Zipper over the Bathtub: I flew the F-104G Starfighter for the German Navy

Rolf Stünkel

It was my last long cross-country flight from Schleswig NAS via Lossiemouth, Scotland to Keflavik NAS in Iceland, back in July 1982. It was the year I left the Starfighter to fly Tornados.

MY LAST big cross-country with the F-104 was supposed to take place on July 9, 1982. That Friday I wanted to fly with my significantly more experienced comrade Georg (Schorse) Lange from Eggebek to Scottish Lossiemouth (EGQS), refuel and then jet on to Keflavik on the island of Iceland (BIKF). Our aircraft were fully packed for the weekend. We had a dark presentiment about the Icelandic summer weather and to be on the safe side, had warm jackets and pullovers with us.

Lossiemouth is an old Royal Air Force site, with multiple connections with the German Navy. British bombers set off from here in 1944 to sink the battleship Tirpitz; 14 years later, the new West German Navy commissioned their first Sea Hawk multipurpose squadron in the same location.

We landed our Starfighters, refuelled, submitted our flight plan to Iceland and took off. I had never been so far north and so far out over the sea in a single-engine aircraft; it wasn’t particularly reassuring to know that our radio equipment wasn’t configured for such routes. As mentioned, we only had military UHF radio communication on board, no civilian VHF or even HF.
We were soon out of reach of any coastal radio station. If one of us had to bail out, he could only hope that he would be picked up by a random passing ship. We reached Iceland in the best of weather and reported in to Keflavik tower. After a glance at our fuel gages – they showed sufficient fuel in both aircraft – we decided to go sightseeing.

We disappeared in the direction of the glaciers and mountains. What beautiful scenery! Elated, we let our Starfighters dance over the uninhabited natural wonder and turned back happily to the military airport. After landing, we checked into our room in a US Navy apartment block.

It was midsummer, with an outside temperature of a summery 12 degrees centigrade; the ladies were sunbathing in their bikinis, in front of coloured geothermally heated cement houses. On the weekend there was a cheerful hustle and bustle all over Reykjavik. At night, it was still broad daylight and the discos were full; young people lay in the grass with bottles of vodka. Party in the North! During the day we had the opportunity to discover the beautiful landscape. Geysers, hot bathing lakes in dazzling colours. Dried fish on wooden hanging racks. Clear air which made everything gleam like Kodachrome photographs. I had never seen anything like it.

Any US soldier who went to Keflavik could pick an assignment of his choice afterwards; all military personnel in the large canteen at the Keflavik Air Base made an appropriately satisfied impression.
When I started up the engine of my Starfighter 21+29 on Monday morning, the oil low-level warning light came on. I climbed onto the ‘roof’ and pulled the dipstick. It was as dry as a bone! All of the lubricant was certainly lost on our flight here, as there wasn’t a single drop to be seen under the aircraft.
The US Air Force mechanic shrugged his shoulders helplessly; then someone came with a ladder and tools and soon the ‘culprit’ was found under the cowling of my Starfighter. The main rubber oil pipe, strengthened with metal braiding, was faulty – the pipe, looking fine from outside, had rotted inside and become porous, so the oil from the main tank simply ran out.
With this shattering diagnosis, my F-104 was grounded. Nobody could know what damage had already been done to the engine; in all cases it had to be changed. We telephoned back and forth, until a Luftwaffe C-160 Transall transport with mechanics from the German Air Force base Hohn (near Rendsburg) was con-firmed for the following Thursday.

We used the compulsory break to continue our visit of Iceland with a rented VW Golf. The island was quite an experience; we could hardly believe the vastness and isolation. We met single people in the most remote areas who were fishing and camping. I had the impression that quite a few Icelanders drove an extra two hours through the wilderness just to be completely alone.

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When the team of engineers arrived from Germany on Thursday, my F-104 was already standing in the large aircraft hangar. The armed US guard observed the repair of my bird with interest. In no time at all the experts unscrewed and removed the tail of the F-104. Soon the new engine was in and the men did an obligatory test run in front of the hangar. Everything okay! Then the ‘social’ bit followed. The engineers went back to the hangar and opened a large tool box. The American guard stood open-mouthed with amazement: Huge amounts of schnapps and beer were stored inside. With a hearty swig we toasted the good work. The navy technicians had earned themselves a well-deserved weekend in Iceland and didn’t have to be back in Germany until Monday.

