Its leading edge was so sharp that they had to put protections on the ground

El Basilio: an incident that tested the cutting wings of a Spanish F-104 fighter

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was a supersonic fighter whose first flight took place in 1954. More than 2,500 were built and Spain operated 21 units.

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The first 7 Spanish F-104s (5 F-104 single-seaters and 2 TF-104G two-seaters) arrived at the Rota Naval Base on January 15, 1965, aboard an American aircraft carrier. They came wrapped in a white rubber sleeve for preservation. The Spanish Air Force received 18 F-104G single-seaters and 3 TF-104G training two-seaters. A Lockheed test pilot, nicknamed "Snake", took them to Torrejón between the 4th and 17th of February of that year, as the Spanish pilots made their first flights in these fighters in March.

An F-104G being disembarked in Rota on January 15, 1965, in the first batch of these fighters that arrived in Spain. The planes came wrapped in white rubber to protect them from the elements (Photo: Revista Aeroplano / Ejército del Aire).

The Spanish pilots of this authentic rocket plane had very quiet flights with this fighter if we compare it with the case of Germany: the Luftwaffe operated 916 fighters of this type, losing a colossal number of 292, in addition to 116 pilots, between 1961 and its withdrawal from service in 1969. Because of this, German pilots knew the F-104 as the "Witwenmacher" (Widowmaker).

The unboxing of one of the first F-104G, with the white rubber already partially removed (Photo: Revista Aeroplano / Ejército del Aire).

One of the most famous legends of the F-104 is that of its sharp leading edges, that is, the front edges of its wings. The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum comments on this :

"To reach Mach 2, the design team had ruthlessly eliminated drag. Wingspan was only 21 feet, and each wing extended only 7 and a half feet from the fuselage. The thin wing tapered from only 4 inches at the root to 2 inches at the wing tip. The front edge of the wing, with a radius of 0.00016 inch, was so sharp that the leading edge needed a protective cover when the jet was on the ground. On first seeing the prototype, Lockheed test pilot Tony Le Vier reportedly asked, «Where are the wings?»"

In 2016, F-104 veteran Dave Groark commented that the wing was not as sharp, but added that once, while at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, a crew chief ran to remove the chocks from the wheels of an F-104, so unlucky that he hit the edge of the wing and split his head open, requiring 12 stitches: "He was bleeding like a stuck pig out there", Groark recalls. Still today, the F-104 operated by civilians try to put these protections to avoid accidents of this type.

The Lockheed F-104G Starfighter on display at the Cuatro Vientos Air Museum. Coming from the JABoG 36 of the Luftwaffe, the starboard half of the plane is preserved with the decoration that the C.8-15 / 104-15 had when it served in the 12th Wing of the Spanish Air Force, based in Torrejón de Ardoz. the authentic C.8-15 passed to the Turkish Air Force after serving in the Spanish Air Force. The port half is preserved with its German decoration and the numeral 26+23 (Photo: Elentir).

On this issue it is interesting to read the article on the F-104 published by Miguel Ruiz Nicolau and Rafael de Madariaga Fernández in No. 3 of "Aeroplano" magazine, November 1985. This magazine, edited for decades by the Aeronautical History and Culture Institute of the Spanish Air Force, is an authentic gem that I recommend to lovers of Spanish aeronautical history. I was very lucky to find that issue of the magazine many years ago at the Cuatro Vientos Air Museum. Today it can be read free online.

The power line pole that was cut by the starboard wing of Captain Arteaga's F-104 (Photo: Revista Aeroplano / Ejército del Aire).

That article reported what happened one day (the exact date is not indicated) during a flight of an F-104G piloted by Captain Arteaga: "upon returning from a night flight and making a GCA approach, Capt. Arteaga went down more than he should due to a misunderstanding with the controller, and with the plane of his plane, which was sharp as a knife, he literally "cut" a power line pole. Thank God and Due to his expertise, the pilot was able to follow the maneuver and land safely, with only minimal damage to the leading edge."

The leading edge of the starboard wing of the F-104 that clipped the power line pole. From then on, this plane was nicknamed "El Basilio" since the incident occurred on Saint Basil's Day (Photo: Revista Aeroplano / Ejército del Aire).

The article included two photos related to the incident that you can see in this post: firstly, the power line pole that was cut by Captain Arteaga's F-104, and secondly, a photo of the starboard wing of the plane, with slight damage caused by the accident. The caption of the photo explained that from then on this plane was nicknamed "El Basilio", since the incident occurred on Saint Basil's Day, that is, January 2.

The F-104 had an ephemeral life in the Spanish Air Force: it was only operational for 7 years (1965-1972). Its replacement was the McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II, whose first units arrived in Spain in 1971. As a curiosity, the aforementioned article in the "Aeroplano" magazine comments the impressions of the pilots of Squadron 104 (turned into Squadron 122 on May 27, 1971 and integrated into Wing 12)< strong> when seeing the F-4C fighters and comparing them with the F-104: "Aircraft comparisons begin and of course, compared to the 104 with its fine lines, its dizzying acceleration, its cockpit clean and tidy, with the great Phantom, this one appeared as a beat-up truck and the other a beautiful sports car."

On May 31, 1972, the F-104 squadron was dissolved, and the following day an official ceremony was held to return the aircraft to the USAF, since they had been delivered to Spain as part of a US military aid program. The Spanish F-104s accumulated more than 17,000 flight hours, a considerable amount, if we take into account that there were only 21 aircraft and that they were in Spain for seven years. After their return to the US, they were handed over to the Greek and Turkish air forces. Today, the Cuatro Vientos Air Museum preserves an F-104G that belonged to the German Luftwaffe.


Main photo: Peitzmeier Archive.

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