the Lockhead yf-104 (55-2955) and the 55th anniversary of her first flight

yf-104 (55-2955)

Today, February the 17th in 1956 the yf-104 made it’s first flight from Edwards AFB in the Mojave Desert.   Herman “Fish” Salmon piloted this silver tailed beauty into the heavens for her maiden flight 55 years ago today. Nicknamed the “Apple Knocker”, her flying career was a short one ending on the 25th of April, 1957, when a failed landing took her out of the sky forever.  Most folks have a favorite airplane or car that they secretly long to own, and for me The f-104 is my favorite of all of man’s creations.  She is one beautiful piece of aerial art whether sitting on the ground or tearing a hole in the atmosphere.  When looking for inspiration while drawing a new space craft for Star trek the F-104 was the one that would always guide the way.  There is a little piece of the 104 in just about everything that I have done and, living in the high desert myself, there are many of these beautiful birds on display around town to go and get inspired from.  Happy 55th to this milestone aircraft and enjoy a fabulous write up on the history of the YF series by Joe Baugher below.

her final flight

BY Joe Baugher

In July of 1954, the USAF decided to purchase 17 service test aircraft under the designation YF-104A. This was done under a “fly-before-you-buy” philosophy, under which these aircraft would participate in development tests before any commitment to large-scale production was made. If large-scale production was actually undertaken, these YF-104As could later be brought up to full production standard and delivered to operational units.

Fearing that the General Electric J79 turbojet might not be ready in time, the first service test Starfighters were to be powered by the afterburning J65 turbojet. However, the J79 engine was flight tested by the Navy in a borrowed Navy XF4D in December of 1955, and it was concluded that early versions of the General Electric J79 engine should be available by the time that the YF-104A was ready, and the service test aircraft were built with the General Electric engine in mind.

The seventeen YF-104A service test aircraft (serials 55-2955/2971) were powered by early experimental versions of the General Electric J79 engine instead of the J65 engine which powered the XF-104s. The YF-104A aircraft were initially fitted with the General Electric XJ79-JE-3 turbojet, rated at 9300 lb.s.t. dry and 14,800 lb.s.t. with afterburning. The YF-104A differed from the XF-104 in having a 5 feet 6 inch extension in the length of the fuselage to accommodate the new J79 engine. The vertical fin was slightly taller, raising the overall height from 12.7 feet to 13.49 feet. A forward-retracting nose-wheel replaced the rearward-retracting unit of the XF-104, in order to provide improved ejection seat clearance out of the bottom of the aircraft. A narrow dorsal spine was added to the upper fuselage. Two additional fuel cells were installed in the fuselage. The air intakes were modified in shape and were fitted with half-cone center bodies which had been omitted from the two XF-104s. The fixed-geometry central intake shock cone had an internal bleed slot which exhausted some intake air through the fuselage for afterburner cooling and helped to reduce the aircraft’s base drag. An AN/ASG-14T1 fire control system was fitted, plus AN/ARN-56 TACAN. There were provisions for four under-wing and one under-fuselage stores pylon.

With an empty weight increased only slightly to 12,561 pounds, the YF-104A maximum takeoff weight (clean) rose to 15,700 pounds for the XF-104 to 18,881 pounds. With provision for four under-wing and one fuselage stores pylon, the maximum takeoff weight was 24,584 pounds.

The first YF-104A (55-2955) was completed in February of 1956, and was trucked out in high secrecy to Edwards AFB. It made its first flight there on February 17, 1956, with Lockheed test pilot Herman “Fish” Salmon at the controls.

On February 16, 1956, the second YF-104A (55-2956) was used for a media-covered official rollout ceremony at Lockheed’s Burbank factory. This was the first display of the Starfighter to the public. Before that, there had been only rumors in the aviation press about the existence of a truly revolutionary new fighter aircraft, plus a few speculative drawings. The engine air intakes were covered with temporary fairings, since the Air Force didn’t want people to see the half-cones in the air intakes.

The first Starfighter photographs were released in the spring of 1956. These were limited to air-to-air shots of the prototype and ground photos of YF-104A 55-2956 with the intake fairings still fitted. It was not until mid-1956 that the J79-engined F-104 lateral intakes were finally revealed to the public.

