Germany Couldn't Stand the F-104 Starfighter, But Its Finest Hour Was Simply Magical

The West German Luftwaffe hated the Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. No, really, they couldn't stand the things. For so many well-documented and well-remembered reasons, the Luftwaffe Starfighters were known the world over as deathtraps. It only makes you wonder why they bothered buying over 900 of them.
Luftwaffe F-104 22 photos
Photo: German Federal Archives
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But it'd be wrong to say German Starfighters didn't have their share of highlights hidden among the considerable lowlights. In the most notable instance, the Luftwaffe F-104 played the main character in a story seemingly straight out of a movie. A riveting tale of the race to bring life-saving medicine to a young child in Italy from an air base in West Germany. That sounds like complete fiction on the face of it, but it was all real. This is the roller coaster-like story of Germany's F-104.

Like a certain self-professed musical genius, it feels like controversy and scandal surrounded every nut and bolt of the Starfighter's construction from the moment the first prototype flew in 1954. The second example ever built was the victim of an accident that destroyed the airframe. It was an omen of things to come, but nobody knew it yet.

But beyond explosive first impressions, there's the inescapable fact that Lockheed personnel used some fairly shady tactics to get foreign Air Forces to order their jets. In a scandal that supposedly led a trail back to the West German Minister of Defense Franz Joseph Strauss, millions of dollars in Lockheed bribes are purported to have been exchanged for the guarantee West Germany would procure Starfighters.

It was to the point that Franz Joseph Strauss filed a lawsuit against a man called Ernest Hauser. The corporate lobbyist for Lockheed claimed Strauss and his entourage accepted upwards of $10 million in bribes from Lockheed back in 1961. That's the equivalent of over $100 million in 2023's money. But it wasn't just Germany. The Netherlands, Japan, Italy, and Saudi Arabia were also implicated in the scandal. It's just another reason the Starfighter gained a negative reputation wherever it flew.

Luftwaffe F\-104
Photo: Mikaël Restoux
If that weren't bad enough, a fundamentally wrong-headed battle strategy on the part of the Luftwaffe to make the Starfighter a ground attack aircraft were about to have some truly hideous results. If you thought strapping bombs and rockets to the stubby wings of a high-altitude interceptor sounds like a recipe for disaster, you'd be 100 percent correct.

By 1966, 61 F-104s had been lost to accidents, with at least 35 pilots killed. Many of these accidents were attributed to low-level ground attack exercises in which Starfighters on strafing runs were too laden with ordinance and too close to the ground for comfort. Thus, causing them to effectively lawn dart into the ground with very little time to react. By the time the Luftwaffe's Starfighters retired in 1991, 292 airframes were lost alongside 116 of its pilots.

To the West German public, these accident and loss records were nothing short of unacceptable. This led to the unfortunate distinction of Luftwaffe F-104s being dubbed "Der Witwenmacher" by the West German public. In English, this translates to "the Widowmaker." Even before this reputation, the Luftwaffe's top-scoring fighter ace Erich Hartmann expressed his displeasure with his government procuring F-104s.

Being at odds with the Luftwaffe's high command over safety concerns regarding the Starfighter ultimately forced Hartmann into retirement from military service. It was just another casualty in the story of an airplane with a hex seemingly placed on it. Based on this, one would think nothing valuable, positive, or beneficial to the world in any way was ever accomplished by Luftwaffe Starfighters. But that would be an incorrect assumption.

Luftwaffe F\-104
Photo: German Federal Archives
Flash forward to a bitterly cold, miserably icy morning of January 22nd, 1982. On that day, a three-year-old child named Jessica was on the verge of death in the Italian region of Sardinia. Stricken with a devastating illness, the only known medication available to treat the girl resided in Germany. But there was a problem. If the medicine didn't get there in 24 hours, chances were good that Jessica wouldn't make it.

The solution from the German government was one a teenage boy would seemingly devise in his head. It was decided a Luftwaffe F-104 Starfighter from the German Fighter Bomber Wing 34 in the Bavarian town of Memmingen would receive the special medicine. A government convoy trundled across icy roads in the middle of a snowstorm and at great expense to deliver the medicine to the awaiting air base.

At the Starfighter's controls that morning was Luftwaffe Lieutenant Jürgen Gundling. A strapping, young, and remarkably talented jet pilot with upwards of 1000 hours of experience flying the Starfighter. Only a pilot with this supreme understanding of their aircraft had any business taxiing out to the runway that morning. Only a thin strip of this runway was subject to de-icing procedures. There wasn't even enough time to de-ice the taxiway.

But even so, a single F-104 made its way to the beginning of the runway while Jürgen Gundling took a deep breath and fired the afterburner of his General Electric J79 turbojet engine to life. A wave of 15,600 lbf (69 kN) of thrust roared like a mighty lion as the F-104 coaxed itself into the air against the will of mother nature. Meanwhile, military personnel from Germany, Austria, and Italy scrambled like mad to grant permission for the impromptu overflight across national boundaries.

Luftwaffe F\-104
Photo: German Federal Archives
It's not like the conditions at the other end of the trip in Sardinia were any better. Though not snowing or iced over like back in Bavaria, heavy rains at the airbase had caused sections of runway lighting to become inoperable. Not exactly flight-worthy weather by any means.

In a stroke of genius, German and Italian ground personnel at the base began driving trucks up to the runway and blasting their high beams directly at the tarmac to give Jürgen Gundling a better chance at landing safely.

After traveling across national borders at supersonic speeds, air traffic control at the base aided in directing the aircraft down to the landing strip safely. With life-saving medicine now firmly on Italian soil, the drug cocktail was promptly transported to Jessica's hospital bed, saving her life in the process. At that moment, a Luftwaffe jet which most pilots regarded as a flaming metal coffin, pulled off a feat many would deem impossible.

It's the kind of story Hollywood writers would kill to write a screenplay about. More to the point, there's something profoundly poetic about a weapon of war meant to maim and kill, performing a genuine act of goodwill.

First Lieutenant Jürgen Gundling
Photo: Sudwest Presse
Though it wouldn't save the German F-104 from a legacy of infamy, the affair did at least show the story of the Luftwaffe F-104 was far from black and white. One with crushing lows but at least one spectacular, awe-inspiring, and triumphant high point.

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