The Fastest Show on Earth
How two Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became airshow stars.
The crowds swarm onto the base in the heady July sun to feel the ground shake and to cringe at the thunder of afterburners. Rick Svetkoff and Tom Delashaw are pleased to oblige them—all 250,000 of them, sitting on blankets and lawn chairs and coolers at the Selfridge Air National Guard base in Mount Clemens, Michigan.
“It’s rocket time!” says Svetkoff, a lanky 46-year-old in a blue flightsuit. He straps silver spurs to his black boots and climbs into the cockpit and attaches the spurs to the ejection seat of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, an airplane that, nearly 50 years after its first flight, still causes heads to turn and jaws to drop. Assistant crew chief Andy Bales helps fasten the harness around his shoulders, torso, and legs.
“You all set?” Bales says.
“All set,” says Svetkoff, slipping on his helmet.
“Be careful up there,” Bales says.
Svetkoff’s Starfighters, Inc. of Clearwater, Florida, bills itself as “the world’s fastest flight demonstration team.” With its two F-104s, the team represents a new high on the airshow circuit: civilian-owned supersonic jets flying in formation (though speed for all aircraft is limited to Mach .98 over populated areas—no sonic booms allowed). With the planned addition of a third Starfighter this year, Starfighters, Inc. is chasing the elite of the airshow circuit, the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels. Svetkoff and Delashaw routinely fly faster in both level flight and climb than either team.
“The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are the Rolling Stones of the airshow business,” says John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “When they come, big crowds come, and when big crowds come, they buy a lot of T-shirts and hot dogs and see sponsors’ products.”
Fifteen to 18 million people flock to some 425 airshows in the United States and Canada every season. The big ones—Selfridge in Michigan, Miramar in San Diego, the Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida, to name a few—draw hundreds of thousands, sometimes over a million, spectators in a weekend. No one knows exactly how big the business is, but ICAS guesses $100 million is spent in producing airshows, with at least an equal amount spent by those attending them. And the Angels were scheduled at just 35 shows last year. Svetkoff foresees a civilian team rivaling the military headliners. “We’re not a novelty act,” he asserts. “We’re a formation jet demonstration team. And we generate more thunder than anyone out there.”
A primitive, pulsating howl cuts the air. Hooowha. Hooowha. The two sky-blue Starfighters taxi down the runway in formation, 1,500 feet from the crowd, emitting a scream that brings to mind dragons and dinosaurs. It’s a sound unique to -104s with GE-J79-3, -7, or –11 engines, says Delashaw, due to the configuration of the primary and secondary exhaust nozzles on the tailpipe. At certain engine speeds, exhaust gases rushing past the gap between the primary nozzle and the secondary, which is larger in diameter and aft of the primary, produce the howl the same way that blowing over the opening of a beer bottle produces a distinctive note. Earlier models of the F-4 Phantom were howl-capable, Delashaw says, but to a much lesser extent. “We accentuate it by moving the throttle in a particular range,” he says. “It’s a real attention getter, one aspect among others setting us apart from other jet acts.”
Mesmerized, the crowd stares at the blue missiles screaming down the runway and lifting into the clear air. “It’s rocket time!” Delashaw calls out, and Svetkoff echoes him. Svetkoff has done this dozens of times but his heart is beating fast, adrenaline flooding his body. Delashaw, at 64, has done it too many times to count, from Hahn, Germany, to Key West to Da Nang. But it’s making him feel young again, keeping him alive, he says.
They lift the nosewheels off and are flying at 205 mph, and by the time they’re hitting the end of the runway a second later they’re already passing 350. “Break now,” Svetkoff, in the lead, calls, and banks hard to the right. It’s the signal for Delashaw to pull the stick back and pitch straight up, like an arrow coming out of a bow; then he rolls inverted, quickly levels off at 7,000 feet, and accelerates to catch Svetkoff. Around they come in close formation in a 2.5-mile oval. “Starting the turn,” Svetkoff says, pushing the speed to 400. “Rolling out for the first pass. Call the howl,” Svetkoff says, and adjusts his power setting until Delashaw can hear that unique scream emanating from Svetkoff’s airplane. Delashaw matches the power setting, and together, at 200 feet, they dart down the flightline like blue lightning bolts.