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There was something the navy mechanics hadn’t been able to repair: the arresting hook wouldn’t lock and had to be secured with an ’abdominal bandage’ around the tail. We thanked our team and climbed into the aircraft in strong winds. As I taxied to the runway next to Schorse and accelerated, the tower reported winds of over 50 knots – a record value during my entire military career. We took to the air with some distance as the swaying in formation would have been much too dangerous. Once airborne, it became immediately calm, and we flew to Lossiemouth with a comfortable distance between the jets.
Upon touchdown, the ‘abdominal bandage’ got loose, and the arresting hook emitted a spray of sparks onto the runway. Scottish mechanics crafted the hook back firmly. It held until Eggebek.

Rolf Stünkel

(from Mach 2: Flying the F-104 Starfighter)

Which exact variant did you fly and what systems and weapons did it use?
I was on the F-104G. Here is, some data from my book:

F-104G, German Navy
 Range: 6.68m, with tip tanks 7.62m
 Length: 16.69m
 Height: 4.11m
 Wing area: 18.22m2
 Engine: General-Electric J79-GE-11A
(from 1970: also MTU J79-J1K)
 Thrust: 7150 kp (70118 N)/4450/44522 N
with/ without afterburner
 Fuel flow: 17.500 l/hr 4700 l/hr. with/with-
out afterburner
 Empty weight: 6695kg
 Take-off weight 9435 kg (F-104 G, clean)
With tip tanks 10.637kg
With 4 tip + pylon tanks 11.598 kg
With pylon tanks + AIM-9B
Sidewinder missiles 11.045 kg
 Take-off speed: 190 kts, with tip tanks 200 kts
 Cruising speed: 450 kts low level flight, Mach
0.92high level:
 Attack speed: 540-600 kts
 Maximum speed: 750 KCAS, Mach 2.0 at 36.000ft
(without external loads)
 Service ceiling: 16.750m/55.000ft
 Landing speed: 175 kts with fully extended flaps/
195 kts with “takeoff” flaps
(plus additional weight)
 Max. load factor: +7.33 g and -3 g
 Climb performance: 2 minutes to 36.000ft/17.5 NM
(example: take-off weight, with tip tanks)
 Armament: 1 x 20-mm M61A1 Vulcan gun,
A1M-9B Sidewinder missiles, 2,75 in. FFAR unguided rockets, bombs, “Kormoran” Air-to-surface missiles, AS 20/30 missiles

When did you fly the F-104 and with which service?
After training with the USAF at Luke AFB, AZ in 1977/1978 I was posted to 1st Sqn. Naval Air Wing 1 (1. Staffel, Marinefliegergeschwader 1) at Schleswig-Jagel Airbase, Schleswig-Holstein, North Germany in 1979. Jagel was originally a WW2 Luftwaffe airbase, built in 1936. After the war, it was a RAF station and then returned to the German Navy, they started with Sea Hawks.

I flew the F-104G at Jagel NAS from 1979 to 1982, when our wing changed to the TORNADO as the first branch of the entire German armed forces.

Jagel was one of two German Navy fighter/bomber bases, the other one, Eggebek (EDCG) being located just a few miles north.

What was the best thing about the F-104G?
Well… in those days, it was considered the best-looking, best-accelerating, best-climbing, fastest fighter in the GAF/FGN inventory. In other words: a sexy aircraft for any guy in his mid-twenties.

Single-seat, single-engine, so sleek you could hardly see it approaching from the front or rear, a nightmare for other aircraft. A very stable weapons platform with excellent qualities.

..and the worst thing?
From my point of view, the only drawback was its single engine. Once over the Baltic near the WP coastline, you were hoping not to have an engine failure (unlikely with the J-79) or a birdstrike (very likely).

Another well-known problem was the poor turning radius. This would have caused problems in a dogfight, e.g., with a MiG-21.

