Photo Report – Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, MM6914

By me
All photos me too unless otherwise stated, copyrighted

While (strictly) military aircraft are not something I usually cover on this blog, after reviewing some of my photos from a recent trip to Italy, I’ve decided I could make a slight exception – just this once :D. Namely, back in mid-November I had the opportunity to visit Thiene Airfield (ICAO: LIDH) in Northern Italy, whereΒ  four colleagues and myself were scheduled to take the standard “ICAO English Proficiency” test required for the issue of our CPL licenses. And while the doom, gloom and torrential rain forecast the day before had seemingly precluded any effective outside photography, I’d nevertheless packed my 10-pound camera bag in the hope that I may stumble onto something interesting nonetheless… πŸ™‚

A quaint grass strip situated a few miles north of the historic city of Vicenza, Thiene did indeed have a party piece for me, one I’d homed in on even from the airfield’s access road: a beautifully preserved F-104 Starfighter, the first one I’ve ever seen in person! πŸ™‚ Its air superiority gray blending in perfectly with the dull, low overcast, its fuselage gleaming in the rain, it had immediately grabbed my attention – and after a short round of international diplomacy, the very kind airfield staff had allowed me to get up close and whip out my anti-aircraft Canon :D.

Standing in front of MM6914, it is hard to appreciate and even imagine the impact the Starfighter’s shape had in when it had first flown in 1954. WW2 had ended just nine years ago, propliners were still plying the skies, and even the world’s major air forces still had piston-engine fighters in frontline service… and then, out of nowhere, this needle-sharp, razor-winged jet-propelled missile appears, thundering past at twice the speed of sound and altitudes three times higher than any civil aircraft could reach. In a world still inspired by Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, it wasn’t really hard to see how the 104 got its name :).

After more than half a century, this shape still turns a great many heads. Very, very few aircraft have come close to achieving the sheer look of out-and-out speed the F-104 so beautifully embodies (photo: unknown, from media.moddb.com)

And yet even today, 56 years after its maiden flight, the Starfighter’s stellar performance – pun intended πŸ˜€ – remains impressive. So impressive in fact that the type had – despite all its faults – remained in service until 2004, last flying with the inimitable Italian Air Force. One of these fascinating aircraft is our MM6914, whose full name drags out to Aeritalia F-104S ASA-M Starfighter – or in plain English, a license-built Italian-spec Starfighter that had received a weapons systems upgrade (the ASA-M bit) sometime during its service life :). The most capable of all the Starfighter marks, many of these aircraft had managed to evade the scrapman’s axe and are now adding their bit to the beautiful Italian landscape… πŸ™‚

Quite possibly one of the most distinctive shapes of the Cold War. A short-range - but insanely fast - interceptor, conceptually the F-104 has a lot in common with the Soviet MiG-21, an aircraft designed to do pretty much the same thing. And having now seen both in the metal, I'm tempted to say that the 104 has a more... exciting appearance πŸ™‚

A shape that can hardly fail to set your pulse racing :). Note the extremely short-span anhedral wings: at 6.36 meters from tip to tip, they're almost HALF the span of those on the Cessna 172! Notice also the arrestor hook under the fuselage: though most commonly associated with carrier-based aircraft, it is also a standard feature on many, mainly Western, land-based fighters. With their high approach speeds - 350 km/h / 189 knots in landing configuration on the 104 for example - a brake system failure on landing could very well mean an overrun of the runway and loss of the aircraft (and maybe crew). To protect against this, many dedicated airbases have a system of arrestor cables similar to those seen on carriers, which the stricken aircraft can snag on landing and stop safely. However, given that the runway length available after the wires is much more generous than on a carrier deck, the land-based system is much more gentle on both the airplane and pilot

An unusual, faded-out view for a bit of atmosphere :). Not only the fastest, but also one of the most advanced aircraft of its day, the 104 was often nicknamed "A Missile With A Man In It" on account of its legendary high speed performance and head-snapping acceleration. Less flattering names though had included "Widow Maker" and "Flying Coffin" on account of its absolutely appalling - and equally (in)famous - low-speed handling characteristics. In German service, this - together with too hasty an introduction into service and too basic a training program - had resulted in the loss of a staggering 30% of the fleet and 110 pilots in various air and ground accidents... and yet, at the other end of the scale, the Spanish Air Force had operated 21 examples for seven years without a single loss or accident (which many attribute to the stable weather conditions in Spain, as opposed to the constantly shifting Baltic weather which made the 104 tricky to fly)

You can easily see one of the keys to the 104's incredible speed - there really isn't much in the way of drag or weight to hold it back :).

A view inside from the tailpipe. Like on many single-engined fighters of the era - including its "rival", the MiG-21 - removing the engine from a Starfighter was quite the procedure. Unlike on modern aircraft, where you simply slide the engine out of the airframe, here you have to remove the rear of the fuselage (the joint is marked by the yellow frame) to gain access to the engine mount points and then detach it from the rest of the aircraft

The said engine - a General Electric J79-GE-19 afterburning turbojet - preserved in the hangar of a local flight school, complete with its reheat and exhaust assemblies. Apparently, this is the very engine used by MM6914 πŸ™‚

Hangar decorations to my liking! πŸ˜€ While some hangars have RC models or gliders hanging from the ceiling, this one has a pair of F-104 wingtip tanks :D. Frequently carried due to the aircraft's rather poor range, each tank could hold 1287 l / 333 US gal of fuel, complementing the 3391 l / 876 US gal carried internally. And I must admit that on their own they look a fair bit larger than when mounted on the aircraft πŸ˜€

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