Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Zipper in The Nav

Anybody who knows me well knows I've got a thing for the Lockheed F-104. My dad gave me a primordial Revell Starfighter kit for Christmas one year (along with the other jets in Revell's "Century Series" gift set) and that planted the seed. A little later, in 1959 to be exact, a flight of F-104As (probably out of Webb AFB, but they could've been from Mars that day) howled their way over our playground at Sheppard AFB during afternoon recess. I'm here to tell you right here and right now that nothing, and I mean nothing, sounds like an F-104 at low speed with the blown flaps and slats in action. It's a primal sound that I may well take to the grave; there's just nothing like it. Talk about leaving an impression on a little kid!

Anyway, so much for why I love the Zipper. Everybody knows all about them, right? They were useless because they used too much gas, didn't have much in the way of weaponry, couldn't turn, didn't have a decent radar, had a killer (literally) ejection seat, and the list goes on and on. All those things are common knowledge and, to one extent or another, all of them are wrong. Take that range thing, for example. The Zip had a greater unrefueled range than the F-4 based on internal fuel only, and presuming the '104 driver could stay out of afterburner after takeoff. The early models were slim on weaponry, it's true, but the advent of the F-104G substantially changed that scenario, and the Canadians operated their CF-104s in the tactical nuclear strike role for years in Northern Europe (and thankfully for all concerned never had to actually use the aircraft in anger). The G also improved the radar and avionics suite beyond recognition, thus adressing that particular bugaboo. The airplane could out-turn almost anything at the supersonic speeds it was originally designed to fight at; that particular capability was a mistake on the part of the designers, but in that one, design-specific environment the F-104 was a world-beater. The downward-firing seat was replaced early in the airplane's production, after the death of a number of pilots proved the notion of a downward-firing seat to be a truly Bad Idea, paticularly when viewed from the perspective that most F-104 accidents occured while the aircraft was low and slow. At the end of the day, though, and with or without qualifiers or apologies, the F-104 was the wrong airplane for the United States Air Force of the day. Lockheed's later development of the airframe, Project Lancer, might have provided the blue suiters with the right airplane but that program was stillborn, an apparent victim of the politics of the day, so we'll never know.

One thing the F-104 could do, though, and could do in spades, was go very fast, which brings us to the purpose of this piece. In the mid-1950s the United States Navy was hip-deep in the development of supersonic fighters for the Fleet, and it went without question that those aircraft would all carry the then-new AIM-9 series of air-to-air missles. Both the F8U Crusader and F4H Phantom II were slated to use the "Sidewinder", but neither airframe was quite ready for service use and the Navy needed a platform with which to acquire experience with supersonic AIM-9 operations. That requirement led directly to the F-104 which had the speed, was already configured for AIM-9 use (with one missile on each wingtip in the air defense role), and was available for test use since it was proving to be a marginal platform for its intended role as an Air Force air superiority fighter and interceptor.

That's how the Navy came to operate the F-104. In 1959 the Air Force bailed a YF-104A (55-2956) and two F-104As (56-0740 and 56-0757) to the Navy Weapons Test Center at China Lake. The aircraft were crewed by USAF pilots on TDY from the 83rd FIS, since they were already trained on the airframe and weapons delivery and were, in theory at least, familiar with the airplane's quirks and coffin corners. Most of the testing took place during 1960 and 1961. Of the three aircraft, only the YF-104A survived the test program (and later became a QF-104A drone); 56-0740 crashed to destruction on 22 September 1960, followed in short order by 56-0757 on 7 April 1961.

The loss of two-thirds of the test force in accidents was perhaps indicative of the service career of the early F-104s, but the program was a success in that the Navy was able to obtain the first-hand data they required for high-Mach operations with the AIM-9. The Starfighter experience made things a little easier when first the F8U, and then the F-4H, were introduced to the Fleet.

The photographs you see before you are all of the aircraft assigned to the test program. All still carry their Air Force serial numbers, but note that they've been reconfigured to reflect Navy practice of the era (including a BuNo presentation on the rear fuselage in the case of 0740, and probably the other two as well). Paint is standard for the F-104A right down to the white upper wing surfaces, but with certain anomalies; note the ejection seat panel on 0740 and the way the fuselage stripe on 0757 abutts the painted panel in front of it. Note that the photography only documents the two F-104As; to date I've been unable to locate an operational photograph of 55-2956 as bailed to the Navy. All photographs were supplied by the NWTC, and their kindness is gratefully acknowledged.

As for modeling, my personal choice of a kit would be the recent Hasegawa 1/48th scale offering, although I'd fill in every one of those "rivets" that they chose to sprinkle liberally all over the model. Said rivets may well prove to be one of the great mysteries of our time, since the real aircraft isn't covered with golf ball-sized divots, which is about how things work out in scale. Just when you thought you'd gotten away from that whole putty and sand thing! I'd also be careful not to accidentally push those tiny position indicator lights into the fuselage during sanding (if you've got the kit you know what I'm talking about).

At any rate, the Navy's sojourn with the Zipper gives us the opportunity to build a unique model of a really spiffy airplane. You can't ask for more than that.

So Where Are The Drawings?

Nobody's asked, but sooner or later they will; where are all those drawings that made the original Replica in Scale such a neat publication? Well, folks, the truth is that I was the modeler, the editor, the primary writer, re-writer, and ghost writer, and caption writer too, but never the artist. Bottom line, no drawings this time around. On the other hand I do have a fairly extensive photo library that will be shared as we go along. Let's hope that will suffice, at least for a while.

So, howsabout we build something when we convene again? Sounds like a deal to me!

See you next time,

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