What would have been the mission of your unit had World War 3 started?
We would have been tasked to protect the Baltic Sea approaches (exits and entries for Warsaw Pact naval movements) in close cooperation with our northern allies, by recce and attacks on ships and coastal targets.

How combat effective do you believe the F-104 would have been in this mission?
Given the 1970/80s WP and NATO weapon inventory, pretty good. We had an arsenal of forward-firing weapons (the Vulcan Gatling gun, 2.75in rockets), AIM-9L and stand-off weapons such as the AS-20, AS-30 anti-ship missiles and the advanced Kormoran sea-skimming missile. Our close cooperation with the Danish Air Force and our own Navy (where we all came from) was certainly an advantage. We knew the Baltic and North Sea inside out. The Baltic became so familiar we called it “bathtub”.

How would you rate the cockpit in terms of comfort and ergonomics?

I was a slim guy in my 20s, so comfort wasn’t much of an issue. The pilot fit snugly into his office. Due to the Martin-Baker GQ-7A ejection seat, the seating position was a bit upright, if not forward, compared e.g., to the Tornado. The original F-104 C-2 seat, they said, had a more inclined backrest. Otherwise, the cockpit was cramped with switches and clock-type gages. I remember two distinct disadvantages:
If you had an external tank transfer failure, the procedure was to pull a certain CB left and aft of the pilot. It wasn’t only difficult to reach but also located too close to some other circuit breakers – impossible to be pulled out with your fingers in fire-resistant gloves. So we were issued a small “official” custom-made “CB puller” (nail puller) we carried in our flight suit pencil pockets.

Photo: Vasil Dinev via

When I started flying the F-104G, we had the standard UHF radio panel on the right hand pedestal. Frequencies were dialled in either manually with rotating knobs or as preset channels. There was no indicator in the pilot’s field of view, you always had to look way down to the right to verify the correct frequency. In formation as wingman, this meant you had the choice of losing your lead, create a collision or just count the clicks when turning the frequency wheels. Fortunately, they later installed a digital repeater indicator on the glare shield.

How would you rate the aircraft in the following categories:

A. Instantaneous turn rate
Good. The F-104 G’s low level cruising speed was 450kts. If engaged, the flight accelerated quickly to 500+. At this energy level, pulling to the clean G-limit of 7,33 (5 for practice, with external tanks) gave you a decent chance for a defensive break.

B. Sustained turn rate
Obviously not good due to the tiny wings. Therefore sustained turning in a dogfight against an adversary wasn’t a good idea.

C. Climb rate
The initial climb rate to 5000 ft at 270 kts IAS was about 48000 ft/min. It was about 35000 ft/min to FL 240 at a speed of 350 kts.

D. Range
Most operational flights were done low-level with two tip tanks, giving you a flight time with reserves of about 1:30. At 450 kts groundspeed, this meant you could fly into the Baltic Sea beyond the island of Bornholm, investigate WP ships or aircraft, do some simulated attacks and fly home to Schleswig. With four external tanks, 2+ hours were possible.

High-level or high-low-hi, you could fly to South Germany, do some simulated attacks and come back. You could reach Bordeaux on a cross-country, for instance. “High level” with external tanks meant a fairly low cruising altitude of around 25,000 ft.

E. Ease of taking off and landing
Takeoffs were straight-forward. Max afterburner, go! And be aware not to overspeed the landing gear and flaps. Any speed above 300 kts on departure was considered safe.

Landings: stable but fast. The basic approach speed was 175 kts IAS with full flaps plus 5 kts per 1,000 lbs of fuel remaining above 1,000 lbs.

That meant, your normal approach speed was typically 180+ kts. With takeoff flaps – due to a restriction or strong crosswinds on the ground – basic approach speed was 195 kts, with the same additionals.

So imagine yourself on a winter day, wet runway, strong crosswinds, with 200+ knots on final. You were always close to a limiting speed: 235 kts for the Goodyear tires, 205 for the brake chute…

if you blew the brake chute or had a malfunction, the only other option to slow down was the arresting hook. The F-104G was only certified for rear-end (end of runway) cable arrestment, so you came smoking down the runway with your hook extended, hoping you would catch that No. 3 or 4 wire before you left the runway at the departure end, perhaps forced to eject.

