As airplanes go, the Lockheed F-104 was something of a rejected child. Designed by Kelly Johnson in Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works, the aircraft was intended to be the Mach 2 point defence fighter called for by the U.S. to combat MiG fighters. Yet in the end, the same air force made relatively little use of it and, had it not been for the widespread production for NATO and other foreign air forces, it might just have faded away as just another ugly duckling of the air force world.
Canada was one of the NATO air forces participating. Initial choices to replace the F-86 Sabre then in service were the McDonnell F-4 Phantom and the Grumman F-11 Super Tiger. The first was rejected because of cost and the second because it did not go into production in the U.S. Finally on 02/07/59 it was announced that the F-104 had been selected.
Canadair of Montreal was chosen to produce the CF-104 just as it had been for the Sabre but the Canadian version was not a point defence fighter but rather a nuclear strike aircraft. The first of 200 to be produced took to the air in 1961 and the last was turned out on 04/11/63. Canadair then switched over to the production of F-104Gs for other NATO countries.
The CF-104s were used for eight squadrons starting in 1962. When the RCAF’s two French bases, Marville and Grostonquin, were closed, all aircraft were located at the other two bases in Germany – Zweibruecken and Baden-Soellingen. Finally the latter remained the only Canadian base, although for a while two squadrons were stationed at Lahr, south of Baden-Soellingen.
In 1967-68 the CF-104 squadrons were reduced to six, four nuclear strike and two tactical reconnaissance. Two years later the number was further reduced to three and all of them became ground attack squadrons. Finally in 1986 the CF-104s were replaced at Baden by the CF-18 A/B, the aircraft that is still in service today.
As far as Canada was concerned, its CF-104s were used for just about everything except the original intent of the aircraft. The Starfighter was not in the least forgiving; almost half of the planes produced for the RCAF were lost in non-combat crashes. This fact earned the aircraft the sobriquet “The Widow Maker” as well as others not so printable.
The 104 soldiered on in other air forces long after it was phased out by Canada in 1985. In fact, it last saw service in the Italian Air Force as late as 2005. To achieve this the Italians developed the best of the Starfighters, the F104S that had remarkably better characteristics than earlier versions.
But it was a Canadian aircraft that achieved one record. In 1967 W/C Robert White took a RCAF 104A to a record-breaking altitude of just over 100,000 feet. The record has yet to be equaled.
CF-104s are to be found today at various locations, most notably at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton International Airport and at the former NATO base at Lahr, Germany. Some are still flying under private ownership.
Raymond Canon is an aviation analyst at the University of Western Ontario.