Norwegian Starfighter Association Interview

Sunday 10th June 2018

The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter is one of the most symbolic icons of the Cold War. Largely forgotten in US service, in Europe the jet formed the mainstay of many NATO nations' frontline fighter defences and on the continent has now attained near mythical status. Forming mixed reputations in different countries, for many it became the "people's fighter", and with its distinct shape and catchy name the jet is looked back on fondly by many of those who worked with it in service. The jet's last operator was the Italian Air Force, who kept it on all the way to 2004 and since then the type has largely been relegated to gate guards and museum pieces, if not scrapped altogether. Remarkably, though, a group in Bodø, Norway has managed to return an example - ex-Royal Norwegian Air Force CF-104D '637' - to flight and once again the Starfighter screams over Europe. After first returning to the air in 2016, the team have now performed their first airshow displays and have brought the jet outside Norway to Denmark and the Netherlands.

Sam Wise sat down with Helge Andreassen, Friends of the Norwegian Starfighter Association president, and Eskil Amdal, Starfighter pilot, to discuss the challenges and rewards in operating this true Cold War icon.

The Century-series of jets is legend. They were the first truly high-performance, supersonic generation of American jets, a step above the gaping intakes and slow engines of the Thunderstreaks and Sabres of before. Names like "Voodoo", "Delta Dart" and "Thunderchief" are so emblematic of their era - a boundary-pushing, risk-welcome, shiny and chrome Fifties where the mushroom cloud was as exciting a marque as the Marlboro Man and the sonic boom was the hottest sound in the charts. Perhaps the most outlandish of all was "Starfighter", an ambitious moniker that truly encapsulated man's newest obsession, reaching for the stars. The design stands out even from the varied looks of the era when swept wings were still new - with short, stubby, incredibly thin and razor-sharp wings at a striking anhedral, it really does look like a rocket ship; it looks fast. At the time, it was the cutting-edge - pun intended - of aerodynamic knowledge when the demand was for sheer interception speed in large numbers over payload. It is unsurprising that this jet, born of the same mind that designed the SR-71 Blackbird, went on to be a record-setter.

However, poor operational service which resulted in low numbers acquired saw the Starfighter's US service end up largely irrelevant, unsuited to that air force's needs. Instead, it was abroad that the legend was forged, especially in Europe, where it equipped seven NATO countries' militaries (plus Spain, who retired theirs before joining the Organisation). Among these is Norway, where the jet remains viewed favourably. Getting a supersonic, afterburning fighter jet back to flight, in civilian hands no less, is a hell of an undertaking, and it's been many years in the making - eighteen years, in fact.

"It started with the fact that we have some Norwegian Starfighters flying in the US in private ownership. I was in contact with these guys and they wanted to check out spare parts in Norway, so I used my contacts to look for these. It turns out we have quite a lot, so I stopped and said to myself - why don't we seek out the possibility of getting one flying in Norway?" Helge Andreassen has a pretty strong connection with the Starfighter. Now in his sixties, he flew the type in the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) in the 1970s, accruing over 1000 hours on the type. After finishing his pilot training in the States he started on the F-5 with 334 Squadron, but when the RNoAF decided to increase their Starfighter fleet he moved onto that. Leaving the air force in '79 as a First Lieutenant, he flew for SAS on a number of types before working in the Norwegian CAA (CAA-N). He retired in 2012, but he'd been working on the Starfighter return for a while before then. "We still had the human resources, the people, the technicians, we even had the backing of the air force eventually. This was back in 2001, I formed the Friends of Norwegian Starfighter (Foreningen Starfighterens Venner, FSV) in 2003 and have been president of that ever since and have been in charge of the whole restoration project."

It's those people that have provided any kind of baseplate for the project at all. Nothing in aviation can work without the people, but a sound base of knowledge and expertise becomes much harder to find for a jet that hasn't flown in a country for over thirty years. For this reason, Bodø was the only location that the restoration could feasibly take place. It was Norway's former Starfighter base, where Helge once flew from operationally, but crucially it is still the air force's fighter base: "The 104 was taken out of service in 1983 but the personnel were moved onto the F-16, and when we started some of them were just starting to retire in their 60s and they were keen to come on board. Some of them had worked on the Starfighter for over 20 years and even though they weren't civilian qualified we had a group of approximately 15 guys with different backgrounds on the aeroplane. We had to do it in Bodø because that's where we had the people. We couldn't do it anywhere else. But the air force has also helped us out with people - people currently in the air force have been helping us in their free time, we have access to their shops on a daily basis, and every time we've asked for help they've come along."

