The F-104A (company designation Model 183-92-02) was the initial production version of the Starfighter. In a contract approved on March 2, 1956, the USAF ordered 146 production F-104As. This brought the total F-104A procurement to 170 aircraft, including the service test YF-104As.
As compared to the service-test YF-104As, production F-104As featured a strengthened airframe that was stressed for 7.33-G maneuvers. An aft-mounted ventral fin was fitted on the centerline to improve directional stability at high speeds and high altitudes. Various flap-blowing boundary layer control systems were fitted. The interim AN/ASG-14T-1 radar fire control system was installed, which was later replaced by the more capable AN/ASG-14T-2 fire control system.
Because of its boundary layer control system, the landing speed of the F-104A was only five percent higher than that of earlier fighters. The boundary layer system operated in connection with the wing flaps. When the flaps passed the fifteen-degree mark during extension, the bleed air valves began to open and reached the fully open position when the flaps are all the way down at 45 degrees. The highly-compressed air needed to operate the system was taken from the 17th compressor stage of the engine and ducted into the wing and out over the upper flap surfaces via a set of slots lined up along the trailing edge flap hinge line. This air flow reduced air turbulence in the boundary layer due to flow separation, thus decreasing the stalling speed and making lower landing speeds possible.
Full-span leading-edge flaps operated in conjunction with the trailing edge flaps for takeoff, landing, and low-speed maneuvering. The aileron system was interconnected with the flap system in such a way that when the flaps were fully up, aileron travel was limited to 65 percent. The entire horizontal stabilizer was pivoted aft of the fin mid-chord line and moved as a single unit. There was no elevator. A speed brakes was located on each side of the aft fuselage.
An automatic pitch control system provided advance warning of an impending stall. As the stall approached, the system energized a stick shaker to warn the pilot. Should the pilot ignore the warning and persist in maintaining the same attitude, the system would automatically apply a forward stick force.
The first 35 F-104As delivered to the USAF were involved in a protracted series of flight tests during which changes and improvements were progressively introduced on successive batches coming off the production line.
The F-104A had originally been scheduled to replace the F-100 Super Sabres of the TAC beginning in 1956. However, by the time that the F-104A was finally ready for delivery, Air Force requirements had changed. The Starfighter's relatively low endurance and its lack of ability to carry a significant offensive weapons load made it no longer suitable for the TAC. Consequently the TAC lost all interest in the F-104A even before it was scheduled to enter service. This might ordinarily have been the end of the line for the F-104A. However, delays in the delivery of the Convair F-106 Delta Dart Mach 2+ interceptor to the Air Defense Command had at that time become worrisome, and the USAF decided to go ahead and accept the F-104As originally destined for the TAC and assign them to the ADC as a stopgap measure. The selection of the F-104A for the ADC was sort of curious, since it had not been originally designed as an interceptor and it lacked an adequate endurance and had no all-weather capability. However, its high climb rate made it attractive to the ADC and it was hoped that the Starfighter could fill in until the F-106 became available.
First to get the F-104A was the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Hamilton AFB in California, which became operational with the type on February 20, 1958. Next to acquire the F-104A were the 56th FIS at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, the 337th FIS at Westover AFB in Massachusetts, and the 538th FIS at Larson AFB in Washington.
The F-104A was initially powered by the J79-GE-3 or -3A turbojet. These engines proved to be quite unreliable in service and were responsible for several crashes and inflight emergencies during testing. Among the engine problems were flameouts, oil depletions, roughness, backfires, and ignition failures. These engine problems resulted in the grounding of all F-104As in April of 1958 after only a few months of service. Most of the failures were traced to problems with the J79's variable afterburner nozzle. When the afterburner was turned on, it would often get stuck in the open position after it was turned off, which restricted engine power to not much above idle thrust, which was insufficient to maintain level flight, forcing the pilot to make a hasty exit from the aircraft. The early F-104As also lacked modulated afterburning, which meant that they could only be operated full on or full off, which effectively meant a level speed choice of either Mach 1 or Mach 2.2.
A more reliable version of the J79, the -3B rated at 9600 lb.s.t. dry and 14,800 lb.s.t. with afterburning, was developed and retrofitted into existing F-104As beginning in April of 1958. The F-104As were returned to flight status in July of 1958. However, the safety record of the F-104A continued to compare unfavorably with other "Century Series" fighters, and crashes remained fairly frequent.
