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The F-94 Starfire Was the Cold War USAF’s Vision of a Tuned Hot Rod
It's Tuning Month here at AE, a month where we pay tribute to all of the wrenchers, welders, and DIY gurus both in the industry and in their garage. The kind of people who turn everyday vehicles into unique and exciting rocketships. Most tuner culture is associated with the automotive sphere, but every once in a while, the U.S. military also decides to take an existing platform and make it even faster.

The F-94 Starfire Was the Cold War USAF’s Vision of a Tuned Hot Rod

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In a broad sense, the Lockheed F-94 Starfire was the closest thing to a Honda Civic Si that ever took to the skies. Apart from that being an utterly ridiculous and possibly poorly thought analogy between a modern Japanese sports compact and a Cold War American warbird, it does at least contextualize the thinking behind how the U.S. Air Force designed post-war jets.

Like a sporty model of a typical hatchback, the Lockheed F-94 had its origins in an older, slower design. That, of course, being the venerable F-80 Shooting Star, the first American jet fighter to see actual combat over the skies of Korea. The same way a base Civic is perfectly acceptable as a zippy little economy car, the straight-wing F-80 had solid characteristics all around. With good maneuverability, dependability, and a decent top speed and maximum altitude.

That didn't stop the might of the swept-wing Russian MiG-15 from giving the Shooting Star all the hell it could handle. It was a fight that American pilots were starting to lose. Supplemental jet fighters like the North American F-86 Saber ran into unexpected delays. This meant as the shipment of new Sabers remained at a trickle, another design, based on the F-80 already in service, would need to serve as a stop-gap.

In the same way, a souped-up car, either from a garage or from the factory, improves on an existing platform, the F-94 took the sturdiest bits of the F-80 and added a liberal sprinkling of extra "POWAAAAHH" (sorry). The Allison J33-A35 turbojet engine found in the F-80 was replaced with an Allison J-33-A-33. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

What's important about the new engine, aside from its silly name, was that it sported the aeronautical equivalent of forced induction, an afterburner. All this afterburner needed to do was inject raw jet fuel into the engine's combustion chamber to give a significant temporary boost in thrust.

The fuselage was made thicker and sturdier to compensate for the stresses of a more powerful engine. The Starfire had a much more muscular overall aesthetic compared to the streamlined F-80. The improvements saw the F-94 approach speeds nearing the sound barrier, between 640 and 760 miles per hour (1029 to 1223 km/h) depending on the altitude and the wind direction.

The Starfire was introduced into service with the Air Defense Command (ADC) in May 1950. It was deployed to several squadrons within the ADC, like the 325th Fighter-All Weather Group based on McChord AFB and Moses Lake AFB, Washington.

The type replaced the propeller-driven F-82F Twin Mustangs used by its 317th, 318th, and 319th squadrons. F-94C models were flown out of Griffiss Air Force Base in Upstate New York. Soon after, the Starfire joined its F-80 forbearers in the Far East Air Force (FEAF) in March 1951.

By the end of that year, the F-94B variant of the Starfire finally had its first visual encounter with the communist MiG-15, often secretly flown by Russian pilots. Starfire pilots had to be careful not to fly into areas where a shoot-down by communist forces would almost assuredly result in a counterfeit, as happened with the blatant copy of the Boeing B-29 Strategic Bomber, the Tupolev Tu-4. This prevented combat engagement between the two until at least January 1952.

In the winter of 1952, the F-94 and the MiG-15's long-awaited first interception came at last. Some real honest to god dogfighting occurred between the two jets, both aircraft balancing out each other's weaknesses with their unique strengths. As nimble and deadly as MiG-15 was with its devastating cannons and swept wing agility, the Starfire compensated with its excellent rugged durability and straight-winged stability in tighter, slower turns. 

The first jet-on-jet nighttime kill was credited to a Starfire when after shooting down a MiG-15 during the war. The jet served alongside greats like the F-86 Sabre, Republic F-84 Thunderjet, and F-82 Twin Mustang valiantly until an armistice brought a halt to the war.

The type was retired in 1958, but not before the F-94C variant added rocket pods hidden in between the canopy and the nose of the plane. If that isn't a killer aftermarket upgrade in the sky, we don't know what is.

So, then it was based on a basic design, given a fancy new engine that shoots flames, and it had hidden rocket pot upgrades. If that doesn't qualify the Starfire to be parked alongside that J-series V6 swapped Civic you saw on Instagram at the local car meet, we don't know what will. Now tell us, how badly did we beat that analogy into the ground?

Thankfully a Starfire finds much more fitting company amongst other great American warbirds at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, a place we just visited recently and are having a blast showcasing for you. Be sure to check back for more.

 
 
 
 
 

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