Also known as the widowmaker aircraft, yikes!

In the annals of military aviation, few aircraft have garnered such infamy as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Nicknamed “Flying Coffin,” this sleek and fast engineering marvel etched its name in history, but not without paying a steep price.

It was otherwise a revolutionary aircraft packed with a controversial legacy, bearing other endearing monikers such as Zipper, “the missile with a man in it,” Widowmaker, and ground nail. Yes, it may have possessed a futuristic appearance too modern for its period, but the high accident rate discouraged and made some pilots dread taking the Flying Coffin up into the skies.

The Troubled Series

We can trace back the genesis of the F-104 Starfighter to the visionary mind of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the genius behind Lockheed’sLockheed’s renowned secret unit Skunk Work program and with an impressive lineage that included legendary aircraft like the P-38 Lightning, the U-2 spy plane, and the SR-71 Blackbird, expectations for the F-104 soared.

The F-104 aircraft was part of the Century Series, alongside the F-101, F-102, and F-105, to amplify the US Air Force requirement for strategic nuclear warfare. Tactical Air Command attempted to adapt to this strategic mindset by emphasizing interceptors and fighters capable of delivering nuclear weapons. However, this approach led to problem after problem (a common theme that emerged throughout this aircraft series) as the jet fighter class faced challenges in their intended missions.

The Century Series aircraft (clockwise from bottom): Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, North American F-100 Super Sabre, Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, and Republic F-105 Thunderchief, circa 1950. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The F-101 Voodoo, for instance, was an interceptor converted into a fighter-bomber, resulting in a role mismatch. The F-102 Delta Dagger struggled as both an interceptor and a fighter-bomber and found its most notable service as a target drone. And yeah, you might notice that we skipped F-103, not because I forgot to add it, but because it was never built. Assigned to Republic Aviation, the phased-out F-103 was supposed to be a Mach 3 interceptor aircraft. But it was canceled in the late 1950s because it was simply too ahead of its time. It was too complicated, too expensive to build.

Then the concept of the F-104 arose, and it turned out to be a more realistic and affordable alternative to the F-103, which was also capable of reaching up to the speeds of Mach 3 (thrice the speed of sound).

The Nation’s First Mach 2 Aircraft

The single-engine, supersonic jet fighter took to the skies for the first time in early March 1954 and officially entered service four years later, with a total production of nearly 2,580 units.