"That's been the most complicated thing - getting the human resources available and getting qualified people working on the aeroplane. And the people working on the plane these days aren't young! They're getting old! Getting keen, qualified people in the team that will keep it running is maybe the biggest challenge we face. I must admit, you got to have the right people on board with connections. You can't do this without a group of people who know how to pull the strings, who to talk to, where to seek support." Following retirement, the air frame was transferred to Sola Air Base where it was stored for a few years before moving back to Bodø where it served as a ground handling instructional aircraft for some years. The FSV actually handed '637' over to its original squadron, 334 Sqn, before they were able to take legal ownership of the jet. In 2009 the air force wanted to turn ownership over. "It took us two years to get the ownership. We thought that was going to be the easy part! The aircraft was produced in Palmdale, USA and if the Norwegian Air Force is going to turn it over to someone they have to have approval from the US State Department in Washington DC and an End User Certificate. Two years of cross co-operation with our Department of Defence and the embassy in Washington before we could take the ownership of the airframe. It was only once we got that that things really started to move - there wasn't anything we could've done without it, such as getting it on the civil register, without which we couldn't do anything at all to get it back to flight."

The airframe was well looked after in service, which has made the restoration process much easier than it might have been. However, they did not have all the parts needed - and again, the air force stepped in to assist. The F-104's final operator was the Italian Air Force, retiring them as recently as 2004, and, unsurprisingly, the restoration team were talking to them very early on about acquiring parts. However, as the FSV was a civilian organisation the Italian Air Force wouldn't hand over any spare parts to them, despite the jet then being out of service. Consequently, the transfer of parts had to be done as an air-force-to-air-force transaction, despite everyone involved knowing that it was going into civilian hands. Similarly the Royal Danish Air Force have been very supportive of the project with regards expertise and parts, especially around the refit and modification of 'zero-zero' Martin-Baker Mk.7GQ(A) seats for '637' to replace the less capable (and much harder to manage) Lockheed C2 seats. Andreassen simply says: "We couldn't have done it without the air force."

Once the aircraft is ready to go, well, it's time to go. In steps Eskil Amdal, former RNoAF F-16 display pilot, F-35 test pilot, now Airbus test pilot, with over 90 types in his logbook including such variety as DC-3s, Tornados and Mustangs - and now a century jet. It's hard to imagine anyone with a finer pedigree to bring a supersonic classic jet back into the air, and Amdal has been instrumental in bringing the jet back to flight. "The cool thing is, it just flies like a fighter." He's keen to dispel the idea that the jet handles unlike any other aircraft, despite the infamous design. "Spitfire, Mustang, 104, 16, F-35, they all share the same ethos and philosophy, it turns where you want to be and it just goes there. Particulars like the blown-flap and a few technicalities about this aeroplane make it very interesting, and you have to pay attention to it or it will turn around and bite you, but it's like any other aeroplane if you respect it. It's a solid aeroplane, I never had any major concerns. It's a test pilot's dream, in fact." The work up to first flight was slow, obviously, and involved a lot of learning, familiarisation and preparation, often in conjunction with speaking to former pilots. He's had to define a lot of the systems: "I'd been following the project from the side for a little bit but then I was approached, and for me it was a huge honour to be asked. But at the time I thought we would be flying within six months to a year and then six years later we finally got there; but it was almost more worth it because it meant I got to be part of the team and helped out on the operational side to design the framework based on CAP 632 from the UK CAA." He wasn't fazed by the jet's reputation as a "widow-maker", making the point that the Norwegians had a period of eight years without losing a single aircraft and that he's got decades of experience from many different people to draw upon.

Amdal has plenty of display experience - aside from his former military display role he also works at the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation displaying their "Sharkmouth" P-51D and Spitfire, and instructs on the same at Boultbee. He's no stranger to generating routines for airshows, but with a brand new, nearly unique aircraft it's not the simplest task. "Naturally, right now my low hours on the airframe drives the complexity - I'll leave the aerobatics to the Extras and the Pitts. When I was the display pilot on the F-16 in 2012, I had a lot more time to develop a routine that's complex and with smaller margins, with the Starfighter, I wanted to show the character of the plane and what it's for - the speed, the smoke, the sound. We have a few turns, a roll, some high speed, but it's not a dramatic aerobatic display; the aircraft was never designed to do that anyway and it's not worth the risk or effort to train to a certain level where I could be doing that. We want to show off the aeroplane to the enthusiasts and get people interested in it and, really, it doesn't need to do that much to get the attention."

And attention is certainly what this jet is getting. Helge posted a video on the group's Facebook page of the first take off of 2018 a month before the first display at Sola - the video absolutely exploded, getting over one million views and twelve thousand likes since, and probably brought the project to the attention of a massively larger audience than it previously had. Off the back of it, the team has had people get in touch from all over Europe, Canada, even as far as Pakistan and Japan and some fans of the jet even travelled to Aalborg from these countries just to see the 104 fly again. And of course, it's not just the chance for those that remember the jet to see it in the air again, but to show it off to a new generation that never saw the jet in the first place - a jet that its own pilot made models of as a kid.

