Starfighter with Germany

Last revised December 27, 2007

The Luftwaffe was the primary user of the Starfighter, operating over thirty-five percent of all F-104s built. Luftwaffe F-104Gs came from all five production lines of the Starfighter consortium. The West German Luftwaffe received a total of 915 Starfighters (30 F-104Fs, 96 F-104Gs, and 136 TF-104Gs from Lockheed, 255 F/RF-104Gs from the North Group, 210 F-104Gs from the South Group, 88 F-104Gs from the West Group, 50 F/RF-104Gs from the Italian Group, plus 50 replacement F-104Gs from MBB to replace some of those lost in crashes).

At their peak in the mid-1970s, Starfighters equipped five nuclear-armed Luftwaffe fighter-bomber wings, two interceptor wings, and two reconnaissance wings. In addition, two attack wings of the Marineflieger (Federal German Navy) were equipped with Starfighters

The first German Starfighters were the Lockheed-built two-seat F-104Fs which were initially used in the USA to train German instructors. At that time, the F-104Fs were painted with standard USAF insignia and carried USAF serial numbers. These machines were then handed over to Waffenschule 10, which was based at Norvenich in Germany. After handover, they were repainted in Luftwaffe insignia and assigned German serial numbers. They began converting pilots for JBG31 in July of 1960.

The first operational unit to be equipped with the F-104G was Jagdbombergeschwader 31 "Boelcke" (JBG31), also based at Norvenich. JBG31 became fully operational in 1963. Other Jagdbombergeschwadern (fighter-bomber wings) to receive the F-104G were JBG32 at Lechfeld, JBG33 at Buchel, JBG34 at Memmingen, and JBG36 at Rheine-Hopsten. Two fighter wings (Jagdgeschwadern) received the F-104G--JG71 at Wittmundhafen and JG74 at Neuburg. Two Aufklarungsgeschwadern (reconnaissance wings) received the F-104G-- AKG51 at Ingoldstadt/Manching and AKG52 at Leck. In addition, two Marininefliegergeschwasedern of the Bundesmarine (West German Navy) received F-104Gs. These were MFG1 at Schleswig and MFG2 at Eggebeck. They operated in the armed reconnaissance and anti-shipping strike roles.

With new aircraft being delivered almost daily to the new Luftwaffe, a massive pilot training was required in order to get them into service quickly. Northern European weather and operational restrictions placed severe limitations on the amount of training that could be done in Germany. The immediate answer was to set up a Luftwaffe training operation in the southwestern United States, where there was a lot of space, where the air was clear, and where the weather was good most of the time. Many Luftwaffe Starfighters remained in the United States and were stationed at Luke AFB in Arizona for pilot training. They were assigned to the 4512th, 4518th, and 4443rd Combat Crew Training Squadrons of the USAF. Although remaining Luftwaffe property, these aircraft carried USAF insignia and were assigned USAF serial numbers. Final F-104G training for the European environment was done at Waffenschule 10 at Jever.

In Luftwaffe service, the F-104G got a bad reputation because of the large number of accidents, many of them resulting in fatalities. Intensive flying operations with the Starfighter did not start in Germany until 1961, when only two crashes took place. There were seven crashes in 1962, 12 in 1964, and 28 in 1965, or more than two a month. By mid-1966, 61 German Starfighters had crashed, with a loss of 35 pilots. At the height of the crisis, the Starfighter accident rate peaked at 139 per 100,000 flying hours. As a result, the German press went into a feeding frenzy and the F-104G was given derogatory nicknames such as the "Flying Coffin" or the "Widowmaker", which brings to mind all of the flak that surrounded the Martin B-26 Marauder during World War 2. One running joke at the time was that if you waited long enough, just about every square mile of Germany would have a Starfighter crash onto it. The press left many people with the impression that there was something intrinsically wrong with the F-104G, that it was just too difficult an airplane to fly for the new and relatively inexperienced Luftwaffe pilots. The high loss rate generated a flurry of criticism of the Bonn government, some critics claiming that the entire Starfighter program had been politically-motivated and should be cancelled outright.

During its period of service with the German armed forces, about 270 German Starfighters were lost in accidents, just under 30 percent of the total force. About 110 pilots were killed. However, the attrition rate in German service was not all that much greater than that of the F-104 in service with several other air forces, including the United States Air Force. Canada had the unenviable record of losing over 50 percent of its 200 single-seat CF-104s in flying accidents. The loss rate of Luftwaffe Starfighters was not all that extraordinary, since the Luftwaffe had suffered a 36 percent attrition rate with the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, the Starfighter's immediate predecessor. There was nothing intrinsically dangerous about the Starfighter, since the Royal Norwegian Air Force operating identical F-104Gs suffered only six losses in 56,000 flying hours, and the Spanish Air Force lost not a single one of its Starfighters to accidents.