This is exactly what Svetkoff imagined it would be like, hurtling along in his Starfighter, the audience oohing and ahhing, when he first got the idea in 1988: He would buy a fighter. Not just any fighter, but one of the fastest ones in the world, the one rolling and plummeting to “High Flight” when a TV station signed off late at night, the one that still holds a low-altitude speed record. “From the time I was a kid, the 104 had been my favorite airplane,” Svetkoff says. “It’s just beautiful and it accelerates like a rocket ship.” The idea was crazy; Svetkoff had never flown a 104 in his life. And civilians who own and fly rare warbirds and high-performance jets are usually by necessity rich, and Svetkoff isn’t.
“Yup,” says Delashaw, a white-haired retired Air Force fighter pilot, “I heard through the grapevine about this crazy airline pilot who was trying to buy a 104. I couldn’t understand how he was going to finance it.”
Svetkoff, who flew Navy jets in the 1970s and has been a Continental Airlines captain for 15 years, started small: At first he’d just wanted to own and fly something fast—an F-86 maybe. But then he heard that a couple of government contractors who had imported five 104s from the Jordanian and Norwegian air forces, hoping to use them as test beds for research-and-development contracts, might put the aircraft up for sale. The idea was captivating. Owning one of these exotic craft would be like marrying Raquel Welch or Marilyn Monroe. And then it hit him: airshows. He’d been to his first, here at Selfridge, as a kid back in the early 1960s. If I could get something so sexy, so top-shelf, that people would drop their hot dogs and stare when I fly by, he mused, then sponsors would pay to have their name on the side of my airplane.
In 1995, after taking out a third mortgage on his home, Svetkoff married the sexiest icon of his youth. (The deals were helped along by the financial woes of the F-104 owners before him.) He became the owner of a Canadian two-seat CF-104D and a single-seat CF-104, both flown by the Norwegian air force, and a low-time but unflyable F-104B from the Jordanian air force.
Perhaps the most important acquisition was Delashaw, who had tracked down Svetkoff when he heard that Svetkoff was in the market for a 104. First checked out in the 104 in 1961, Tom “Sharkbait” Delashaw is a veteran of the 479th Tactical Fighter Wing, the only U.S. wing to fly the 104 in combat. He flew two tours of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s, including 100 sorties over North Vietnam, mostly combat air patrol in F-104s and night strikes in F-4s. He also flew the 104 as a maintenance test pilot, graduated from the Air Force Fighter Weapons School in Nevada, wrote some official weapons manuals for it, and still holds his unit’s speed and altitude records: 1,500 mph and 92,000 feet. With 2,700 hours logged in 104s, Delashaw was still nuts about the airplane. As a hobby, he keeps tabs on every 104 flying. Although retired from the Air Force since 1987, he is a self-described “time hog,” designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct in and give check rides for the few civilian owners of 104s, F-4s, F-100s, and Hawker Hunters. He is also a formation instructor in the warbird community and teacher of air combat for Texas Air Aces in Houston. And his best friend is Ben McAvoy, a Lockheed Starfighter maintenance rep since 1956 and a former crew member for Darryl Greenamyer’s record-setting 104, which had been built from spare parts (see “Back in the Race,” Aug./Sept. 2000). Delashaw could teach Svetkoff how to fly 104s, and his friendship with McAvoy put the foremost authority on the aircraft’s technical ins and outs a mere phone call away. “Tom had a total knowledge and understanding of the plane,” Svetkoff says.
That’s important with any airplane, but it is especially true of the Starfighter, an airplane revered for its performance but long maligned by people who never flew it. Its design originated with Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson quizzing veteran pilots in Korea in 1952, whose F-80s, F-84s, and F-86s had a hard time going up against North Korea’s MiG-15s. We want more speed, a better climb rate, and a higher ceiling, they told him. Something simple and light. Johnson returned to California and, unsolicited by the Air Force, designed an airplane. If you build it, they will come, he believed, and sure enough, a year later the Air Force issued an order for a lightweight air superiority fighter. The airplane that Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier first flew on March 4, 1954, the XF-104, was an engineering tour de force. It was all fuselage, a long, clean dart with stubby, straight wings so thin they were essentially big double-edge razor blades. Two small engine intakes on either side of the cockpit were the only interruptions to air flow. In 1956 it became the first fighter to exceed Mach 2 in level flight. The Air Force ordered 147 single-seat F-104As. Within three years Starfighters shattered every record in the book: speed (1,404 mph), altitude (103,395 feet), and seven time-to-climb records. Later, rocket-powered NF-104s would unofficially reach 130,000 feet, Chuck Yeager would fail to recover from a flat spin in an NF-104 at 104,000 feet and eject at 11,000 feet, and air racer Darryl Greenamyer would set a low-altitude speed record of 988 mph, which still stands, in a homebuilt 104.
