Return of an iconic RCAF fighter to Alberta
by Gary Watson
On October 2, 1962, Canadair Model CL-90 made its first flight from the Cartierville airport, near Montreal. Four test flights later, on July 22, 1963, the aircraft was Taken On Strength (TOS) by the RCAF as CF-104 12846.
This was the 146th of 200 single-seat fighter aircraft built for the RCAF. The CF-104 was to be Canada’s contribution to supporting NATO operations in Europe to counteract the growing Soviet Union buildup of aircraft on the east side of the Iron Curtain.
Soon afterwards, this aircraft was assigned to 1 Air Division and shipped to France in an RCAF C-130 Hercules. For the next eight years, 12846 flew in photo reconnaissance roles from bases in France, first at #2 Wing Grostenquin for six months, then to #1 Fighter Wing, Marville (where the author first worked on it) and flown by both 439 and 441 Squadrons. In 1967, along with the rest of #1 Wing, it changed homes to Lahr, West Germany. Other CF-104s, located in West Germany were tasked to a Nuclear Strike role at that time but 846 remained in the Recce role. In later years, this was changed to conventional support as Canada changed its commitment within NATO and reduced the number of European bases and aircraft.
The aircraft was sold to the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF), on September 24, 1971 after accumulating 1,732 flying hours. After conversion and modifications at Scottish Aviation, Prestwick, to a F-104G variant, it flew for the RDAF 726 Esk at Aalborg as R-846 until July 10, 1984, when it was Struck Off Strength (SOS) after having flown 1,821 additional hours and retired with a total of 3,553 hours. Initially stored for four years, at Vaerlose Air Base, in 1988, it was on display for ten years in the RDAF museum in Billund, Denmark.
In 1998 it was stored at Vandel AB and Karup ABs until it was bought by US aircraft collector, Steve Alex. On December 19, 2010, R-846 arrived back at its at old home base at Aalborg where it was shipped out in containers on July 14, 2011 to Alex’s facility in Maine. The aircraft was purchased in June 2013 and trucked to Calgary where it was restored at Springbank airport. After 51 years, 846 returned home to Canada and now resides in a unique new exhibit developed for the Air Force Museum of Alberta, at The Military Museums in Calgary.
There is a significant historical connection between Albertans and the Starfighter. In 1960, RCAF Station, Cold Lake, Alberta, was chosen as the training base for the CF-104s and for 23 years the unique look and sound of the aircraft became familiar to many Albertans. Former pilots and technicians have made their home in Calgary and some have developed a significant emotional bond to this unique aircraft that they have either flown or worked on during their career in the RCAF.
The Cold War
The Cold War is an era that has slipped from the consciousness of many Canadians. The Iron Curtain fell in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated and Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact countries were released from Soviet control. It seems that the world quickly forgot about how close they came to Armageddon with both sides having massive overkill of nuclear weapons and millions of soldiers facing each other across the Iron Curtain.
After 45 years of a heightened state of near-war, European countries were no longer in an arms race with each other, tensions thawed and stability replaced large military forces facing off. During the height of the Cold War, the RCAF was a major player in maintaining the peace during a crucial time of nuclear détente flying both photo-reconnaissance and nuclear strike missions. Canada’s role ended in 1994 as the last aircraft and personnel returned to Canada.
Starfighter history in the RCAF
A total of 200 single-seat aircraft (12701-12900) were built by Canadair (Bombardier) in Montreal. Another 38 dual-seat aircraft (12638-12668) were built by Lockheed Aircraft in Palmdale, California. There were 113 Canadian aircraft lost during the 24 year era of the Starfighter. 37 pilots lost their lives while flying the CF-104, only four fatal crashes were due to aircraft system failures.
The principal cause of crashes was due to bird strikes or other factors resulting in engine failure. Other crashes were from the nature of Canada’s NATO role which necessitated flying at high speeds at extreme low levels. Combined with the poor visibility of European skies this resulted in many aircraft being involved in controlled flight into terrain accidents.
The F-104 Starfighter was designed conceived and built by the legendary aircraft designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, chief engineer at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s "Skunk Works" in Burbank, California. It is a high performance single-engine jet interceptor that was designed to counter the threat of Soviet nuclear-equipped Bombers. Korean War pilots had asked for a new fighter to replace the F-86 Sabres, Lockheed proposed the F-104 as a small high-speed fighter interceptor.
The Starfighter was the first fighter capable of sustained flight at speeds in excess of Mach 2. It simultaneously held both altitude and world speed records. In Canada, the Starfighter holds the Canadian altitude record. In 1967, as a centennial project, Wing Commander R.A. White flew aircraft 12700 (actually a lighter F-104C) to a Canadian record height of 100,110 feet on December 14, 1967.
The aircraft has several unique design features such as a small-thin wing with sharp leading edges that were canted down 10 degrees to improve stability. The General Electric J-79 turbojet engine had the highest thrust to weight ratio of any contemporary engine and its small cross-section provided the ideal engine for the aircraft.
The avionics included the latest in inertial navigation and radar. First flown in 1954, only one year after receiving a contract from the USAF, the aircraft had limited acceptance by the US military as they had moved away from the fear of manned bombers to that of intercontinental ballistic missile threats and decided the F-104 was not the aircraft they wanted for their air superiority role. As a result, the US Forces reduced their initial order from 722 and only 155 saw US service.
However in 1959, Canada had cancelled the CF-105 Arrow program and was looking for a replacement for their aging F-86 Sabres and the Starfighter was determined to be the best choice. The CF-104 was an upgraded version of the earlier F-104A with a higher thrust J-79 manufactured under license by Orenda Aircraft Canada. An order for 200 CF-104s (at a price of $1.90 million each) was placed with Canadair Aircraft, Montreal, Quebec who would build them under license from Lockheed. An additional 38 two-seater CF-104Ds were ordered directly from Lockheed in California.
Following Canada’s lead, many NATO countries purchased the F-104G which was a heavier model that had won the NATO competition for a fighter–bomber and the aircraft eventually served with the air forces of fifteen nations. Canada retired the CF-104s from service in 1987. A total of 2,578 Starfighters were built and the last operational users were the Italian Air Force who retired them in 2004 – 50 years since their first flight, truly a remarkable career for the fighter.
The Starfighter on display at the Air Force Museum of Alberta was restored to its original look and configuration as flown at Cold Lake and Europe in the 1960s. The shiny aluminum fuselage with white wings is an iconic paint scheme for the Mach 2.0 (2,336 kph) fighter – the fastest aircraft Canada has ever flown.
CF-104 - Starfighter
- Crew: 1-2
- Length: 55ft (16.7 m)
- Wingspan: 22ft (6.7m)
- Height: 13ft (4.2m)
- Empty Weight: 6,300 Kg
- Operational Takeoff Weight: 12,100 Kg
- Fuel Load: 5,140 Litres
- Powerplant: Orenda GE J79-OEL7
- Thrust: 10,000 lbs, with Afterburner - 15,800 lbs
This was the most advanced fighter jet engine of its day. With afterburner on, it could consume all fuel onboard in under 17 minutes.
- Maximum Speed - 1,550mph or 2,500 km/h, MACH 2
- Rate of Climb - up to 48,000 feet per minute
- Service Ceiling - 58,000 ft ASL
A clean CF-104 (with no external tanks) could go from a standing start takeoff to 35,000 feet and Mach 2.0 in 6 minutes.
- Guns - Vulcan M61A1 multi-barrel 20mm Cannon (5,000 rounds per minute)
- CRV-7 rockets, CBU 1, BL-755 and Mk82 500lb bombs
- MK28RE 70 kiloton nuclear weapon (US controlled)