« Reading List: The Revolution | Main | Global Warming on Jupiter! »

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reading List: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

Upton, Jim. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-069-0.
In October 1951, following a fact-finding trip to Korea where he heard fighter pilots demand a plane with more speed and altitude capability than anything in existence, Kelly Johnson undertook the design of a fighter that would routinely operate at twice the speed of sound and altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet. Note that this was just four years after Chuck Yeager first flew at Mach 1 in the rocket-powered X-1, and two years before the Douglas Skyrocket research plane first achieved Mach 2. Kelly Johnson was nothing if not ambitious. He was also a man to deliver on his promises: in December 1952 he presented the completed design to the Air Force, which in March 1953 awarded a contract to build two experimental prototypes. On March 4, 1954, just a year later, the first XF-104 Starfighter made its first flight, and within another year it had flown at Mach 1.79. (The prototypes used a less powerful engine than the production model, and were consequently limited in speed.) In April 1956 the YF-104 production prototype reached Mach 2, and production models routinely operated at that speed thereafter. (In fact, the F-104 had the thrust to go faster: it was limited to Mach 2 by thermal limits on its aluminium construction and engine inlet temperature.)

The F-104 became one of the most successful international military aircraft programs of all time. A total of 2578 planes were manufactured in seven countries, and served in the air forces of 14 nations. The F-104 remained in service with the Italian Air Force until 2004, half a century after the flight of the first prototype.

Looking at a history like this, you begin to think that the days must have been longer in the 1950s, so compressed were the schedules for unprecedentedly difficult and complex engineering projects. Compare the F-104's development history with that of the current U.S. air superiority fighter, the F-22, for which a Pentagon requirement was issued in 1981, contractor proposals were solicited in 1986, and the winner of the design competition (Lockheed, erstwhile builder of the F-104) selected in 1991. And when did the F-22 enter squadron service with the Air Force? Well, that would be December 2005, twenty-four years after the Air Force launched the program. The comparable time for the F-104 was a little more than six years. Now, granted, the F-22 is a fantastically more complicated and capable design, but also consider that Kelly Johnson's team designed the F-104 with slide rules, mechanical calculators, and drawing boards, while present day aircraft use modeling and simulation tools which would have seemed like science fiction to designers of the fifties.

This prolifically illustrated book, written by a 35 year veteran of flight test engineering at Lockheed with a foreword by a former president of Lockheed-California who was the chief aerodynamicist of the XF-104 program, covers all aspects of this revolutionary airplane, from design concepts, flight testing, weapons systems, evolution of the design over the years, international manufacturing and deployment, and modifications and research programs. Readers interested in the history and technical details of one of Kelly Johnson's greatest triumphs, and a peek into the hands-on cut and try engineering of the 1950s will find this book a pure delight.

Posted at May 20, 2008 22:26