17 February 1956: Test pilot Herman Richard (“Fish”) Salmon made the first flight of the Lockheed YF-104A service test prototype, Air Force serial number 55-2955 (Lockheed serial number 183-1001). This airplane, the first of seventeen pre-production YF-104As, incorporated many improvements over the XF-104 prototype, the most visible being a longer fuselage.
On 28 February 1956, YF-104A 55-2955 became the first aircraft to reach Mach 2 in level flight.
The YF-104A was later converted to the production standard and redesignated F-104A.
The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter is a single-place, single-engine, Mach 2 interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. The F-104A is 54.77 feet (16.694 meters) long with a wingspan of 21.94 feet (6.687 meters) and overall height of 13.49 feet (4.112 meters). The total wing area is just 196.1 square feet (18.2 square meters). At 25% chord, the wings are swept aft 18° 6′. They have 0° angle of incidence and no twist. The airplane has a very pronounced -10° anhedral. An all-flying stabilator is placed at the top of the airplane’s vertical fin, creating a “T-tail” configuration.
The F-104A had an empty weight of 13,184 pounds (5,980.2 kilograms). The airplane’s gross weight varied from 19,600 pounds to 25,300 pounds, depending on the load of missiles and/or external fuel tanks.
Internal fuel capacity was 896 gallons (3,392 liters). With Sidewinder missiles, the F-104A could carry two external fuel tanks on underwing pylons, for an additional 400 gallons (1,514 liters). If no missiles were carried, two more tanks could be attached to the wing tips, adding another 330 gallons (1,249 liters) of fuel.
The F-104A was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-3B, -11A or -19 engine. The J79 is a single-spool, axial-flow, afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79GE-3B has a continuous power rating of 8,950 pounds of thrust (39.81 kilonewtons) at 7,460 r.p.m. Its Military Power rating is 9,600 pounds (42.70 kilonewtons) (30-minute limit), and 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons) with afterburner (5-minute limit). The engine is 17 feet, 3.2 inches (5.263 meters) long, 2 feet, 8.6 inches (0.828 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,225 pounds (1,463 kilograms).
The F-104A had a maximum speed of 1,150 knots (1,323 miles per hour/2,130 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The Starfighter’s initial rate of climb was 60,395 feet per minute (306.8 meters per second) and its service ceiling was 59,600 feet (18,166 meters).
Armament was one General Electric M61 Vulcan six-barreled revolving cannon with 725 rounds of 20 mm ammunition, firing at a rate of 4,000 rounds per minute. An AIM-9B Sidewinder infrared-homing air-to-air missile could be carried on each wing tip.
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.
While conducting flame-out tests in 55-2955, 25 April 1957, Lockheed engineering test pilot John A. (“Jack”) Simpson, Jr., made a hard landing at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of Edwards Air Force Base. After a bounce, the landing gear collapsed, and the Starfighter skidded off the runway. 55-2955, nick-named Apple Knocker, was damaged beyond repair. “Suitcase” Simpson was not hurt.
2 January 1967: This painting, MiG Sweep, by aviation artist Keith Ferris, depicts “Olds 01” during OPERATION BOLO. The twin-engine all-weather jet fighter, a McDonnell F-4C -21-MC Phantom II, serial number 63-7680, was flown by Colonel Robin Olds, USAF, with First Lieutenant Charles C. Clifton, USAF, as the Weapons System Operator.
In this painting by Keith Ferris, the Phantom is shown inverted as Colonel Olds maneuvers to fire an AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking missile at a North Vietnamese Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 over Hanoi. Robin Olds was the only U.S. Air Force ace with victories in both World War II and Vietnam.
The area around Hanoi, North Vietnam, was the most heavily defended target area ever encountered by the United States Air Force. A combination of radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air guided missiles, and fighter interceptors made every mission very dangerous. Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter bombers were taking heavy losses to the Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PFL fighters. When escorting F-4C Phantoms would try to engage the MiGs, they would return to their bases which were safe from attack under the American rules of engagement.
