8 June 1966: During a publicity photo formation flight, a Lockheed F-104N Starfighter, N813NA, flown by NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph A. Walker, was caught in the wingtip vortices of the North American Aviation XB-70A-2 Valkyrie, 62-0207, the second prototype Mach 3+ strategic bomber. The Starfighter rolled up and across the Valkyrie. The two airplanes collided, with the F-104 taking off the Valkyrie’s vertical fins, then exploding.
The Valkyrie continued to fly straight and level for 16 seconds before it began to roll inverted. The B-70’s pilot, Alvin S. White, was able to eject, though he was severely injured. Joe Walker and B-70 co-pilot Major Carl S. Cross, United States Air Force, were killed.
Still photographs and motion picture film of the formation were being taken from Clay Lacy’s Gates Lear Jet. The photos were for a General Electric publicity campaign showing U.S. military aircraft that were powered by GE engines. Air Force procedures for requesting and approval of publicity flights were not properly followed and it is likely this flight would not have been approved had they been.
Reportedly, just prior to the collision, Walker radioed, “I’m opposing this mission. It is too turbulent and it has no scientific value.”
25 May 1953: North American Aviation Chief Test Pilot George S. Welch took the YF-100A Super Sabre, U.S. Air Force serial number 52-5754, for its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base. The airplane reached Mach 1.03.
Development of the Super Sabre began with an effort to increase the speed of the F-86D and F-86E Sabre fighters. The wings had more sweep and the airfoil sections were thinner. A much more powerful engine would be needed to achieve supersonic speed in level flight. As design work on the “Sabre 45” proceeded, the airplane evolved to a completely new design. Initially designated XF-100, continued refinements resulted in the first two aircraft being redesignated YF-100A.
The two YF-100As, 52-5754 and 52-5755, were 47 feet, 11¼ inches (14.611 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 7 inches (11.151 meters) and height of 16 feet, 3 inches (4.953 meters). The wings were swept to 45° at 25% chord, and had 0° angle of incidence and 0° dihedral. The ailerons were placed inboard on the wings to eliminate their twisting effects at high speed. The airplane had no flaps. The pre-production prototypes weighed 18,135 pounds (8,226 kilograms) empty, and had a gross weight of 24,789 pounds (11,244 kilograms).
The new air superiority fighter was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp J57-P-7 engine. The J57 was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet which had a 16-stage compressor section (9 low- and 7 high-pressure stages) and a 3-stage turbine (2 high- and 1 low-pressure stages). The J57-P-7 had a Maximum Continuous Power rating of 8,000 pounds of thrust (35.586 kilonewtons) at 5,875 r.p.m., N1, and 9550 r.p.m., N2. The engine’s Military Power rating was 9,700 pounds thrust (43.148 kilonewtons) at 6,275 r.p.m./9,900 r.p.m., for 30 minutes; and 14,800 pounds thrust (65.834 kilonewtons) at 6,275 r.p.m./9,900 r.p.m. with afterburner, limited to five minutes. The engine was 20 feet, 9.7 inches (6.342 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.9 inches (1.014 meters) in diameter, and weighed 5,075 pounds (2,303 kilograms). Later production aircraft used a J57-P-39 engine, which had the same ratings.
The YF-100A had a maximum speed of 660 miles per hour (1,062 kilometers per hour) at 43,350 feet (13,213 meters). The service ceiling was 52,600 feet (16,033 meters). Range with internal fuel was 422 miles (679 kilometers).
During testing, 52-5754 reached Mach 1.44 in a dive. On 29 October 1953, Colonel Frank K. Everest set a world speed record of 1,215.298 kilometers per hour (755.151 miles per hour) with 754.¹
In service with the United States Air Force, the Super Sabre’s mission changed from air superiority fighter to fighter bomber. It was used extensively during the Vietnam War. North American Aviation, Inc., built 2,294 single and tandem-seat Super Sabres between 1954 and 1959.
George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, in Wilmington, Delaware, 10 May 1918. His parents changed his surname to Welch, his mother’s maiden name, so that he would not be effected by the anti-German prejudice that was widespread in America following World War I. He studied mechanical engineering at Purdue, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939.
George S. Welch is best remembered as one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor. He was one of only two fighter pilots to get airborne during the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii, 7 December 1941. Flying a Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, he shot down three Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and one Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. For this action, Lieutenant General H.H. “Hap” Arnold recommended the Medal of Honor, but because Lieutenant Welch had taken off without orders, an officer in his chain of command refused to endorse the nomination. He received the Distinguished Service Cross. During the War, Welch flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra and Lockheed P-38 Lightning on 348 combat missions. He had 16 confirmed aerial victories over Japanese airplanes and rose to the rank of Major.
Suffering from malaria, George Welch was out of combat, and when North American Aviation approached him to test the new P-51H Mustang, General Arnold authorized his resignation. Welch test flew the P-51, FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre. He was killed 12 October 1954 when his F-100A Super Sabre came apart in a 7 G pull up from a Mach 1.5 dive.
17 April 1956: Lockheed Aircraft Corporation rolled out the very first production F-104A Starfighter, 55-2956, at Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. This airplane, one of the original seventeen pre-production YF-104As, incorporated many improvements over the XF-104 prototype, the most visible being a longer fuselage.
Once the configuration was finalized, 55-2956 was the first YF-104A converted to the F-104A production standard. In this photograph, the F-104’s secret engine intakes are covered by false fairings.