Nevertheless, some of the Luftwaffe crashes could indeed be traced to technical problems with the F-104G itself. Engine problems, including difficulties with the J79's variable afterburner nozzle, and contamination of the Starfighter's liquid oxygen system causing loss of consciousness of the pilot were listed as contributing factors in some of the accidents. There were also problems with the automatic pitch-up limiter during high-speed low-altitude flying and in tight turns, resulting in its temporary removal, with accompanying restrictions on the maneuverability.

However, the high rate of crashes while in Luftwaffe service could be blamed more on the hazards of flying low-altitude missions at high speeds in the bad weather of Northern Europe than on any intrinsic flaw with the F-104G. Human error was probably the major cause of the majority of the accidents. The Starfighter required 38-45 hours of maintenance for every hour in the air, and many of the Luftwaffe ground crew personnel were conscripts who were probably too hastily trained. In addition, German Starfighter pilots were only flying 13-15 hours a month, compared with the NATO average of about 20 hours. Another factor may have been the fact that the initial training of Luftwaffe aircrews took place in the USA rather than in Germany. The reason given for training Luftwaffe pilots in the USA rather than in Germany was that the clear air and good flying weather in the American Southwest was much more conducive to pilot training than was the often lousy weather of Northern Europe. However, one might fairly point out that were war to break out, the actual fighting would be done in the nasty weather of Europe rather than in the clear desert air of the American West. The sudden transition from the clear desert skies of Arizona to the winter skies of northern Europe may have been another factor in the rash of crashes.

At the height of the Starfighter political crisis in mid-1966, the Luftwaffe chief, General Wernher Panitzki, was forced to resign after he had criticized the FRG's Starfighter procurement program as being politically-motivated. His successor was the World War 2 ace Lieutenant General Johannes Steinhoff, who had flown Me 262 jets during the war. Steinhoff had not initially been a Starfighter booster, and he had complained about the Bonn Defence Ministry's failure to implement the recommendations of his 1964 report on F-104G survival measures. One of Steinhoff's first moves was to review the F-104G's ejection system to enhance the probability of a successful escape by a pilot at low level. The Lockheed C-2 ejection seat initially fitted to the F-104G had been fitted with a more powerful Talley Corp 10100 rocket booster by November 1966 to give it true zero-zero capability. However, it was found that the Talley rockets had a destabilizing effect after ejection, and had to be removed. After the German Starfighter had to be grounded once again for fixes to the C-2 seats in December of 1966, it was decided to switch over to Martin-Baker Mk GQ7A zero-zero ejection seats. A contract was signed on March 8, 1967 to re-equip the entire German F-104G force with the Martin-Baker seats. This took about a year to get done. The first successful use of a GQ7 seat to escape from a German F-104G took place during a ground-level overshoot at Ramstein on September 24, 1968.

Another part of the program to reduce the Starfighter accident rate was the revision of the training techniques and procedures. It soon began to pay off. The Starfighter accident rate dropped by about half in 1968. However, this was only temporary, and between 15 and 20 Starfighters crashed very year between 1968 and 1972. Crashes continued at a rate of 9 to 11 aircraft per year until the early 1980s, when all German F-104Gs began to be replaced by Tornados.

In the nuclear role, the Luftwaffe F-104Gs could carry a single 1-Mt B-43 nuclear store underneath the fuselage on the centerline. A maximum of 250 Luftwaffe Starfighters were committed to NATO's nuclear forces. At the height of the Cold War, each of the fighter-bomber wings maintained a 24-hour force of six nuclear-armed Starfighters on Quick Reaction Alert, fueled and ready to take off within 17 minutes of authorization. I remember some concern being expressed at the time about a German finger being on the nuclear trigger. However, although these nuclear weapons were carried underneath German aircraft, these bombs remained under American control at all times, and could be released for delivery only under a direct order passed down the chain of command from the President of the United States. A typical load of conventional weapons for ground attack included Lepus flare bombs, CBU-33 cluster bombs, various iron bombs and LAU-3A unguided rocket packs.

Some 151 of the F-104Gs were allocated to the Marineflieger of the German Navy, the Bundesmarine. They were assigned to two naval attack wings from 1964 onwards-- Maarinefliegergeschwader (MFG) 1 and 2--replacing the Hawker Sea Hawk. The F-104Gs of the Bundesmarine usually carried a MBB Kormoran antiship missile on each of the inner underwing stores pylons. The Kormoran missile had a range of up to 23 miles. The missile had a 350 pound warhead with 16 radially-mounted projectile charges and fuse delays designed for penetration of ship armor. After launch, the Kormoran used an inertial midcourse guidance in conjunction with a radio altimeter to hold an altitude of less than 100 feet off the wavetops during the approach to the target. The radar seeker in the nose could operate either as an active radar seeker or as a passive receiver. When it found a target it locked onto it, and the impact point was intended to be just above the waterline of the enemy ship in order to ensure maximum damage.