The J79 engine provided a spectacular improvement in performance. 55-2955 reached Mach 2 on February 28, 1956, becoming the first fighter aircraft capable of double-sonic speed in level flight.

An initial order for production F-104As was issued on October 14, 1956.

Together with the first 35 production F-104As, all seventeen YF-104As were used for flight-test and to evaluate early versions of the J79 (the -3, -3A, and -3B) engine, the Vulcan cannon, the AIM-9 (formerly GAR-8) Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the wingtip-mounted fuel tanks. Airframe strengthening and local redesign were progressively introduced. Various forms of flap blowing were tested, and a ventral fin was introduced to improve directional stability at supersonic speed. Some YF-104As were also used to test wingtip racks for either 170 US-gallon drop tanks or Sidewinder infrared-homing air-to-air missiles.

On May 7, 1958, Major Howard C. Johnson reached an altitude of 91,249 feet in a zoom climb at Edwards AFB in California, setting a new altitude record. On May 16, 1958, Captain Walter W. Irwin flying a YF-104A set a new world’s air speed record of 1404.19 mph flying over a 15/25 kilometer course at Edwards AFB. For the first time in history, the same aircraft type held both the world speed and altitude records at the same time.

A large percentage of the seventeen YF-104As were lost in crashes during the test program. At the end of this program, the surviving YF-104As were brought up to F-104A production status and were turned over to USAF squadrons for duty. Following the withdrawal of the F-104A from active service in 1960, at least four of the ex-YF-104As (55-2956, 2957, 2969, 2971) were converted into unmanned QF-104A target drones. They were all most likely shot down during tests. Of the seventeen YF-104As built, only two are known to survive today. The first survivor is the seventh YF-104A (55-2961). This aircraft was transferred to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in August of 1956. It was initially numbered 018, which was later changed to a civilian registration of N818NA. In 1958, NACA was reorganized as NASA, and the YF-104A remained with NASA until November of 1975. This aircraft is now hanging in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. I saw it there in October of 1993. The other survivor is the thirteenth YF-104A (55-2967). It is now on display at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I remember seeing it sitting outside the Chapel when I visited the Air Force Academy in 1971.


35 Responses to “the Lockhead yf-104 (55-2955) and the 55th anniversary of her first flight”

  1. 1 evil_genius_180
    February 17, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Nice history lesson. 😀 She sure is a beauty, I can see why she’s your favorite. She’s sleek and sexy, it’s a shame that there are only two of them left.

  2. 3 MikeZ
    February 18, 2011 at 12:08 am

    ^^ The famous “Lawn Dart”. A beautiful design, but it left a lot of misery in its wake.

  3. 5 Richard Knapp
    February 18, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Hi John:
    Beautiful plane – always been one of my favorites as well. I just built a model of one over the Christmas break. A missle with wings.

    Hope you are well.


  4. February 18, 2011 at 10:00 am

    The Royal Navy’s Harriers will soon be going the way of the Dodo too, due to government cutbacks and the reorientation of defense priorities.

    It’s nice to see these pioneer aircraft being preserved as an education to the young as to the aviation history of both their owner nations and aviation.

  5. 8 johneaves
    February 18, 2011 at 10:13 am

    wooooo i love the Harrier. we had one at an airshow and those vtol engines were so load and kicked up so much dirt, I was sure that the Eagles from Space 1999 take offs were inspired by the those hawker harriers.

  6. 10 Terry
    February 18, 2011 at 11:42 am

    I remember begging my mom to buy me a model of the 104 after I saw it in Star Trek. Using it and my Enterprise model to recreate scenes from the show.


    • 11 johneaves
      February 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      I remember that episode so vividly and the way it started I thought it was some cool air force movie till they showed the Enterprise before the credits rolled.

  7. 12 DeanneM
    February 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    These planes always looked like they mean business…kinda have the “don’t mess with me” strut in the air.

    My secret desire is to own a 68 Camaro, but as the years go by, I realize that the cost to obtain one goes up greatly (at least one restored or that is still restorable). It’s hard to watch such great mechanical marvels like the YF104 fade into time.

