So you want to Buy an F-104 Starfighter?

Want to buy an F-104 Starfighter? They come up for sale every so often and for surprisingly reasonable prices. You can read the history of the F-104 here, but the BLUF is that the F-104 Starfighter was once the pre-eminent air superiority fighter of the Western world. Affectionately called the “missile with a man in it,” the F-104 set numerous altitude and speed records upon its arrival and held the unofficial altitude record of 120,800 feet until bested by a highly modified Mig-25. The F-104 Starfighter had perhaps its most prominent moment in the movie, “The Right Stuff” as actor Sam Shepard, portraying pilot Chuck Yeager, uses a Starfighter to climb almost to the edge of space in an attempt to set a new altitude record. While flying around in a retired F-104 Starfighter would be awesome, there are some things you should know if you see one for sale.

An early U.S. Air Force F-104A Starfighter as it would have been delivered from the factory. These early Starfighters crushed almost every standing speed and altitude record then in existence and played an important part in advancing U.S. fighter design. Although quickly passed out of service by the U.S. Air Force, the Starfighter served with other countries into the 21st century and was an important test platform for NASA for decades. NASA Photo.

A quick look on Controller.com shows a former Jordanian Air Force F-104 Starfighter for sale as a fixer upper at $85,900.00. The three important aspects of this particular aircraft are that it is mostly intact, has already been imported into the United States and has been registered with the FAA. That would take care of most of the grunt work for a buyer as getting a retired warbird into the country can be a difficult undertaking. The fact that it has its original engine and wing tanks make it a particularly good candidate for restoration to flying status. It’s not listed whether this particular aircraft was sent or not, but a number of Jordanian F-104’s flew combat missions in support of Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War.

The advantage of restoring an F-104 Starfighter is the availability of parts. The F-104 remained a front line fighter with the Italian Air Force until 2004, with the Turkish Air Force until the late 90’s and satellite imagery as of 2017 shows the Greek Air Force still has almost all of it’s F-104’s that were photographed in 2011 still held in ready reserve. Some of the Italian F-104’s have been sold to private vendors who are selling the aircraft whole or for parts for other aircraft. That said, the sources for parts are limited and it is a sellers’ market. Restoring an F-104 Starfighter to flying status would be prohibitively expensive for most middle-class Americans as even a good air frame could run upwards of $500,000 to update. If you had the money and the interest though, there are numerous companies that could restore your project F-104 back to flying status. Given the plentiful supply of working age F-104 technicians and mechanics all over the world, it might also be possible find private individuals willing to work for you and reduce your costs.

An Italian F-104S Starfighter and a Turkish TF-104G Starfighter two seat aircraft make up the left and right edges of this diamond formation respectively with an Italian Tornado leading and an A-7 Corsair trailing. This image highlights size difference between the “G” model and single seat models. National Archives Photo 6462829 

The real problem with having an F-104 is going to be fuel and maintenance. In 1960’s dollars, the F-104 had an average flying cost per an hour of $695.00 for fuel and a maintenance cost per an hour of $395.00. Fast forward to the modern times and those numbers significantly increase. Internal fuel and wingtip tanks carry roughly 8,000 pounds of JP-4 fuel. At a weight of 6.84 pounds per a gallon that roughly equals 1170 gallons of JP-4 fuel at a 2017 cost of $3.99 per a gallon at Washington Dulles International Airport. That means you’d be paying $4,668.30 per a flight just for fuel. Dependent upon how hot you’re flying the plane, you could potentially burn through that fuel in less than 30 minutes. If you had an upgraded F-104, like the Italian S model, then your F-104 would require military grade JP-8 fuel. Jet A1, the civilian equivalent of JP-8 military fuel was quoted at $8.43 a gallon at the time of this article.

This could be you behind the stick of your very own F-104 Starfighter. As the Starfighter was purchased outright by most of the countries that operated it, most of the air frames are free of any Department of Defense encumbrances. National Archives Photo 6366735

In military service, the F-104 required 40 hours of maintenance per a flight hour. That should still be a reasonable expectation of how much maintenance a restored F-104 Starfighter will require. While mechanics and technicians are plentiful, they still command premium pay and $100.00 an hour for an experienced mechanic at a reputable maintenance shop is not unreasonable. With parts and the above fuel costs, you could easily expect it to cost north of $10,000.00 a flight hour to hotrod around in your F-104 Starfighter. This is still a bargain though, the A-10 Thunderbird II (Warthog) is the U.S. Air Force’s least expensive current fighter to fly at roughly $11,500.00 a flight hour. If you have the money to seriously consider this though, the above numbers shouldn’t be reason for pause. Besides, your neighbor might have a 1959 Corvette in their garage, but they probably don’t have a combat veteran 1959 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter sitting in their hangar. For the rest of us though, the Powerball is drawn every Wednesday and Saturday night. Tickets can be purchased at your local lottery retailer.

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