, very fast, flight regardless of turbulence. Having said all that, it may surprise the reader when I add that it really was not a particularly good aircraft. It could do many things well, but none the best! A triumph of design and technology it may have been. But its most outstanding features, the high tailplane and tiny wing were more disadvantageous than beneficial. Even Lockheed tacitly admitted this in their proffered follow-up design, the Lancer. This machine was to have had a much larger, should high wing and low mounted tailplane; but utilizing more or less the same fuselage and engine. Thrustier power plants might have been installed in later developments. But even with the slightly critical remarks of the previous paragraph, it was still about the most exciting aeroplane I was privileged to fly, for about 1,800 hours, and I would dearly love to climb into one again.

Note: Al died in 1992.

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