  8. 13 johneaves
    February 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Hi D!!!! so very true, there is one of the 104’s in a park in Prescott right near an RC airplane field. Yeah you have always be fond of the 68 beauty haven’t you!!

  9. February 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Nice. It was further projected to compete with the F16 as the X27, but that went nowhere.

  10. 16 johneaves
    February 18, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    really,,,, sadly it was a crash and burn aircraft, as beautiful as she was she got the flying coffin nickname for good reason

  11. 17 Matt Boardman
    February 18, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Way awesome! There really is something that is very sleek and sexy looking about this design. I’m a fan of the A-10, which is like the ugly, mean runt of the family, but I suppose it helps to add to the appreciation of fine designs like this!

    • 18 Terry
      February 19, 2011 at 2:09 am

      I’m with you Matt, there are many Eagles, Falcons, Raptors, but only one Warthog..the A-10 may not be pretty, fast, but it has one really really big gun, and ya can’t go wrong there.


      • February 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm

        Believe me, folks, the A-10 is well appreciated in the right circles. Us Air Force types love it to death. It’s got its own special kind of B.A. hotness to it.

        Any plane built around a GAU-8 Gatling gun with a titanium bathtub for the pilot and system redundancies that would let it fly if one whole side was missing deserves a crap-ton of props.

    • 20 johneaves
      February 22, 2011 at 7:20 am

      WOOOO I love the A-10 also,, They fly regularly out of Tucson and anytime of the week your almost guaranteed to see several in the sky at any given time

  12. February 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Yup, she’s the silver beauty of silver beauties, eh. You know she’s my fav silver bird , too, no surprise there we feel the same about somethin’, again. 🙂

    I gotta render up some new shots of just my 104(s). I have a formation shot that has been itchin’ to come to life…

    peace & bananas | deg

    • 22 johneaves
      February 22, 2011 at 7:22 am

      no surprise and I so love what you have done artistically with that awesome jet!!! especially the NASA version… always fascinating to see what you have done and I catch myself often going to your page just to look at those pieces!!!

      • February 22, 2011 at 11:19 pm

        THanks, bro. Hope to see you sometime soon. I know life is busy for both of us, but we’ll work it out. Hope all is well, God bless. 😉

        peace & bananas | deg

  13. 24 JNG
    February 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Anyone know the story behind “Apple Knocker?”

  14. February 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Oh jeez, I’ve always loved this plane. Been one of my favorites ever since I saw it. I built a model of one as well, though it sat half-painted in my basement for four weeks while I was away at Field Training. Best part of the kit was that I have all these info cards on hundreds of aircraft, and the model I got almost exactly matched the plane in the picture. Same squadron, same paint scheme, just a different number http://jamietakahashi.deviantart.com/gallery/27458232#/d33tlbd .

    Really an amazing vehicle, such an improvement over the X-3 Stiletto which, as I understand, its design was somewhat based off of. I will say though, the downward firing ejection seat on the early models…not such a great idea.

    One of my professors sarcastically jokes, though, that we killed more German pilots by giving the Luftwaffe F-104s than we shot down in all of WWII. Those pilots got good at flying that thing, though. It’s been said that if you have a flameout or your engine dies in a Starfighter, you’d might as well eject because it’s impossible to fly dead-stick. The aerodynamics supposedly render it impossible. At least one German pilot, though, managed to land it with no engine. He kinda had to, though. When he tried to eject, his canopy blew away, but his seat stayed where it was. No chance of bailing out in that plane. You ditch over the side, the wing slices you in half (those things were dang sharp) and you go straight back, the T-tail breaks your spine.

    • 27 johneaves
      February 22, 2011 at 7:26 am

      what a great write up you have here thanks for sharing this history lesson and especially your model shots,, Love that Voo Doo you made too.

