NASA Retired Its F-104 20 Years Ago
February 8, 2014

NASA Retired Its F-104 20 Years Ago

[ Watch the Video: Looking Back At NASA's Retired F-104 Jet ]

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

Twenty years ago, NASA’s F-104 jet made its final flight over the space agency’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

During that flight, NASA research pilot Tom McMurtry took the F-104 from the Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, which Dryden shares.

“At the last moment, he switched on the fuel flow to the afterburner and a vapor trail of fuel streamed out behind the screaming jet. A second or two later, the burner lit, leaving a tongue of flame as the sleek jet roared over the center in its final flyover salute and pulled up and away,” NASA said in a statement about the flight.

The jet was one of three F-104G aircraft obtained by NASA from the German Luftwaffe in 1975. The final flight of NASA 826 was number 1,415, and afterwards it was retired and placed on display outside the center, where it remains today.

McMurtry’s final flight was preceded by a high-altitude pass at supersonic speed with a sonic boom followed by a low-level flyby at 275 knots.

"The sky cleared up just in time for F-104 826's last flight," reads the anonymous entry in NASA Dryden's Flight Operations log for the date, according to the space agency. "Tom put on a beautiful show with a high, supersonic flyover, and two low, high-speed passes over Bldg. 4800."

Two of NASA’s F-104s were lost in crashes, including one incident that cost the life of the center’s chief pilot, Joseph Walker. NASA 826 was used for a wide range of research activities, including tests of the Space Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System tiles.

NASA ended up retiring its F-104 because of the difficulty it had maintaining and obtaining parts for the aircraft. The space agency made the decision to retire the vehicle and replace it with a more maneuverable F-18.

Over its 38 years at the research center, the 11 F-104s flown by NASA accumulated over 18,000 flights in a variety of missions ranging from basic airborne simulations to aerodynamic test beds.

"There's not many people here who can remember when there wasn't an F-104 here," retired research pilot and engineer William F. "Bill" Dana told a reporter at the time, according to NASA. "The F-104 was our bread-and-butter airplane. I flew it my whole flight career from 1959 to 1991."