Sunday, January 25, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XVI

I'm in the mood for another round of Vintage Thunder Chariots. Here's another one of my all-time favorites, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter:

For a fairly long time after the introduction of the jet fighter, conventional thinking had it that speed was king. So, throughout the '50s and '60s, designers pursued straight-line speed to the exclusion of all else, such as maneuverability and even weapons load-out. The F-104's air-interception load was, basically, a brace of Sidewinders plus its internal 20mm cannon. The theory was that it could chase down its prey in a tail chase, unleash a missile barrage, and call it a day. But in an old-fashioned dogfight, it would quite often come in second best. A clever pilot could always use the vertical to escape an unfavorable engagement, but it would almost always lose a turning fight. Climbs like a bat out of Hell, steers like a cow.

But God Almighty! There's not a production fighter in the world today that can catch it in a horizontal sprint. Every line screams speed. Its design is simplicity itself: a gigantic afterburning engine, with wings, tail, and cockpit grafted on almost as afterthoughts. It was, and is, an aircraft that demands respect from its pilots, and does not suffer fools gladly. But for those pilots willing to undertake its discipline, it offered an unmatched experience.

There's an interesting post-script to the Starfighter story. Back in the mid-'50s, the CIA wanted a high-altitude aircraft capable of penetrating Soviet airspace for purposes of reconnaissance. Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works undertook the assignment. Their basic design was to take the F-104's fuselage, lengthen it slightly, and add gigantic glider wings. The result:

The U-2 has, in a way, been far more successful than its progenitor. While the F-104 was retired by most of its users by 1990, the U-2 is still the go-to manned recon platform for the USAF, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Still, the Starfighter is the prince of the high-speed Thunder Chariots. But not the King. That honor is reserved for another fine Lockheed product, that we'll profile on another day.

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