Mach II in the Zipper over Arizona

by Ike Sweesy (1979-1982 IP at Luke AFB 69 TFTS F-104G, 1982-1985 NATO DOON F-104G/S/MAP)

Yes, the F-104 "Zipper" is still my favorite fighter - single seat, single engine, deadly, and FAST! - A Fighter Pilot's pride!

Even when I was a kid, the Starfighter was my favorite airplane and it was the first plastic model that I built in the '50s. Then 20 years later, I actually got to fly it after stints in the F-4 Phantom, and then the AT-38 "Lead-In Fighter" (training new fighter pilots with gun, rockets, bombs, and air combat flying). After flying the "Zipper" in Europe for three years, I finished off my Air Force career in the F-111 and the EF-111.

The Starfighter was difficult to learn to fly, and it did 'bite' many pilots, but that just increased the mystique and the pride of mastering it. Besides "Widowmaker", the F-104 had all kinds of nicknames including "Missile with a Man in It", and of course  -  "ZIPPER". The movie "The Right Stuff" had the F-104 sequences filmed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, but I had transferred to Germany to fly with NATO pilots. In the early '80's many NATO nations still flew the 'Starfighter' and I gave Tactical Evaluations around Europe with weeklong war games at their bases. It was a great adventure that I'll never forget. I flew over 1000 hours in the F-104G, the Italian "S", and the Turkish "MAP" Starfighters from 1979 to 1985.

The "Zipper" carried only 5800 pounds of fuel internal plus two tip tanks with 1100 pounds each. For nuclear strike missions it carried an additional two tanks with 1200 pound each. On most missions, we were expected to be in the landing pattern with 1200# remaining to give us a 20 minute reserve. At the 450 to 510 knots speeds flown, that still only gave about a two hour or so mission carrying a B61 nuclear bomb. We did fly with that configuration, but of course, with a 'shape' instead of the actual B61. Normal training or tactical check ride missions were with two tip tanks, 4x25 lb blue BDU33 smoke bombs for "iron sight' dive bombing (no computers), and two orange Mk106's for 'skip' bomb simulation of Napalm. These were also used to simulate drogue chute nuclear deliveries. We also carried 2.75" folding fin rockets plus 100 20mm rounds for the internal M61 cannon. Although I always stayed qualified in dive bombing and did fairly well in the monthly "Turkey Shoots", my best events were skip bomb, rockets, and gun which got me "Top Gun" occasionally. Just as a comparison, using equivalent distances releasing the bomb (High Altitude 4500' pull-off for small arms fire) and the qualification bombing circle diameter, getting the bomb in the circle is equivalent to sinking a 40 foot putt every time!

A clean F-104 without the tip tanks had 23' wingspan and what a climb & roll rate!

My best mission was a January flight taking off from Luke AFB, AZ early in the morning when it was nice and cool. From a standing start, the J79 Afterburner had a hard light that really gave a clean 104 a real kick. Acceleration was awesome with liftoff at about 170 knots as I recall. (fully loaded with bombs the liftoff was up to 227 knots with those small wings!!) At 400 knots, I pulled up to about 45 degrees and rocketed up to 40,000 gradually reducing the climb angle as the air got thinner. I turned south towards Gila Bend Gunnery Range and pushed it up to MACH 2. The only indication of this 20th Century speed was the round gage with "2" in the little window! That calculated out to over 1300 MPH! The Arizona of one hundred years earlier was traversed at 'burro speed'. As I entered the unrestricted gunnery range, I gently pulled the nose up bleeding off airspeed to a mere 600 knots, but topping out at 60,000 feet. The sky was black that high up and I could see the curvature of the earth. Black above, the bright blue sky ahead, and the brown Arizona dirt below! In full afterburner the whole time, it was a short 20 minute flight and I was at Bingo Fuel already. Easing the throttle out of AB and back to Idle, I pulled the nose around to the northeast and aimed slightly left of Phoenix. LUF TACAN on the nose. I got below FL450 before leaving the gunnery range and continued gliding the sixty or so miles back to 'homeplate'. I actually had to use a little speed brake to get down to 1500 feet AGL for the 325 knot Pitchout and 135 knot touchdown. Adding the standard 5 minutes for 'taxi time' I logged a .7 hour flight for the day, and jumped out of my jet with a real smile of satisfaction. It was 7:45 am, and most 'ground pounders' were just driving to work.

A magnificent engineering marvel, the F-104 "Century Series" Starfighter was a real joy to fly and was the first production fighter to exceed MACH 2 in level flight! ... and I flew it!!