The subject of money is always going to come up with a civilian project like this, and there's no hesitancy in admitting that the Starfighter is an expensive aircraft to run. Fuel is naturally expensive, but the biggest ongoing issue is the seats: they need to be serviced annually at Survival Equipment Services in the UK, which sets them back 400,000 Norwegian Krone - a £37,500 hit every year. They're not keen to put an actual figure on the running costs of the jet, purely because it is hard to actually estimate it, but the project has mostly been funded by money saved up by everyone over the years and Helge reckons that so far they've spent about 1.7 million krone (around £159,000 on the project). This actually might not seem like that much for a project of this scale, but, aided as they are and have been by the air force and donated parts from abroad, that's a lot for private funding unsupported by a major sponsor. Scandinavian Avionics sponsored an otherwise expensive Garmin package for the team, for which they're very grateful, but they lack a big name funder - Kongsberg Gruppen, the Norwegian defence manufacturer, used to sponsor the team, but dropped out a few years ago. "We would love to have a big, rich sponsor!" Helge jokes, "I think now we're promoting the plane a lot more it'll help a lot."

The first public display was - obviously - going to be in Norway, at Sola, and Andreassen acknowledges that even that short journey from their homebase was a big step with risks associated with it, but the next display and the jet's overseas debut was only the next day. "It was a major step for us, but we had to do it. We cannot just sit with the aircraft at home in Bodø, just flying locally and expect people to come to us. We definitely wanted to go to Denmark first because of the help they gave us, and we definitely wanted to go to Aalborg because that was the home of the 104 in Denmark." Eskil is confident that they'll be able to travel more: "As long as we've got the hours and the manpower, there's no real limit to where we can go. If we can make it work with people, resources and money, we'll try and go there." With regards the UK, of course, it's not so easy. Amdal, who lives in England, is a UK Display Authority holder so there is no issue on that front as currently limits the Swedish Air Force Historic flight, for example, but for the Starfighter the lack of manufacturer support is a big problem. But they're keen to come over, as he explains: "We would love to come to the UK if we could. There's a huge following in the UK but it's on the technical side that we have challenges, but we're in contact with the CAA. We believe that the aeroplane is very solid and safe, that we have a display that's sound and we know it'd being joy to a lot of people." So far this contact has just been informal - until they're in a position to come over there's no need to make a formal approach - but Amdal in particular is best placed to navigate this issue. Being a "complex" aircraft in civilian hands makes things tough with the UK CAA, but they believe they will be able to enter UK airspace in 2019, looking at Scotland first. British enthusiasts have already made the journey abroad to see this legend, but they can take comfort knowing that the UK is very high on the team's list to visit.

Despite this, Helge is wary of making too many plans for the future. "We don't run it on a day-to-day basis but we don't work year-to-year either. There's no five-year plan or anything - we could be standing still before we know it, so there's not much point making long term goals, we've got to take it as it is. For example, we can do a lot of things with the engine, but we can't open it up, we're never going to split it. We've just got the one engine, and it's a great engine with about 205 hours left on it. The J79 is a reliable engine, you could even have a heavy bird strike and it'll get you back down, but if that happens, that's it, the aeroplane isn't flying again." Fortunately, the team is working with a Canadian company, S&S Turbine, that's providing support for the engine and supplying some parts - Helge says that without the their help, they could never have made it but of course, again, that all costs money. They have spare parts from Italy and Denmark available to them, but if something major breaks, it could ground the aircraft for good. "We don't have a backup plan, but we've got money in the bank."

But if all goes well, they'll be evaluating their future at the end of the summer now that they've finally broken out into the world, and they obviously want to keep '637' flying for as long as possible. For Helge, though, once the jet has reached a natural end, that's it for him - there wouldn't be any other jets he'd look to work on or other projects to get involved with. "I'm 68 years old, time is running short! I love to fly but I never really invested much time in it aside from the Starfighter project. Plus, I've completed what I wanted to achieve. People said this was never going to happen, it was a waste of time, I should've just given up on it, but for me it was about making it happen and seeing it through. It's easy to understand why people were hesitant to support it, but the more people who oppose you the more eager you get!" Helge's affection for the jet is obvious, and he takes great pride in what the organisation has managed to achieve. And rightly so, to get a supersonic classic jet in the air is a phenomenal achievement, possibly even more remarkable in comparison with their neighbouring counterparts in the SwAFHF who have had significant support from Saab throughout.

As someone born too late to catch the F-104 in service, to see an old and iconic jet of this nature, once so common on the continent but gone for so long, flying is nothing short of breathtaking. The screamy engine, the howling intakes and the belching black smoke is just unreal, but does nothing to give away the extraordinary hard work that has gone into getting this machine back in the air. There's no doubt that the team will be moving around a lot more in the future - just as much as people will travel to see it airshows will be looking at the Starfighter as the unbeatable headline act. For now, it's baby steps, no long journeys, content to stay relatively close to home, but they've already made a hell of an entrance onto the airshow stage, and look likely to keep their place there for some time.

UKAR would like to thank Helge Andreassen and Eskil Amdal for their time and assistance, as well as the Danish Air Show press staff for their help in arranging the meeting.