Lockheed F-104G ZELL Starfighter (DB+127) as used by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) at the Luftwaffenmuseum, Berlin-Gatow (Germany)
This F-104G is displayed in a "Zero-Length Launch" (ZELL) configuration with a solid-fuel "dropaway" rocket booster unit.
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter is a single-engine, supersonic interceptor aircraft originally developed by Lockheed for the
United States Air Force (USAF). One of the Century Series of aircraft, it was operated by the air forces of more than a dozen nations from
1958 to 2004. Its design team was led by the same man who later went on to design the SR-71 Blackbird, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson.
A total of 2578 Starfighters were produced, mostly by NATO members. A set of modifications produced the F-104G model, which won a NATO competition for a new fighter-bomber. The Starfighter had an undesirable reputation for high accident rates. 270 German F-104s were lost in accidents, resulting in the deaths of at least 110 pilots. In reality, this was not unusual, and can be attributed the the nature of the mission: high-speed, low-altitude flight, in the poor weather conditions of Europe. The German press, however, gave it the name Witwenmacher (Widowmaker).
The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) became worried about the possible vulnerability of its airfields to Warsaw Pact attacks, and started searching for means of dispersing its Starfighters around the country. Under contract from the Luftwaffe, Lockheed carried out tests with an F-104G launched by rocket from a platform. The Luftwaffe envisaged fleets of nuclear-armed Starfighters being trucked out to the countryside and mounted on pre-positioned ramps. From there, the aircraft would be launched under the power of a huge rocket motor, which would take the Starfighter to flying speed before dropping away. After the mission, recovery would take place at hastily prepared landing strips, perhaps even using the autobahnen, that were equipped with runway arrester gear for short landings. Luftwaffe F-104G DA+102 (the third Lockheed-built Starfighter for the Luftwaffe) was modified for a series of Zero-Length Launch (ZELL) tests in 1963 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, United States of America. The F-104G was mounted on a trailer, and a 733 kN (130.000 lb) Rocketdyne solid-fuel rocket booster was attached to the rear of the fuselage. For takeoff, the pilot would run up the J79 engine to full thrust, then light the rocket motor. Within four seconds after ignition, the F-104G would be flying at
482 km/h (about 300 mph) and the rocket booster would drop off. The program was not disclosed to the public until 21 March 1966. From 1966, ZELL testing was carried out at Lechfeld, home of Jagdbombergeschwader 32 (32nd Fighter Bomber Squadron). Two of the wing's aircraft (DB+127 and DB+128) were assigned to the project. Although tests were successful, the scheme was not adopted for operational use. After the ZELL test program was abandoned in July 1966, the test F-104G was returned to service in Germany. In the early days the Germans used the old squadron based serials (e.g. DA+125, VA+112, JD+223 etc) and from 13 November 1967 they introduced the new XX+XX serial system.
The Luftwaffenmuseum, now known as the Militärhistorisches Museum (MHM) der Bundeswehr - Flugplatz Berlin-Gatow
(Bundeswehr Museum of Military History - Berlin-Gatow Airfield), is the Berlin branch of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum. The museum acts as an independent military department. Entrance to the museum is free. The museum is in Berlin at a former Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield, RAF Gatow. The focus is on military history, particularly the history of the post-war German Air Force. The museum has a collection of more than 200.000 items, including 155 aeroplanes, 5.000 uniforms and 30.000 books. There are also displays (including aeroplanes) on the history of the airfield when it was used by the RAF. Although there are also several helicopters and MiG fighters used during the Cold War by East German forces.