OPERATION BOLO was a complex plan to lure the ground-controlled MiG 21s into an air battle by having the Phantoms simulate a Thunderchief attack. Colonel Olds led 48 McDonnell F-4Cs of the 8th and 366th Tactical Fighter Wings on the same type of attack that would have been used by the Thunderchiefs, but rather than carrying a full load of bombs, the F-4s were armed with AIM-7E Sparrow radar-guided missiles and AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. (The F-4C was not armed with a gun.)
As the Mach 2+ MiG 21s started coming up through the clouds, their pilots quickly realized that instead of the vulnerable targets of F-105s on a bomb run, they were faced with air superiority fighters.
In the official after action report, Colonel Olds said,
“At the onset of this battle, the MiGs popped up out of the clouds. Unfortunately, the first one to pop through came up at my 6 o’clock position. I think this was more by chance than by design. As it turned out, within the next few moments, many others popped out of the clouds in varying positions around the clock.
“This one was just lucky. He was called out by the second flight that had entered the area, they were looking down on my flight and saw the MiG-21 appear. I broke left, turning just hard enough to throw off his deflection, waiting for my three and four men to slice in on him. At the same time I saw another MiG pop out of the clouds in a wide turn about my 11 o’clock position, a mile and a half away. I went after him and ignored the one behind me. I fired missiles at him just as he disappeared into the clouds.
“I’d seen another pop out in my 10 o’clock position, going from my right to left; in other words, just about across the circle from me. When the first MiG I fired at disappeared, I slammed full afterburner and pulled in hard to gain position on this second MiG. I pulled the nose up high about 45 degrees, inside his circle. Mind you, he was turning around to the left so I pulled the nose up high and rolled to the right. This is known as a vector roll. I got on top of him and half upside down, hung there, and waited for him to complete more of his turn and I timed it so that as I continued to roll down behind him, I’d be about 20 degrees angle off and about 4,500 to 5,000 feet behind him. That’s exactly what happened. Frankly, I’m not sure he ever saw me. When I got down low and behind, and he was outlined by the sun against a brilliant blue sky, I let him have two Sidewinders, one of which hit and blew his right wing off”
—Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Page 39.
The F-4Cs succeeded in shooting down seven Mig-21s, with another two probably destroyed. This accounted for about half of the VPAF’s MiG-21 complement.
With another flight crew the Phantom flown by Robin Olds on 2 January 1967, McDonnell F-4C-21-MC 63-7680, shot down a MiG 17 on 13 May 1967. It was itself shot down by antiaircraft fire while attacking a SAM site, 20 November 1967. The Weapons System Officer, 1st Lieutenant James L. Badley, bailed out and was rescued, but the pilot, Captain John M. Martin, was not seen to leave the aircraft and is listed as Missing in Action.
26 April 1966: Major Paul J. Gilmore, aircraft commander, and First Lieutenant William T. Smith, pilot, flying McDonnell F-4C-23-MC Phantom II 64-0752, shot down the first Vietnam People’s Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 of the Vietnam War.
“. . . on 26 April, Maj. Paul J. Gilmore, in the front seat of the lead F-4C, and 1st Lt. William T. Smith in the back, downed the first MiG-21 of the war. They were part of a flight of three F-4s flying escort for two RB-66s. Launching from Da Nang, they rendezvoused with the RB-66s and proceeded north to the Red River, where one RB-66 and one F-4 split off for a separate mission. Gilmore, flying the other F-4, and the other RB-66 proceeded north east of Hanoi. Almost at once they spotted two or three MiGs coming high in the 2 o’clock position and closing rapidly. Gilmore and his wingman jettisoned their external tanks, lit their afterburners, and broke into a hard left descending turn while the RB-66 departed the area.
“Gilmore pulled out of his vertical reversal at 12,000 feet[3,657.6 meters], with his wingman flying a tight wing position. They pulled up after the MiGs, which were in afterburner, heading northwest at 30,000 feet[9,144 meters].
“The second MiG was descending very slowly, trailing white vapor toward the east. The F-4 aircrews lost sight of this aircraft as they closed rapidly on the first, which was making gentle clearing turns as he climbed away. Gilmore had several boresight lock-ons but was out of range for a good Sparrow shot. At a range of 3,000 feet [915 meters], Gilmore fired one Sidewinder with a good tone; he then maneuvered to the left to gain more separation and as a result did not see his first missile track.