In June of 1958, English Electric test pilot Roland Beaumont test flew an F-104A. He was quite critical of the Starfighter. He found the aircraft to have inadequate directional damping, evidenced by a persistent low-amplitude short-period oscillation throughout most of the flight regime. The use of a thin, highly-loaded wing had a severe adverse effect on the turning maneuverability. There were excessive break-out forces of the power-controlled ailerons. At high angles of attack, the high-set stabilator would tend to stall in the wing downwash, and a departure into a flat spin was often the result. Recovery from such a flat spin was usually possible only if there was sufficient height so that increased engine power could be applied to accelerate the aircraft back into controlled flight. Beaumont found that subsonic handling properties were unpleasant and particularly dangerous in take-off and landing configuration and were not compatible with bad weather operation. He predicted that the F-104 was likely to suffer a high accident rate in operation.
The M61 Vulcan cannon initially fitted to the YF-104A suffered from excessive vibration during firing and from occasional premature detonation of its 20-mm shells. The cannon also had a problem with handling high-G stresses during its early development stages. Things got so bad that on November 1, 1957 the Air Force decided that these cannon should not be installed in any more production F-104As and should be removed from existing F-104As until the problems could be fixed. Consequently, for a long time USAF Starfighters actually served without any cannon armament being installed, relying on the wingtip-mounted Sidewinders as their sole armament. In 1964, after the improved and vastly more reliable M61A1 was made available, the F-104As finally got their full armament.
The first F-104As were fitted with Lockheed-designed downward-firing ejector seats. Lockheed engineers had feared that upward-firing ejections would not be safe at the speeds at which the F-104 would be flying, the seat supposedly being unable to clear the tall vertical tail at such high speeds. Consequently, they opted for a downward-firing ejection system. The system was the first fully-automatic downward-firing ejection system ever employed in a production fighter. When the pilot initiated the ejection sequence by pulling the ejection ring, an automatic sequence of events was initiated. First, the cockpit depressurized and the flight control stick retracted. The parachute shoulder harness then tightened and the pilot's feet were pulled together and clamped into place. The escape hatch was then blown off the bottom of the aircraft and the seat fired, ejecting the pilot out the bottom of the airplane. This system proved to be unsafe in service, since it was useless for emergencies that occurred during landings, takeoffs, or anywhere near the ground. In order to eject safely at low altitudes, the pilot would first have to roll his aircraft inverted and then eject upward out of the bottom of the plane. This was of course not always feasible, and the famous test pilot Iven C. Kincheloe was among 21 F-104 aircrew to be killed by the deficiencies in this escape system. Consequently, the downward ejection system was quite unpopular with F-104A pilots and was replaced in the field by the more conventional Lockheed C-2 upward-firing ejector seat.
A total of 153 F-104As were built in seven production blocks-- F-104A-1-LO to F-104A-30-LO. The last F-104A was delivered in December of 1958. The number built was far less than originally planned. Only 170 F-104As and YF-104As were ultimately acquired out of the 722 originally planned. Shortages of funds due to the needs of other programs accounted for some of the reduction, whereas the decision by TAC not to acquire the F-104A accounted for the rest of the shortfall.
The YF-104A had already set the world altitude and speed records. In December of 1958, an F-104A flown alternately by Lt William T. Smith and Einar K. Enevoldson over a two-day period at NAS Point Mugu, California set several time-to-climb records: 3000 meters (9842 feet) in 41.35 seconds, 6000 meters in 51.41 seconds, 9000 meters in 81.14 seconds, 15,000 meters (49,212 feet) in 131.1 seconds, 20,000 meeters in 222.99 seconds, and 25,000 meters (82,020 feet) in 266.03 seconds.
In October 1958, twelve F-104As of the 83rd FIS at Hamilton AFB were crated and airlifted by C-124 transport to Taiwan, where they served temporarily with the Republic of China Air Force during the Quemoy crisis. The crisis was peacefully resolved, and the aircraft were returned to the USA.
As one might have expected, the F-104A was not very well suited for service as an interceptor. Its low range was a problem for North American air defense, and its lack of all-weather capability made it incapable of operating in conjunction with the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) system. Service with the ADC was consequently quite brief, and the F-104As of the ADC were replaced by the end of 1960 by more heavily-armed all-weather McDonnell F-101B Voodoos and Convair F-106A Delta Darts.