      • February 23, 2011 at 9:26 am

        Thank you haha I’m glad you approve. That’s only a few of the models I made, though. I haven’t uploaded them all. I’m up to 24 kits. F-106, SR-71, F-22, F-101, F-14, A-10, F-15E, F-117, F-104, B-29, F/A-18, P-38, F4U, F-84, Ju 87, B-58, C-97, P-51, C-22, VC-32A, R5D and C-118 (modified C-54s), B-25, B-24. I’m big-time into airplanes (hence being in AFROTC and majoring in Aerospace Engineering haha). I need more kits, though…must…build…more…

      • 29 johneaves
        February 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm

        I want to get that big 18th scale f-104and customize it to be the NF-104 A with the jet pack on the back!!!!!, yes we must make more kits!!!

  15. 30 MickRC
    February 21, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I went on Active Duty in 1978 and saw several F-104s fly – USAF, Guard, Canadian and German. I also got to see Darryl Greenamyer’s privately owned F-104 in 1976 before he destroyed it in a crash after setting his speed record. Greenamyer is also famous for the failed recovery attempt of the Kee Bird B-29 from Greenland.

    Working in a F-106 squadron we didn’t have a lot of respect for the Starfighter, or Lawn Dart as we called it. Some of our older pilots had flown F-104s and other Century Series birds. They all seemed to have at least one “brown pants” episode to tell.

    Mind you, the plane was wicked fast but was bad in turns and could literally fly its tail feathers off at high angles of attack. It was one of the first aircraft to use boundary control flaps utilizing engine air over the airfoil in order to reduce wing loading during landing – and the plane was a handfull without it.

    The old joke that “Dig anywhere in Germany and you’ll find F-104 debris” is over the top, but Germany did have a 30% Class A mishap rate over the service life of the Starfighter. Even worse, Canada had more than a 50% mishap rate for the CF-104 (200 built, 110 lost to Class A mishaps).

    Despite all of its failings Lockheed managed to build (738) or license (1837) more of these birds than any other Century Series fighter. The F-100 Super Sabre was the only other fighter in the group with more than 2000 built. Of course, the Lockheed Bribery Scandal had a lot to do with those sales. 15 countries including the US flew the F-104 including combat sorties by Pakistan and the Republic of China in addition to USAF service in Vietnam.

    Several production F-104s still exist as museum static displays or gate guards, and at least one is being restored to flying capability in England (ex-Luftwaffe F-104G) and another in Norway (ex-RCAF CF-104). At least four of the Canadian built Starfighters are still flying in private ownership.

    • 31 johneaves
      February 22, 2011 at 7:40 am

      wow lots of cool facts and love your perspective through out your writing,,, I have been to many F-104 crash sites here in the high desert and but does the debris field travel far.. below is the NF-104-A with the rocket pack and two of the three jets equipped with this pack ended in high altitude flat spins to the desert floor. One of them was Yeager’s It has become a very popular crash site and has been pretty much vacuumed clean of any debris. the second crash does not have the celebrity status so is not been disturbed as heavily.

      Thanks again for the insightful comments

  16. February 21, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Whats more is Kelly Johnson design this sleek pointy cool looking machine, but how can anything designed by Kelly Johnson not be cool?
    And it was an F-104 that intercepted the USs Enterprise over Omaha in 1966!

  17. 34 Sotirios Moshonas
    March 17, 2011 at 10:42 am

    She is always a sexy, beautiful fighter jet to me. Every time I see her, Star Trek episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” comes into my mind. Thank you, Mr. Eaves for reminding us of the F-104 Starfighter’s 55th Anniversary.

    Here, sir, is the link to a Canadian CF-104 Starfighter: http://hsfeatures.com/features04/images/CF104_ICR2.jpg

    I know there are a few CF-104 Starfighrters are at display in Langley, British Columbia and at the Canadian War Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario.

    Here is the another link: http://browse.deviantart.com/?qh=&section=&global=1&q=canadian+104#/d335u8e

    Have a great, fantastic weekend, sir.

  18. 35 Mysterion
    December 7, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Was watching Tomorow is Yesterday this morning, and got curious about Capt. Christopher’s F-104. So i looked up the number on the side of the plane and found this: http://www.i-f-s.nl/cn/183-1243.html

    Looks like the plane crashed in ’65 in real life, instead of meeting the Enterprise in ’69 like we saw in TOS.

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February 2011

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