For all its remarkable performance, however, by the time the 104A was delivered, the Air Force was looking at multi-mission-capable aircraft like the F-105. The 104A could not carry bombs, a deficiency that reduced its utility as a tactical fighter. Bugs in the original J79 powerplant rendered it unreliable. And its ejection seat, designed to eject downward because pilots may not have cleared the T-tail at high speeds, was a killer: 21 pilots died in downward ejections. Of the 722 Starfighters eventually ordered by the Air Force, only 296 were delivered, and most of those soon found their way to Air National Guard squadrons.
Thoroughbred though it was, the 104 might have disappeared in ignominy if Germany and NATO hadn’t selected the G model in 1958 as their main platform to deliver tactical nuclear weapons against the Warsaw Pact. Compared with the A and C models (the B and D models were two-seat trainers), the F-104G could carry 8,000 pounds of external stores and the avionics for all-weather capability. But pilots died in it. German pilots crashed two in 1961, seven in 1962, 12 in 1964, and 28 in 1965. By the time Germany retired its 104s, 270 aircraft—nearly 30 percent of its total force—had been lost to accidents, and 110 pilots had died.
Still, over the next three decades, some 2,580 Starfighters had been produced, most under license from Lockheed, in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and Japan. Although the Luftwaffe operated 35 percent of all 104s built, Starfighters were eventually flown by Italy, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan, Jordan, and Pakistan. Even today, Italy flies 64 highly upgraded F-104S models.
Ask Delashaw about the 104’s checkered reputation and he scoffs. Is a race-prepped Ferrari an easy car to drive? If you handed the keys to your teenage son, would he live to tell the tale? German pilots went from the “all-visual subsonic F-84 and F-86 to a Mach 2, low-level, all-weather fighter,” he says. “That’s a huge leap in performance.” And most had little or no experience in any kind of airplane. “The Germans learned to fly in 150 hours at Wichita Falls, Texas. Then we’d give them 150 hours on the 104 at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Then they’d go back to Germany and get a European check and be tossed out on their own. You had pilots with 500 hours of time flying this high-performance airplane in bad weather at 200 to 400 feet; it was a very difficult and intense work environment.”
Pilots like Delashaw who mastered the Starfighter loved it like no other. Spain, he points out, never lost a 104. And in 56,000 hours of flying time Norway suffered but six crashes.
With Delashaw on his team, Rick Svetkoff was off to join the flying circus. “Rick’s theory,” says Delashaw, “was that people at airshows don’t care if you fly a biplane that can do weird stuff; what they really want is something loud, sexy, and fast,” preferably with multiple aircraft in formation, basically the stuff of the military jet teams.
Every December ICAS holds its annual convention, where airshow acts sell themselves to airshow producers for the coming season; Svetkoff attended his first in 1995. “Everyone had these big booths,” Svetkoff says, “and that first year we had no money and just three little photos of the planes, but we had more people hanging around our area than anyone. They were all saying ‘Are you guys actually going to show 104s?’ ” Broke and unpracticed, Svetkoff’s Starfighters, Inc. booked only two shows that season. But over the next year Delashaw checked Svetkoff out and taught him the finer points of flying the high-performance jet, and the two developed a simple routine based on Svetkoff’s premise: lots of high-speed passes and pullups showcasing the airplane’s howling sound, speed, and unparalleled rate of climb. The next December they came to the convention with a big booth, lots of photos, and a sound system pumping out that howl. They’ve barely paused since, performing at 12 to 15 shows a season, mostly big military shows like this one at Selfridge.
“People like thunder and noise,” says Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bankstahl, who, as director of the Selfridge Air Show, booked Starfighters, “and anything more than a solo act is a real bonus. These guys fit the bill.” And it doesn’t hurt that while the Blue Angels require services and support worthy of a superstar entourage, including 55 hotel rooms, police escorts, an army of cars and vans, and ’round-the-clock security, Starfighters needs only two cars, three hotel rooms, two auxilliary power units, and an oxygen cart.
“Here they come!” someone yells…and they’re gone, Svetkoff and Delashaw completing the first photo pass at a measly 400 mph, that wailing sound pressing over the crowd like the end of the world. They bank right, loop around, and here they come again. “Flaps,” calls Svetkoff in the lead, and both pilots retract the flaps. “Sector,” Svetkoff says, and they push the thrust up and accelerate into “sector burner,” the initial afterburner setting. The air is cool and dry and the 104s leap forward like there isn’t any air at all; in an instant they’re nosing Mach .92, over 700 mph, a few hundred feet above the ground. “Pull now,” Svetkoff says, and Delashaw pitches vertical, pulling 7 Gs, shooting straight up at 1,000 feet per second. The F-104, as pilots like to say, is not “power limited.”
