The Manned Missile, the Zipper, the Widow Maker – these are just a few of the names associated with one of the most popular military aircraft to ever have flown. For it was this particular aeroplane of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that lifted the hearts of not only every young boy but also every active military pilot (some actually say they’re all one in the same!). We are of course refering to the Lockheed F-104 STARFIGHTER.
Few military aircraft have had a more controversial career than this particular fighter designed by the Lockheed’s legendary Chief Designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. The F-104 featured a gorgeous design matched with an outstanding level of power and performance for its time. The XF-104 made its maiden flight with Tony LeVier at the controls on the 4th of March 1954 after just two years of development under a requirement that called for a high altitude interceptor with a superior climb rate and high speed. Unfortunatly however, the STARFIGHTER was not initially designed as an all weather dog-fighter or a low level fighter-bomber, both roles being required by NATO members at the time.
The F-104 went on to maintain a very chequered history for reasons that were manifold. On one hand its numerous technical problems (especially in the early years) were further compounded by inadequate pilot and ground crew training, as highlighted by the fact that the German Luftwaffe lost 269 of its 916 STARFIGHTER’s in crashes alone. Its mission profile was later changed to an all-weather fighter-bomber with its new profile necessitating technical modifications that were ironically also partly responsible for such huge losses. On the other hand however, while the One-O-Four was a difficult and unforgiving aeroplane to fly, with an experienced pilot at the controls it was a very effective weapon system. The rest is now history!
Restoration Project: Lockheed CF-104D Starfighter - No. 637 ex 334 Sqn (civil reg: LN-STF).
For more than 30 years, I have been working on the subject of aviation, attending numerous events, following various projects at the national and international levels and documenting them with my camera as well as in written form on my website (www.checksix.de) and in various other aviation magazines. When I learned (from social media) that a STARFIGHTER restoration project was currently underway in Norway I realized immediately that I had to go there to find out more. Together with a friend and colleague we made contact with the restoration team and promptly received an invitation to attend, all in a typically friendly Norwegian style.
Since the F-104 is stationed at an active military base, we also had to apply for access authorization through the Norwegian Embassy, ??which we received without any difficulty within a few days, this also meant nothing could now stop our visit and with a whole sack of questions and joyous expectations we set out on our way to the far north of Norway in the beginning of August 2017. In the run-up to and especially on the way to Bodo we held numerous discussions, which were mainly centered on the following key questions:
Accordingly, we expected the F-104 to be found in one of the Royal Norwegian Air Force large maintenance hangars surrounded by a team of technicians all of whom are in the service of the air force and normally responsible for the smooth operation of the Lockheed-Martin F-16 VIPER aircraft operated from Bodo airbase. The fact that this project had to be financed with public funds with additional sponsorship from industry was also clear to us – well so we thought at least! What awaited us in Norway left us amazed in the true sense of the word with a story that is so fantastic that you could actually write an entire book about it. So let's start with the man who as the initiator and project manager brought the entire project to the life: Helge Andreassen
As a former F-104 pilot, Helge Andreassen together with pilots and former technicians founded the FRIENDS OF STARFIGHTER ASSOCIATION with the goal of bringing the Lockheed F-104 back to airworthy condition. Helge served with the Luftforsvaret (Royal Norwegian Air Force) and, until a few years ago, as a Flight Captain and Instructor Pilot for Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), flying mostly airliners of the Airbus A330/340 series. Helge also worked as a consultant for the National Aviation Authority CAA (located in Bodo). Helge’s strong aviation background and above all his network of contacts has continued to pay off for him and his team over the life of the project. The core of the team consists exclusively of volunteers. Former ground crew members, engine mechanics and technicians together with a few active airmen of the Luftforsvaret whom have been working on 637 for more than ten years. Ever since the F-104 was retired from service two unused shelters within the military confinds of the airport have served as a workshop and operations center for the association (these shelters provide storage for another complete F-104 airframe, a small kitchen, storage space for spare parts and a briefing room that even includes a pilots bar!).
We were particularly impressed by the professionalism that all these volunteers have shown. While many of the members are over the age of sixty, with the oldest being 82 years old, we nevertheless did not get any impression we were listening to some cozy circle of senior citizens. Just by looking at the faces of these volunteers when they are discussing the F-104, for example when talking about upcoming work etc, you can not only see and hear their high standard of professionalism but you can also feel their incredible enthusiam. Following a long briefing and numerous questions regarding the history of the association and its members, we then came to subject of the actual STAR (fighter).
Although One-O-Four with tail number 637 stood in the Bodo aviation museum for 20 years, it is still in surprisingly good condition and after a complete technical check it was revelaed comparatively few parts of the aircraft had to be renewed or replaced. As expected, while numerous seals belonging to the aircraft hydraulic system had to be replaced and pressure tested, the big issue was the fuel tanks. These cannot be easily removed or exchanged on the F-104 as they are firmly integrated into the fuselage structure as well as the wings. If these tanks were porous and thus leaking in any way the project would have started with some considerable technical difficulties. However, during the inspection of the tanks, and to the astonishment of all, it was discovered that they still contained fuel – while this situation was very good for the preservation of the tanks, what was a cause for concern for more than one of the technicians in attendance was the thought of an F-104 was sitting in a museum for 20 years with partially filled fuel tanks - ready for take off!