“Later, Gilmore reported that he had not realized that he had scored a victory with his first missile: ‘My wingman, flying cover for me, told me later the MiG pilot had ejected after I fired the first missile. I didn’t realize I’d hit him the first time. My wingman wondered why I kept after him as I had hit him the first time and the pilot ejected.’ Because of radio difficulties, his wingman could not inform Gilmore of his success.
“After his maneuver to gain separation, Gilmore pulled up behind the pilotless MiG-21 again and fired another Sidewinder without effect. He again rolled left, pulled up, and fired his third Sidewinder at a range of 3,000 feet. ‘After missing [he thought] twice,’ Gilmore later told a newsman, ‘I was quite disgusted. I started talking to myself. Then I got my gunsights on him and fired a third time. I observed the missile go directly in his tailpipe and explode his tail.’
“The two F-4 aircrews then descended to watch the debris impact. As Gilmore commenced his pull-up he spotted another MiG-21 tracking his wingman and called for a defensive split. He broke to the left and down while his wingman broke to the right and up.
“When Gilmore emerged from the roll, he sighted the MiG ahead, in afterburner and climbing away. He rolled in behind this aircraft and climbed in afterburner until he was directly behind. He fired his fourth Sidewinder, but the range was too short and the missile passed over the MiG’s left wing. Because of low fuel reserves, both F-4s then left the battle area. The 6-minute aerial battle was Gilmore’s first encounter with an enemy plane ‘after twelve years in the tactical fighter business.’ “
—Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 27–29.
According to Vietnam Peoples’ Air Force records, a fighter was lost 26 April 1966, though it is described as a MiG-17. The pilot, First Lieutenant Tràn Vặn Triém, ejected after being hit by friendly fire.
The Phantom II flown by Gilmore and Smith on that date was written off 6 August 1967.
7 April 1961: Boeing B-52B-30-BO Stratofortress 53-380, assigned to the 95th Bombardment Wing and named Ciudad Juarez, departed Biggs Air Force Base, El Paso, Texas on a training mission. The aircraft commander was Captain Donald C. Blodgett.
The flight took Ciudad Juarez over New Mexico where they were intercepted by a flight of two North American F-100A Super Sabres of the New Mexico Air National Guard, also on a training flight.
Captain Dale Dodd and 1st Lieutenant James W. van Scyoc had departed Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Each of their Super Sabres were armed with two GAR-8 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles (later redesignated AIM-9B Sidewinder). Their assignment was to practice ground-controlled intercepts of the B-52.
Each F-100 made five passes at the B-52, flying at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) over central New Mexico. Their Sidewinder infrared-seeking sensors would lock on to the heat of the B-52’s engines and give an audible signal to the fighter pilot that the target had been acquired. Safety precautions required that a circuit breaker be pulled and a firing switch be left in the off position. Before each pass, ground controllers had the pilots verify that the missiles were safed.
As the training session came to an end, Lieutenant van Scyoc, flying F-100A-20-NA Super Sabre 53-1662, announced, “OK, Wing, one more run then we’ll go home.” The seeker heads of his Sidewinders locked on to the B-52, but then one of the missiles fired.
Van Scyoc radioed, “Look out! One of my missiles is loose!” Captain Blodgett heard the warning, but before he could begin evasive maneuvering, the Sidewinder impacted the inboard engine nacelle under the bomber’s left wing, blowing the wing completely off. The B-52 immediately rolled over and went into a spin. 52-380 disappeared into the clouds 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) below.
The co-pilot of Ciudad Juarez, Captain Ray C. Obel, immediately ejected. His ejection seat was thrown through a hatch opening in the cockpit ceiling. Because of the high altitude, this sudden opening in the fuselage resulted in explosive decompression. The crew chief, Staff Sergeant Manuel A. Mieras, had been standing on a crew ladder behind the pilots which led to the lower deck where the navigator and bombardier were located. Sergeant Mieras was sucked up through the hatch. His left leg was so badly injured that it later had to amputated.