After Delashaw blasts skyward, Svetkoff spirals into a series of 700-mph corkscrew rolls, rolls out, and banks right to loop around for another pass. Delashaw, at 15,000 feet, has disappeared into the blue.
Svetkoff is flying his dream, but all isn’t quite perfect. The F-104 Starfighter was built for national militaries to fly, not airline pilots. Every second he’s up there he’s burning money faster than the airplane is sucking fuel. Tires can cost up to $500 apiece and last for just 12 to 15 takeoffs and landings. A thorough engine inspection costs $200,000. The aircraft are so expensive to fly and maintain that Delashaw and Svetkoff spend a few days before the season practicing and then pretty much fly only for shows. Bales receives but a stipend for his weekends on the airplanes and Delashaw is not paid. And to keep them flying takes a full-time crew chief, who doesn’t come cheap. The current schedule alone, Svetkoff figures, costs upwards of $400,000. Shows pay up to $15,000 an appearance (Selfridge paid $12,000), although they throw in a car, hotel rooms, food, and fuel. Luckily, spare parts remain plentiful (a 104 awaiting restoration in the hangar at Clearwater is often cannibalized for parts), and the Starfighter is an unusually reliable airplane. And Svetkoff occasionally gets a few days of work flying his 104 as a test platform for military contractors. Still, Svetkoff won’t be able to continue, and won’t be able to fly a third 104, unless he can find a way to underwrite his act. ICAS president John Cudahy thinks it will happen. “Sponsorship in the airshow industry is increasing significantly,” he says, “because corporate America sees an opportunity to get its message in front of a lot of people without a lot of clutter. When a performer flies, he’s alone in front of his audience for 15 minutes. And Starfighters bring a lot of the excitement and raw speed and power that audiences like to see from contemporary military aircraft.”
After six passes, Svetkoff banks right and touches down, drag chute popping out as he rolls out of sight. Delashaw is close behind, touching down on the main gear, holding the nose high almost the length of the runway in a display of aerodynamic braking. Seventeen minutes and a thousand gallons of fuel after takeoff, Starfighters’ show is over.
“It’s amazing that something man-made can make that much noise and go that fast,” says spectator John
“It’s awesome!” says six-year-old Joshua Blackburn.
“I love it when they go straight up!” says Harold Logan.
Andy Bales chocks the airplanes as Svetkoff and Delashaw climb out. “God, I was having fun!” says Delashaw, his face gleaming with sweat. “I was so fast I was at Mach .94, right on the edge. I had to come back on the power or I would have gone supersonic. The air was so cool and dry it was unbelievable—I was hardly bleeding off speed when I went over the top at 15,000 feet and over 600 miles per hour.”
It is 2 p.m. and their day is over. Someone whips open some folding chairs. A few cold beers appear. A succession of admirers find their way to the gleaming Starfighters. Delashaw has seen grown men cry in front of the airplanes, and one fan recently e-mailed him from Japan, on his way to see them at a show in Westover, Massachusetts. General Thomas Cutler, commander of the Selfridge base, pulls up in a golf cart and bounds over to the airplanes. “Outstanding!” he says, beaming. “That’s the ultimate hot rod, isn’t it? The F-16 is clean, but these 104s are cleaner. It is so cool; it’s been the highlight of the show for me!”
And so it goes. For airshow performers, acts are 15 minutes of flying and 15 hours of socializing. The same performers see one another at every venue; at each there are parties and crowds of admirers. Late that night in the hotel bar Svetkoff and Delashaw are in the thick of it. Every room is booked with fliers and the bar is open, the beer gushing free to performers still dressed in their show flightsuits. There’s Fowler “Big Dog” Cary and his sidekick J.R., who fly a T-33, clutching cigars and sporting mouthfuls of fake crooked teeth, pitchers of beer in hand and rows of Blue Kamikaze cocktails lined up on the bar. There’s Miss Budweiser in her skin-tight black dress and high heels, keeping glasses full and egos brimming with a hug for even the sweatiest and most unsteady. There’s a fistfight between an F-16 pilot and an Army Golden Knights parachute team member over some personal slight, then more drinks for everyone. “I’m not making any money,” says Svetkoff grinning, his eyes sweeping over the late-night spectacle, “but how can you beat it? I’m in the carny!”