When asked about the biggest challenge of the entire project, Helge replied that from a technical point of view, the conversion of the old C2 ejection seats to the more modern Martin Baker MB.Mk. 7 type was the biggest issue. These are the same seats as those used in the German STARFIGHTER series (F-104G; TF-104G). Unlike the C2 seats, these seats are Zero/Zero capable, that is a pilot can eject from a stationary aircraft (at zero speed) on the ground (at zero height). According to Helge, the second, and in part much greater, challenge was to obtain approval for the transfer of ownership from the American government authority which regulates the ownership and use of the F-104 to civilian registration in Norway. The US Department of State (DoS) has the upper hand on all such products, especially those of a military nature and incorporatng such technology. The sale of the aircraft and its use without DoS consent would have been illegal and would entail considerable diplomatic involvement. This was a process that lasted almost two years in the case of Norwegian F-104 637 and during this time all work on the aircraft had to be largely suspended. If end user certification had not been provided by the US DoS the entire project would have failed.
Another point was the retrofit of the One-O-Four’s avionics with a state-of-the-art Garmin GPS system as well as new UHF/VHF radio systems. According to Helge, a modern instrumental landing system (ILS) would be a "nice to have". To have this equipment installed is currently the subject of discussion with a final decision yet to be made. A full demilitarization of the aircraft did not have to be carried out with only the radar’s fire control computer being required to be removed. In addition, the relatively weak, old batteries of the One-O-Four were replaced by a similar but more powerful battery of the same type as used in the Lockheed-Martin F-16. The radar itself had to remain in the aircraft for weight compensation, otherwise the center of gravity would move significantly backwards which in turn would have a dangerous effect on the longitudinal stability of the aeroplane.
At the time of our visit, 637 was in its shelter, the rear engine cover was removed and the ORENDA J79-OEL-7 (license built General Electric) turbine was thus freely accessible. During the second and final test flight a small oil leak was discovered (due to a defective seal) in addition the two main generators were to be exchanged with new ones. This gave us the opportunity to see the aircraft in a rare and very interesting state from a technical point of view.
One very important point when operating such a complex machine is of course the supply of spare parts. As the Italian Air Force operated the STARFIGHTER until 2004 there is still a large quantity of original spare parts available. One small but very important detail however is that while 637 is a Canadian produced machine the Italians built their aircraft on their own production lines (made by AerItalia in Torino). However many of the remaining spare parts come from German Luftwaffe storage, and there lies the problem as many of the parts are identical but all have a completely different designation. Thus the German license builders strictly adhered to the US system when designating their spare parts, while the Canadians in turn reinvented the wheel. While this could now simply mean that you just have to compare the part numbers and rename them as necessary, this is not as easy as it seems especially within the military aviation industry where it must be ensured that any part being used is 100% identical. An example of this occurred when replacing the main landing gear struts. Due to the discovery of a hair line crack one of the struts had to be exchanged. While this can be annoying and also expensive, its actually not a big deal - until it was found out that the numbers in the Canadian manual did not correspond with the spare parts numbers from Italy.
Another problem is the availability of type qualified pilots. The society currently has a single pilot who has a valid license to fly the F-104. Major Eskil Amdal, a certified test pilot of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, was at the controls of 637 on the first two test flights. Major Amdal is also involved in the Lockheed-Martin F-35 LIGHTNING II program which does not leave him with enough spare time to support the STARFIGHTER project whenever its necessary. Additionaly, there is no F-104 simulator currently available, an essential requirement for the intensive cockpit training required to operate the type. For this reason a qualified replacement pilot is needed. This is why the association is currently looking for a pilot, who not only lives in close proximity to Bodo, but can also invest enough time towards the project.
So what are the plans for the future? Especially for the international airshow scene an important question arises: When, and more importantly where, will one be able to see and admire the Norwegian F-104 (civil registration LN-STF) on display? First of all the good news: At least two flight demonstrations are planned for the forthcoming airshow season. With a little luck visitors at the Sola Airshow (Norway) and the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) Open Day 2018 at Aalborg (Denmark) can look forward to seeing a flying display of the F-104. There are still some bureaucratic hurdles to overcome but once these are done nothing will stand in the way of its airshow participation.
The not so good news is that airframe of 637 has already logged 2,982 flight hours which means it’s almost at the end of the types maximum service life - According to the manufacturer`s manual the F-104 airframe has only 3,000 hours of flying time before it must be retired from service. As a result the association can complete just 18 more flying hours with this particular airframe! According to current (flight) planning this would be enough to allow for just over two years of operation. In contrast to an active military machine, this aircraft is not flown every day of the week, but only in the Norwegian summer months from May to early September, and at a maximum of five to ten times a year. However, the condition of the airframe is excellent and the prolongation of its life is technically possible. The only question is how much will it cost in effort and what kind of tests for certification will be required. Currently the association is in close contact with the CAA in Bodo regarding this. The relatively low remaining flying hours of the airframe also prevents 637 from taking place at events held at any distance from Bodo. No one wants to waste precious flight time on unnecessarily long arrival and return flights.
Of course, this project would not have been possible or at least significantly more difficult, without the benevolent support of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, especially from 331 Sqn, as well as from various local institutions such as Bodo Airport and the local aviation museum. Nevertheless what has been achieved by this small group of former pilots, technicians and engine mechanics etc is absolutely unique. Financing of this wonderful endeavour is provided by membership fees, some merchandising and public money or sponsoring.
The restoration of 637 at Bodo shows what a small group of like-minded people can achieve with enthusiasm, goal-oriented thinking and a lot of professionalism. Personally, for me visiting Bodo was a great experience - not only because I could see an airworthy STARFIGHTER, but above all because I had the great pleasure of becoming acquainted with Helge and his great team!
Anyone who is interested in the FRIENDS OF STARFIGHTER ASSOCIATION or who would like to support it as a member can check out their website: www.starfighter.no
Robert Kysela / CHK6
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