Captain Blodgett was pinned against the cockpit side by the g forces of the rapidly spinning bomber. He later reported:
“I heard van Scyoc call “Look out! My missile’s fired.” We were on autopilot and I grabbed the controls just as the missile hit. There was a tremendous shudder and the aircraft banked left steeply. Electrical equipment in the right side of the cockpit caught fire. My copilot ejected with the aircraft in a 90° bank and in all the confusion I didn’t realize he had gone. I tried to reach the alarm bell control between the two seats to order the crew to bail out, while holding the controls with my left hand to maintain full right aileron and rudder. I didn’t realize the wing had gone and the aircraft wasn’t responding at all; it began to spin down into the clouds and I still wasn’t sure that I had hit the alarm. Later, my crew chief said he had seen the red light flashing as he sat on the steps to the lower cabin. With g-forces building up tremendously, pinning me to my seat I could not raise my right hand from its position near the bail-out alarm but could move it sideways to the ejection handle. The hatch fired and the seat threw me up fifty feet with the B-52 at 600 knots. The slipstream tore off my helmet as I left the aircraft. There was another explosion and I went through a ball of fire — it felt like being in an oven. Immediately after that I went through a “bath” of JP-4 fuel as the fuel tanks had broken up in this second explosion. At least this put out the fire but now I was soaking wet with fuel and still on the ejection seat. Assuming a seat malfunction (they told me afterwards I was holding on to it) I reached out to unfasten the lap belt when suddenly I flew out of the seat. However, the inter-phone cord wrapped around my leg so now I was going down through the clouds with a 650 pound seat hooked to my leg. I thought it would rip my leg off and I managed to claw the cord free. By now I was falling in a cloud of debris — and a blizzard. I released my survival gear pack, which also automatically released the survival raft. This was suspended about 40 feet below me and, with all the updrafts in the clouds due to the bad weather it acted like a sail, pulling me round in a 180° arc. I thought, ‘If I hit the ground sideways, this is it!’ I couldn’t get to my knife to cut it free but I soon got out of the turbulence and began to fall straight.
“When I ejected, my left arm hit the hatch putting a big gash in it. The blood was pouring out of this and I was holding this with my right hand, trying to stop the bleeding. Suddenly I saw something white and I hit the ground in a downswing of the parachute and a 30 knot wind. It felt like jumping off a two-story building. I hit so hard that everything in my survival kit: the radio, mirrors, etc., was broken apart from the survival rifle. My original intentions were to get the radio going and tell that fighter pilot what I thought of him. . . .”
Ciudad Juarez impacted on Mount Taylor, an 11,305 foot (3,446 meter) stratovolcano northeast of Grants, New Mexico, and left a crater 75 feet (23 meters) deep. Captain Peter J. Gineris, navigator, Captain Stephen C. Carter, bombardier, and 1st Lieutenant Glenn V. Blair, electronic countermeasures, did not escape.
Captain Blodgett suffered a fractured pelvis, Captain Obel, a broken back. The tail gunner, Staff Sergeant Ray A. Singleton, was badly burned.
Sergeant Singleton located Captain Blodgett and they were both rescued by helicopter later that day. It would be two days before Captain Obel and Sergeant Mieras were located.
An investigation determined that moisture condensation inside a worn electrical plug had caused a short circuit which fired the Sidewinder. Lieutenant van Scyoc was completely exonerated of any blame for the accident.
The AIM-9B Sidewinder was the first production version of the Raytheon Sidewinder 1A. It was 9 feet, 3.5 inches (2.832 meters) long with a diameter of 5 inches (12.7 centimeters). The span of the fins was 1 foot, 10 inches (55.9 centimeters). The AIM-9B weighed 155 pounds (70.3 kilograms). The missile was powered by a Thiokol Mk. 17 rocket engine which produced 4,000 pounds of thrust for 2.2 seconds. It could achieve a speed of Mach 1.7 over its launch speed, or about Mach 2.5. The maximum range was 2.9 miles (4.82 kilometers). It carried a 10 pound (4.54 kilogram) blast fragmentation warhead with an infrared detonator. The lethal range was approximately 30 feet (9.1 meters).
The Sidewinder is named after a species of rattlesnake, Crotalus cerastes, a pit viper common in the southwest United States and northern Mexico. The snake uses a heat-sensing organ on top of its head to hunt.