Air Force Museum of Alberta

CF-104 Flight Operations

Flight operations usually started at 6 AM and the last aircraft would be refuelled, repaired, and inspected by 10 PM each night. Some days a team would do 12 starts and recoveries with very little time in between. 

CF-104 Flight Operations

Flight operations usually started at 6 AM and the last aircraft would be refuelled, repaired, and inspected by 10 PM each night. Some days a team would do 12 starts and recoveries with very little time in between. 

CF-104 Operations

Gary Watson worked on Starfighters between 1964 and 1968. He later helped design the Microsoft Flight Simulator Starfighter Add-On. These are his perspectives:

"The CF-104 flight line was one of the most exciting places to work during the 1960s. The Starfighter had a unique sound of its own that was distinctive in all of fighter aviation. And it was loud! So loud most conversations were carried out by yelling into your co-worker’s ear. Though we all wore ear protection, most line workers suffered permanent hearing loss."

"Working as a two-person team on the flight line, the crews carried out a pre-flight inspection to ensure all items were ready for flight and no damage had occurred since the aircraft had last flown. This included checking fuel levels, examining the landing gear and flight controls, and preparing the cockpit for the pilot."

"Once the pilot was strapped in, the start procedure was complex. Using hand signals between the front-end team member and the pilot, various aircraft systems were tested. The back-end member of the team checked for leaks and examined moving controls surfaces. During normal operations, this took approximately thirty minutes."

"Once the pilot was satisfied, you guided him from his parking spot towards the exit to the runway and it was back to the line shack to see which aircraft you would be starting next."

"Arriving aircraft were parked in predetermined locations. I stood exactly where I wanted the aircraft to stop and utilized hand signals to guide the pilot. Once the aircraft came to a stop and the engine shut down, it was stormed by ground crew for the post-flight inspection, replacing film magazines, and refuelling the aircraft."

"Exposure to these high work-loads and noise levels made for a fatiguing 8+ hour shift. The line crew were usually in their late teens and early 20s while most of the pilots were 20 to 30 years old."

CF-104 Conventional Warfare 

The CF-104 was ideally suited for the low level, high speed, nuclear strike and reconnaissance roles of the 1960s. But when Canada’s focus shifted to conventional warfare in the early 1970s, converting the CF-104 proved challenging. The change highlighted a number of shortcomings.

The short wings of the CF-104 limited the number and size of weapons that the aircraft could carry. Nor did the CF-104 have a gun because this space was taken by an extra fuel tank for extended range during the nuclear strike role. Once converted, the CF-104 could carry 500 pound bombs, rockets, anti-personnel bombs, and napalm. It was also equipped with a M61 20mm cannon.

Finally, electronic self-protection equipment was added and the aircraft’s silver chrome skin was repainted in green and gray camouflage. Training was also affected. In the nuclear and reconnaissance roles, the aircraft were deployed individually to conduct their missions, flying fast and low for self-protection.

In the conventional role, RCAF pilots had to relearn how to fly in two and four ship formations for self-protection and combat effectiveness. Notably, the experience gained during this conventional conversion made the transition to the conventional role of the CF-18 in the 1980s much easier.

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CF-104 Nuclear Strike Capability

By the late 1950s, six nuclear strike squadrons and two photo reconnaissance squadrons were deployed to Europe to match the growing Soviet military. 1 Air Division converted from the F-86 Sabre and its air defence role to the CF-104 Starfighter in the nuclear strike role. Prior to deploying to Europe, all CF-104 pilots trained at Cold Lake, Alberta.

This included eighty hours of flying and intensive ground school courses on aircraft systems and nuclear delivery. All air and ground crew members were screened for high-level security clearance to operate in a nuclear weapons environment.

Quick Reaction Alert (QRA)

Canada maintained a number of aircraft on alert at all times in a secure, heavily guarded area. Armed with nuclear weapons, they were prepared to launch in fifteen minutes. All nuclear weapons assigned to the RCAF were on loan to Canada and could only be authorized for launch by the president of the United States.

Each pilot on alert was responsible for a specific target located east of the Iron Curtain. The targets were Warsaw Pact missile sites, headquarters, or airfields.

QRA Lifestyle

A pilot on QRA lived in the compound for twenty four hours. When his shift ended, the target information, aircraft, and weapon would be handed over to another pilot. A pilot was not allowed to leave the QRA area until his replacement arrived.

Each aircraft was in a covered shelter, guarded by an armed American military policeman (MP). Around the loaded aircraft, a distinct painted line outlined the No Lone Zone where people could not enter alone. When approaching the aircraft to conduct visual or minor maintenance tasks, the pilot, crewman, and MP would all enter the zone at the same time on the pilot’s command.

Alerts could be initiated at any time of day or night to test the readiness of crews. The crews did not know if it was real or practice until they were advised to terminate the launch process after making radio contact. They were now able to leave the aircraft and return to the readiness building.

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CF-104 Photo Reconnaisance

Under NATO, Canadian CF-104s had two roles in Europe: nuclear strike and photo reconnaissance. 439 and 441 Squadrons stationed at #1 Fighter Wing, Marville, France, flew photo reconnaissance. Photo reconnaissance was essential for detecting pre-invasion build-ups by the Warsaw Pact.

Troops and armour movements, aircraft deployments, and other tactical data had to be tracked and reported as quickly as possible. Flying low and extremely fast, the CF-104 could appear out of nowhere, film the required information, and then escape at high speed.

A Typical “Recce Mission,” by pilot Ray Learmond

Prior to launch, the pilot picked at least three targets somewhere within West Germany, France, or Belgium-Luxembourg. All were spaced no less than three minutes apart. Pilots had to plot their approach based on the offset due to the use one of the left or right cameras in the camera pod. Often maps were cut up and taped together to provide a seamless straight roll containing both map and operational data.

The target type and position of the sun usually dictated the run-in heading and altitude. Small targets, such as an army tank at the edge of a wooded area, usually meant very low altitude using a left or right oblique camera to look into the wooded area. Aiming the aircraft/camera combination became instinctive with practise.

Once the pilot completed his maps and flight plan, it was passed to Mission Planning and on to Flight Operations, where take-off times and aircraft were assigned. The pilots normally flew two and sometimes three missions per day. It was a demanding role, mixing instrument navigation with visual skills to locate the targets at high speeds and very low altitudes.

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