I flew the CF-104 Starfighter: Don’t call it the ‘Widowmaker’!

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RAF fighter pilot Tom Hammond swapped his Harrier cockpit for that of the sleek CF-104 Starfighter. We met Tom to find out more.

Describe the CF-104 Starfighter in three words… 

Legendary fast interceptor. 

How did you get to fly it? 

I went on Exchange with the Canadian Air Force at CFB Baden–Soellingen (in what was West Germany) 1982-85 after two RAF Harrier tours. The conversion course was completed in Canada at CFB Cold Lake in northern Alberta. 

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What’s the best thing about it? 

Pure speed and a smooth ride at low level with the small wings. 

..and the worst? 

Not enough fuel as with most aircraft meant the flight was over all too soon sometimes. 

What was its biggest achievement? 

Time to height and pure altitude records in the 60s. 

How would you rate it in the following: 

Me in “checkerbird” painted CF-104, 1983

Instantaneous turn 

Not great unless flaps were down and without tip tanks then good. 

Sustained turn 

Painting of CF-104 by Tim Nolan hangs on my wall

Again without tips sustained 7 g with some flap. Also good when supersonic. 

Climb rate 

Excellent, 20000ft within 4 miles of the runway. 

Ride at low-level 

Very smooth all the way up to supersonic even on turbulent days. 

Crew comfort  

Nice big cockpit and the comfortable absence of G suits (CF104)  

What are the biggest myths about the aircraft? 

That it was the “widowmaker”, a term hated by all who operated it. Some other aircraft were just as dangerous, and some more so although to be fair they were also single-seaters: Harrier (which I also flew) and Lightning.  

Tell me something I don’t know about the CF-104 

We used to carry envelopes full of cut-up foil as one-shot “chaff” stuck inside the speedbrakes, placed there by a brave technician after start. If not used in flight they were latterly discharged on landing as we always landed with the speedbrake out. 

What was your most notable mission or flight? 

No actual war missions. The ones I remember most were the Mach 2 run on the conversion, having the engine nozzle stick closed one day and not being able to get the speed below 300kts clean. Any range trip firing the awesome CRV7 rocket. 

What would enemy aircraft types would it likely face in war and how would it fare against them? 

In my time were up against MiG-21s, -23s primarily. We had, on 441Sqn, a secondary air defence role within the Canadian Air Group, so had the all-aspect sidewinder missiles which would have helped but ultimately running away at ultra-low level was the last resort. 

What systems or weapons did it lack? 

With Mk 82 bombs, BL755 cluster weapon, CRV7 rockets, and the 20-mm Gatling gun it was well-armed but lacked the capacity to carry a significant amount of firepower. The LW33 nav system was very good. 

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