The Luftwaffe became worried about the possible vulnerability of its airfields to Warsaw Pact attacks, and started searching for means of dispersing its Starfighters around the country. Under contract from the Luftwaffe, Lockheed carried out tests with an F-104G launched by rocket from a platform. The Luftwaffe envisaged fleets of nuclear-armed Starfighters being trucked out to the countryside and mounted on pre-positioned ramps. From there, the aircraft would be launched under the power of a huge rocket motor, which would take the Starfighter to flying speed before dropping away. After the mission, recovery would take place at hastily prepared landing strips, perhaps even using the autobahnen, that were equipped with runway arrester gear for short landings. Luftwaffe F-104G DA+102 (the third Lockheed-built Starfighter for the Luftwaffe, assigned to JBG 31) was modified for a series of zero-length launch (ZELL) tests in 1963 at Edwards AFB in California. The F-104G was mounted on a trailer, and a 130,000 lb.s.t. Rocketdyne solid-fuel rocket booster was attached to the rear of the fuselage. For takeoff, the pilot would run up the J79 engine to full thrust, then light the rocket motor. Within four seconds after ignition, the F-104G would be flying at 300 mph and the rocket booster would drop off. The program was not disclosed to the public until March 21, 1966. From 1966, ZELL testing was carried out at Lechfeld, home of JBG 32. Two of the wing's aircraft (DB+127 and DB+128) were assigned to the project. Although tests were successful, the scheme was not adopted for operational use. After the ZELL test program was completed, the test F-104G was returned to service in Germany.

MBB became interested at an early date in highly-maneuverable aircraft. A Fokker-built F-104G (23+91, later renumbered 98+36) was modified by MBB as part of a five-year research program into control-configured vehicle (CCV) and fly-by-wire technologies. Natural stability was was replaced with computer-controlled fly-by-wire systems that allowed the aircraft to be made unstable. This natural unatability could then be controlled to provide extra agility. The aircraft was provided with a triple-redundant fly-by-wire system in 1977. The transition from the naturally-stable Starfighter aerodynamics was taken in gradual stages, first by adding ballast to alter the center of gravity. In 1980, a complete F-104 tailplane section was then grafted to the spine on the upper fuselage forward of the wing to further destabilize the aircraft. Fairings were added over the wings, and the aircraft was marked with extra Dayglo panels for high visibility. 20 percent negative stability was finally achieved within the specified limits of Mach 1.3 and 650 knots by the time the trials were successfully concluded. The data gathered was of great assistance to the design of the EFA and was also used during the development of the Rockwell/MBB X-31 testbed. The F-104CCV was then transferred to the Wehrtechnisches Museum in Koblenz.

The German Starfighters operated by training units in the USA bore full USAF markings and serial numbers, whereas those in Europe were in Luftwafe insignia and carried German serial numbers. Originally, these serials consisted of two letters and three digits.

The serial numbers of German Starfighters were as follows:

On January 1, 1968, the original two letter-three digit serial numbers were replaced by new four-digit serials. Surviving German Starfighters were reserialed as follows:

	KF101/196 --> 20+01/20+84 
	KC101/KC150 --> 20+85/21+32 
	KE301/KE510 --> 21+33/23+26 
	KG101/KG450 --> 23+27/25+55 
	KH106/KH188 --> 25+56/26+37 
	KF201/KF272 and KE201/KE233 -> 27+01/28+35 
	BB360/BB389 --> 29+01/29+21 

In late 1968, the unexpectedly heavy accident rate had led the Federal Defence Ministry to order another 50 F-104G as attrition replacements. The MBB concern built 50 F-104Gs as replacements between the years 1970 and 1973. These 50 planes had uprated J79-MTU-J1K turbojets, rated at 15,950 lb.s.t. maximum. This engine had been developed by MAN Turbo (later MTU), which had taken over J79 license rights from BMW. Their serials were 26+41 through 26+90. This brought overall German Starfighter procurement to 917.

The Starfighter began to be phased out of Luftwaffe service in 1971, when the AKG 51 and AKG 52 reconnaissance squadrons received McDonnell RF-4E Phantoms. JG 71 and JG 74 reequipped with F-4Es in 1973-74, and JBG 36 received Phantoms in 1976. In the Bundesmarine, MFG1 converted to the Panavia Tornado in July of 1982. In 1982, the Luftwaffe training unit at Luke AFB was closed down. By the mid-1980s, most Starfighters were gone from West German service. Most German F-104Gs were transferred to the air forces of Greece, Turkey, and Taiwan. The last Luftwaffe operational unit to operate the F-104G was JBG34, which retired its aircraft at the end of 1987.

Although the last Starfighter had left German front-line service by October of 1987, a few F-104Gs and TF-104Gs remained flying with WTD 61 at Manching for another three years or more on various avionics trials and systems development programs. The last flight of a German Starfighter (26+40) took place from Manching on May 22, 1991.

The following units flew the Starfighter:




  1. The Lockheed F-104G/CF-104, Gerhard Joos, Aircraft in Profile No. 131, Doubleday, 1969.

  2. The World's Great Interceptor Aircraft, Gallery Books, 1989.

  3. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Steve Pace, Motorbooks International, 1992.

  4. Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913, Rene J. Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1987.

  5. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  6. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, John Fricker, Wings of Fame, Vol 2, 1996.

  7. E-mail from Christian Weber on geschwader meaning "wing" rather than "squadron"