Meet the F-104 Lancer: The Super Starfighter That Never Was

August 13, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Air ForceHistoryLockheed LancerMilitaryTechnology

Meet the F-104 Lancer: The Super Starfighter That Never Was

Did the air force make a mistake? 

Designed as a supersonic air superiority fighter, the F-104 Starfighter was a technological marvel when it first took to the sky in the 50s.

Armed with a six-barrel M-61 20mm Vulcan cannon, it served as a tactical fighter, and when equipped additionally with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, as a day-night interceptor.

The F-104 development began in 1952, and the first XF-104 performed its maiden flight in 1954.

It set a number of records, such as the world speed record of 1,404.19 mph (set by an F-104A on May 18, 1958) and the world altitude record of 103,395 feet (set by an F-104C on Dec. 14, 1959). Moreover, the Starfighter was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous official world records for speed, altitude and time-to-climb.

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) procured about 300 Starfighters in one- and two-seat versions. In addition, 1,700 F-104s were built in the U.S. and abroad under the military aid program for various nations including Canada, West Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan and Japan.

However, even if the Starfighter was providing these nations with a fighter of highly advanced capabilities and breathtaking performance, it was not the effective, easy to operate fighter needed for the Western European market. The F-104 had repeatedly proven itself to be a handful to fly even in the hands of a skillet pilot, much less in the hands of a less experienced pilot. As explained by Phillip Friddell in his book F-104 Starfighter In Action, that fact plus the Starfighter’s increasing age, led Lockheed to issue (in 1971) a proposal for a successor to the F-104 designated CL-1200 Lancer.

The Lancer was proposed with the idea of using as many F-104 components as possible. This goal could be readily and quickly accomplished since the type was still in production in both Germany and Italy. A ready market existed for the new fighter as well, with nine European and six other nations still operating the F-104.

The CL-1200 concept, on which the Lancer was based, was developed as a private venture by Lockheed and entailed what amounted to a major redesign of the existing F-104 structure. Among the many changes, there was a wing structure some fifty-three percent larger than the Starfighter’s, an enlarged vertical tail, high lift devices, additional hardpoints on the wings, an improved intake design, considerably increased fuel capacity and the installation of a Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-100 engine. The forward fuselage was to be an F-104S or TF-104G section, depending on whether the aircraft was to be a single or two-seater, mounted on a thirty-inch fuselage extension.

The Lancer project at first appeared to promise an effective lightweight fighter for the 1980s at a cost far below that of any new-design air superiority fighter. Unfortunately, and perhaps incorrectly, certain members of the Air Force’s “Fighter Mafia” felt that the design had the potential to adversely impact the development of the then-new F-15 Eagle. As a result, political pressure was applied and the CL-1200 was assigned the experimental designation X-27. But according to Friddell, the Lancer offered only limited scope and technological advances when used as a research aircraft; so the Air Force agreed to the request that the type not be built. In the event, no metal was cut and the project died.

The Lancer’s intended market had been in Europe from the beginning and the Air Force’s unwillingness to work with Lockheed on the project had considerable basis in that fact. While the proposed fighter could have, on paper at least, offered a high-performance aircraft at greatly reduced developments costs, it failed to offer the “quantum leap” in technology that would justify extensive American financial involvement. In addition, several new European fighters offered similar performance.

A full-scale mockup of the aircraft (which used an F-104G forward fuselage and landing gear and had the wooden fuselage covered by metal skinning) was built and displayed, but no actual flight article was ever constructed and the program quietly faded away.

This first appeared in Aviation Geek Club here