F. Sensors
The F-104G had no radar warning device, but a fairly good NASARR radar with ground mapping and A/A capability. Of course the AIM-9 missiles were connected to the audio equipment so you could hear the seeker-head growl. We also had an inertial navigation system, the Litton LN-3. Very few aircraft, if any, had inertial navigation. Only one contemporary airliner, the Convair 990, had it, too.

G. Ride quality at low level
The ride was great. Very stable, no heavy turbulence bumps. A true pleasure.

What was considered the greatest threat to the aircraft? (ie SAMs, MiGs etc)
We were faced with the threat of SAMs and coastal/ship AA guns, both of limited range in those days. Yes, MiGs and other WP aircraft always constituted a threat. We assumed (and know today) that the Russians and other WP forces were always armed, but had a rigid command and control system – the individual aircraft or formation would probably not engage you unless their supervisor told them so. I know from friends in the former GDR air force that they were guided 100% of the time, to a target, a runway or whatever. So if you did see e.g., an East German MiG-21 formation over the Baltic, you were expecting it to fly its track and return to home base.

What is the greatest myth about the aircraft?
Perhaps the tiny wings and their razor-sharp leading edges. The F-104 is the only cold-war fighter with such trapezoid, symmetrical wings. That’s why they called it the ‘Zipper’ or the ‘missile with a man in it’.

How do you feel about the ‘widowmaker’ nickname?

It was justified in the 1960s. Poor management, training and maintenance facilities, combined with technical problems (the ejection seat, the afterburner – just to name two) led to disaster. After Gen. Steinhoff grounded the fleet and corrected the above mentioned problems, the Starfighter was considered a normal jet with a good safety record. I joined the community well over ten later, for me it was a trustworthy and safe machine.

Tell me something I don’t know about the F-104.
Ok… did you know about the Belgian guy who performed a touch-roll-touch manoeuvre?

Or the “slow” light that came on when you were on a Mach-2 run and had to throttle back?

Or the fact that on a certain weapon delivery (pop up maneuver) you were condemned to death if you pulled up and did not select takeoff flaps before turning the aircraft inverted and pulling back down towards the target in a steep dive? Once the aircraft had that sinkrate in clean configuration, nobody could recover from that dive.

Which weapons have you test fired and what did it feel like to do this?
We regularly fired the gun against range and aerial towed targets and AS 20/30 missiles (the latter against towed sea targets).

We also dropped practise bombs on the range (DM-18 and BDU-33), high-drag and low-drag types. I did not get to fire the Kormoran.

Using our weapons, including practise bombs, is a challenging tasks. You had the “iron” gunsight and corrected for wind just by judgement. As a beginner, I forgot to arm a switch or came down the dive with excessive pitch or speed. To hit a target with an “iron” bomb, you have to be at the right place at the right time: correct altitude, pitch, speed, g-force, aimpoint and so on. Even if things looked right in the gunsight, you never scored a bomb hit if you had g’s on the aircraft or your dive angle was off. Gun firing at a ground target was fun. You felt the vibration and knew that if you did not pull up in time, you would be hit by your own rounds.

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Did you feel you would have survived a war against the USSR?
In those days, perhaps. We trusted in our mighty allies, in our own system and in our personal capabilities. The good thing about German Navy flying was that we were already in the theatre, over the Baltic sea, full of WP ships, aircraft and helicopters. It was hands-on live training.

What kind of tactics did you practice?

We usually flew in box-type formations of 4 or 6 (with escorts), totally silent and spread far apart. Once an intruder was spotted, the flight accelerated to high speed and dove down on the “deck” over the sea.

We were constantly training on the firing range, at altitude (for basic fighter manoeuvres) and in large formations against a target, bounced by an attacker.

Which other aircraft types have you flown?
Before the F-104G: Training aircraft. For pilot screening, the P-149D piston aircraft. In the US, the Cessna T-37 and the Northrop T-38. In the Navy, the F-104G and the Tornado. I left the Navy in 1989 to join Lufthansa. I flew the B737, 747, A320, A330, A340, A350 (the latter four as captain) and retired in 2019.

Today, I’m a type rating instructor (TRI) on the A320 and a flight instructor for PPL.

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