The ADC's F-104As were then transferred in 1960 to three Air National Guard squadrons, the 151st FIS of the Tennessee ANG, the 157th FIS of the South Carolina ANG, and the 197th FIS of the Arizona ANG. These three ANG F-104A squadrons were called up for active duty during the Berlin crisis of 1961 and were deployed to Europe. Following the defusing of the Berlin crisis, these squadrons all returned to the USA by June of 1962 and reverted to state control. However, their F-104As were retained by the USAF and were transferred to two other ADC units, the 319th and 331st FIS at Homestead AFB in Florida as part of the 32nd Air Division. For some odd reason, these two squadrons exchanged their all-weather F-102s and F-106s for these day-only F-104As, which would seem at first sight to make no sense.
These ADC F-104As remained in service for several years. From late 1967, 26 aircraft of the 319th FIS were retrofitted with the more powerful J79-GE-19, rated at 17,900 lb.s.t. with afterburner, which was the same type of engine fitted to the F-104S version developed for Italy. The last USAF squadron to operate the F-104A, the 319th FIS, was disbanded in December of 1969, marking the final end of service of the F-104A with active duty squadrons.
In 1960, after the decision to withdraw the Starfighter from ADC, twenty-four YF-104A and F-104A aircraft (exact ratio uncertain) deemed surplus to USAF requirements were modified as QF-104A radio-controlled target drones. They were painted pillar-box red overall and were operated by the 3205th Drone Squadron at Eglin AFB in Florida. These planes could be flown by onboard pilots or they could be flown by remote control from the ground or from other aircraft. Most of them were expended in missile firing tests.
The unsuitability of the F-104A for air defense duties with the USAF led to the release of some F-104As for export. The air forces of Taiwan, Pakistan, and Jordan were provided with several F-104As from surplus USAF stocks. Most of the other F-104As which had not been lost to attrition or transferred to foreign air forces went to the boneyards at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona.
One F-104A (serial number 56-770) was lent to the Royal Canadian Air Force as the model aircraft for the Canadian version of the Starfighter. Its Canadian serial number was 12700.
Three F-104As (serial numbers 56-756, -760, and -762) were modified as NF-104A aerospace pilot trainers. These will be described more fully in a later article.
Two F-104As (serial numbers 56-734 and 56-749) were transferred to NACA in October of 1957. They served as high-speed chase aircraft. 56-749 crashed in December of 1962. A third F-104A (56-790) was transferred to NASA in December of 1966.
Design work on an unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the Starfighter was begun in November of 1954. The designation was RF-104A, with the company designation being Model 383-93-04. However, a contract for eighteen aircraft (56-939/956) was cancelled in January of 1957 before anything could be completed.
A proposed unarmed two-seat training version of the Starfighter, the TF-104A, was not proceeded with, since the Air Force preferred the combat-capable F-104B.
56-0730/0736 Lockheed F-104A-1-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1018/1024 56-0737/0747 Lockheed F-104A-5-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1025/1035 56-0748/0763 Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1036/1051 56-0764/0788 Lockheed F-104A-15-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1052/1076 56-0789/0825 Lockheed F-104A-20-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1077/1113 56-0826/0877 Lockheed F-104A-25-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1114/1165 56-0878/0882 Lockheed F-104A-30-LO Starfighter c/n 183-1166/1170 56-0939/0956 Cancelled contract for Lockheed RF-104A Starfighter
Engine: One General Electric J79-GE-3A/3B turbojet, 9600 lb.s.t. dry and 14,800 lb.s.t. with afterburning. Performance: Maximum speed 1037 mph at 50,000 feet. Stalling speed 198 mph. Initial climb rate 60,395 feet per minute. Combat ceiling 55,200 feet. Service ceiling was 64,795 feet. Normal range 730 miles. Maximum range with external drop tanks 1400 miles. Fuel: Internal fuel capacity was 897 US gallons, and maximum fuel capacity with two wingtip tanks and two underwing tanks was 1627 US gallons. Dimensions: Wingspan 21 feet 9 inches, length 54 feet 8 inches, height 13 feet 5 inches, wing area 196.1 square feet. Weights: 13,184 pounds empty, 17,988 pounds combat, 22,614 pounds gross, 25,840 pounds maximum takeoff. Armament: Armament consisted of a single 20-mm M61A1 cannon in the fuselage with 725 rounds, plus a pair of wingtip-mounted AIM-9B Sidewinder infrared homing air-to-air missiles. Alternatively, these wingtip shoes could carry a 141.5 or a 166.5 Imp.gall. droptank.