The first futuristic-looking F-104 Starfighter flew in early 1956 and with its long, circular fuselage, pointed nose, and tiny, slender wings, it looked in every inch of the way the world’s best fighter.
Designed by CL “Kelly” Johnson and his “Skunk Works”, who developed iconic fighter jets such as the U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, the Lockheed F-104 was dubbed by the company like the “missile with a man in it”, but by the Luftwaffe (German air force) and Marineflieger (German navy) as “widowmaker”.
As we explained earlier, due to its high crash rate, the Starfighter has been involved in a horrific number of crashes while in German service. In fact, 61 German F-104s had crashed, resulting in the loss of 35 pilots by mid-1966.
The crashes continued despite a variety of fixes. Between 15 and 20,104 Germans crashed each year between 1968 and 1972 and continued at a rate of around 10 F-104s per year until it was replaced.
The final tally was the loss of 292 of the 916 Starfighters and the death of 115 pilots.
However, the German F-104s were not the only fighter jets with a high crash rate during the Cold War.
As Michael Napier recounts in his book In Cold War Skies, in 1972 the 21st IAP (Fighter Regiment) of the Bulgarian Air Force based in Uzundzhovo withdrew their MiG-19S planes and replaced them with the old MiG-17PF. The reason for this apparently step back was the MiG-19’s bad reputation in Bulgarian service. The MiG-19’s RD-9B engines proved to be very unreliable, and Bulgarians experienced a high rate of accidents with these planes, losing almost half of their inventory of this type due to accidents.
The Bulgarian experience of a 48% attrition rate with the MiG-19 was not entirely atypical of accident rates among fighter jets at that time.
As explained above, the F-104 gained a notorious reputation as a “widowmaker” thanks to an attrition rate of 30% with the Luftwaffe and 46% with the ARC / CAF. The Lockheed F-104’s loss rate in Dutch and Belgian service was around 35%, and the Danes lost a similar proportion of their F-100D force. The loss rate of the MiG-21F-13 in Hungarian service was also around 37%.
However, accidental losses also depended on a number of factors, including flight speed and the role of the aircraft: for example, Canadians flown more hours by CF-104 than other nations. ‘flew their fleet of F-104Gs and did so exclusively in the high-risk low-level environment.
Statistics can be presented in several ways, one being the wastage rate per 100,000 flight hours. Using this measure, the rate of the Bulgarian MiG-19 was 100 aircraft lost per 100,000 hours, the F-104G was 139 aircraft, the RAF lost 41 Lightning aircraft, and the MiG-21F in Soviet service was 30 aircraft. . Between 1971 and 1975, the comparable rate for the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II F-4 in USAF service was 50 lost aircraft.
But however the statistics might be presented, there is no doubt that the lives of fighter crews in the height of the Cold War were difficult and often dangerous. An unfortunate accident occurred on July 14, 1970 during Exercise Zenit-70 when a Polish MiG-21PFM piloted by Kapitan (Captain) H. Osierda of 11.PLM intercepted a Su-7BKL from the Army of Czech air; forgetting that he was piloting an armed plane, he fired a K-13R AAM which destroyed its target. Fortunately, the Czechoslovak pilot Kapitán F. Kružík ejected safely.
In Cold War Skies is published by Osprey Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: US Air Force and Rob Schleiffert of Holland via Wikipedia