7 May 1958: Major Howard C. Johnson, United States Air Force, the operations officer of the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, based at Hamilton Air Force Base, California, zoom-climbed a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, serial number 55-2957, to an altitude of 91,243 feet (27,811 meters) over Edwards Air Force Base, establishing a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) altitude record.¹
Major Johnson was part of a group of engineers and pilots awarded the Robert J. Collier Trophy by the National Aeronautic Association in 1958 for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics” because of their involvement in the Lockheed F-104 program.
Using techniques developed by Lockheed aerodynamicists, Major Johnson climbed to 41,000 feet (12,497 meters) and accelerated to the Starfighter’s maximum speed in level flight. He then started to climb, maintaining a steady 2.5 G load, until he reached the optimum climb angle. A piece of masking tape applied to the side of the cockpit canopy at the predetermined angle gave Johnson a visual reference during his climb. At approximately 77,000 feet (23,470 meters) the F-104’s J79 turbojet engine had to be shut down to prevent overheating in the thin high-altitude atmosphere. The interceptor continued from that point on a ballistic trajectory until it reached the peak altitude. On the descent, the engine was restarted and Johnson flew the Starfighter back to Edwards Air Force Base.
Major Johnson had broken the altitude record set just 17 days earlier by Lieutenant Commander George C. Watkins, U.S. Navy, flying an experimental Grumman F11F-1F Tiger. The Lockheed F-104 beat the Grumman F11F by 4,362 meters (14,311 feet).²
The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a single-place, single engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.
The F-104A was 54 feet, 8 inches (16.662 meters) long with a wingspan of 21 feet, 9 inches (6.629 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 5 inches (4.089 meters). It had an empty weight of 13,184 pounds (5,980.2 kilograms), combat weight of 17,988 pounds (8,159.2 kilograms), gross weight of 22,614 pounds (10,257.5 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 25,840 pounds (11,720.8 kilograms). Internal fuel capacity was 897 gallons (3,395.5 liters).
The F-104A was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-3A engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-3A is rated at 9,600 pounds of thrust (42.70 kilonewtons), and 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 3.5 inches (5.271 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,325 pounds (1,508 kilograms).
The F-104A had a maximum speed of 1,037 miles per hour (1,669 kilometers per hour) at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). Its stall speed was 198 miles per hour (319 kilometers per hour). The Starfighter’s initial rate of climb was 60,395 feet per minute (306.8 meters per second). The combat ceiling was 55,200 feet (16,825 meters) and the service ceiling was 64,795 feet (19,750 meters).
Armament was one General Electric M61 Vulcan six-barreled revolving cannon with 725 rounds of 20 mm ammunition. An AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile could be carried on each wing tip, or a jettisonable fuel tank with a capacity of 141.5 gallons (535.6 liters).
Lockheed built 153 of the F-104A Starfighter initial production version. A total of 2,578 F-104s of all variants were produced by Lockheed and its licensees, Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, MBB, Messerschmitt, Mitsubishi and SABCA. By 1969, the F-104A had been retired from service. The last Starfighter, an Aeritalia-built F-104S ASA/M of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana, was retired in October 2004.
55-2957 had been one of the first group of YF-104A pre-production aircraft. After the flight test program, it and the others were modified to the F-104A production standard.
The record-setting Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was later converted to a QF-104A high-speed drone. It was shot down 8 August 1967.
¹ FAI Record File Number 5056
² FAI Record File Number 8596
© 2017, Bryan R. Swopesby