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) and its 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.
This Starfighter, 55-2956, was converted to a JF-104A with specialized instrumentation. It was transferred to the U.S. Navy to test AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles at Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) China Lake, approximately 55 miles (88 kilometers) north-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California. 55-2956 was damaged beyond repair when it lost power on takeoff and ran off the runway at Armitage Field, 15 June 1959.
4 March 1954: Lockheed test pilot Anthony W. LeVier takes the prototype XF-104 Starfighter, 53-7786, for its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California. The airplane’s landing gear remained extended throughout the flight, which lasted about twenty minutes.
Designed by the legendary Kelly Johnson, the XF-104 was a prototype Mach 2+ interceptor and was known in the news media of the time as “the missile with a man in it.”
Tony LeVier was a friend of my mother’s family and a frequent visitor to their home in Whittier, California.
There were two Lockheed XF-104 prototypes. Initial flight testing was performed with 083-1001 (USAF serial number 53-7786). The second prototype, 083-1002 (53-7787) was the armament test aircraft. Both were single-seat, single-engine supersonic interceptor prototypes.
The XF-104 was 49 feet, 2 inches (14.986 meters) long with a wingspan of 21 feet, 11 inches (6.680 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 6 inches (4.115 meters). The wings had 10° anhedral. The prototypes had an empty weight of 11,500 pounds (5,216 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 15,700 pounds (7,121 kilograms).
The production aircraft was planned for a General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet but that engine would not be ready soon enough, so both prototypes were designed to use a Buick-built J65-B-3, a licensed version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet engine. The J65-B-3 was a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet with a 13-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. It produced 7,200 pounds of thrust (32.03 kilonewtons) at 8,200 r.p.m. The J65-B-3 was 9 feet, 7.0 inches (2.921 meters) long, 3 feet, 1.5 inches (0.953 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,696 pounds (1,223 kilograms).
On 15 March 1955, XF-104 53-7786 reached a maximum speed of Mach 1.79 (1,181 miles per hour, 1,900 kilometers per hour), at 60,000 feet (18,288 meters).
XF-104 53-7786 was destroyed 11 July 1957 when the vertical fin was ripped off by uncontrollable flutter. The pilot, William C. Park, safely ejected.
Lockheed Martin has an excellent color video of the XF-104 first flight on their web site at:
29 February 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly revealed the existence of the Top Secret Lockheed YF-12A, a Mach 3+ interceptor designed and built by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson’s “Skunk Works.” President Johnson referred to the interceptor as the “A-11.”
Intended as a replacement for Convair’s F-106 Delta Dart, three pre-production YF-12As were built for testing. On 1 May 1965, a YF-12A set a speed record of 2,070.103 miles per hour (3,331.507 kilometers per hour) and reached an altitude of 80,259 ft (24,463 meters).
The reason for President Johnson’s announcement of the existence of the YF-12A prototypes was to conceal the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency’s fleet of Lockheed A-12 Oxcart reconnaissance aircraft based at Groom Lake, Nevada. Any sightings of these aircraft could be attributed to test flights of the YF-12As based at Edwards Air Force Base, 160 miles (258 kilometers) to the southwest.
The YF-12A interceptor is very similar to its A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird stablemates. It a large twin-engine delta wing aircraft, flown by a pilot and weapons system operator. Because of the altitudes that the F-12 operates, the crew wears S901F full-pressure suits produced by the David Clark Company. The A-12 is 101.6 feet (30.97 meters) long with a wingspan of 55.62 feet (16.953 meters) and overall height of 18.45 feet (5.624 meters). It has a zero fuel weight of 54,600 pounds (24,766 kilograms) and a maximum ramp weight of 124,600 pounds (56,518 kilograms). ¹
The YF-12A is powered by two Pratt & Whitney J58 (JT11D-20A) engines. These are single rotor bleed-bypass turbojets with a 9-stage compressor section and 2-stage turbine. They have a static thrust rating of 31,500 pounds (140.118 kilonewtons), each, at Sea Level with afterburning. The J58s use a unique JP-7 fuel.
The YF-12A has a maximum speed of Mach 3.35 (2,232 miles per hour/3,342 kilometers per hour) at 80,000 feet (24,384 meters). The A-12 has a normal operating cruise speed of Mach 3.1. Its maximum operating altitude is 85,000 feet (25,908 meters) and it has a range of 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers). Unlike most fighters, the A-12 has a maximum load factor of 2.5 gs. Its maximum bank angle when above Mach 2.5 is 30°.
The United States Air Force ordered 93 production F-12B aircraft, which would have been armed with three Hughes AIM-47A Falcon air-to-air missiles in enclosed bays in the bottom of the fuselage. However, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara refused to release the funds for the purchase for three consecutive years and eventually the project was cancelled.
The first YF-12A, 60-6934, seen in the top photograph, was extensively damaged by a brake system fire on landing at Edwards AFB, 14 August 1966. It was salvaged and rebuilt as SR-71C 61-7981. The third YF-12A, shown in the photograph below, was lost due to an inflight fire 24 June 1971. The crew safely ejected.
The only existing YF-12A, 60-6935, is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
¹ The Lockheed SR-71A has a length of 107.4 feet (32.74 meters). Wingspan and height are the same. Its zero fuel weight varied from 56,500–60,000+ pounds (25,628–27,216+ kilograms) and the gross weight had a range of approximately 135,000–140,000+ pounds (61,235–63,503+ kilograms).