Dubbed “Black Beauty” the Starfighters’ TF-104 is a former two-seater retired by the Italian Air Force almost 20 years ago.
Based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and operating under authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, Starfighters Aerospace is a company that carries out a variety of missions for government and commercial customers. And, above all, it operates the world’s only fleet of flight-ready F-104 Starfighter jets.
The company, that currently has four airworthy aircraft out of a planned fleet of seven, has purchased five F-104s from the Italian Air Force after the service retired the type from operational service in 2004 (with a last flight in July 2005), including three TF-104G-M two-seat trainers. One of these, with civilian registration N991SF, operated for more than 30 years as MM54258 with the 20° Gruppo (Squadron), the Italian Air Force’s F-104 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) based at Grosseto.
The N991SF/MM54258, which has been given an overall matte black paint scheme and sports the logo of KANON Loading Equipment, one of the Starfighters Aerospace’s sponsors on its tail, eventually returned to the air for some functional flight checks on Jan. 26, 2021, piloted by Starfighters Aerospace’s founder, Rick “Boss” Svetkoff.
On the following day, Starfighters Director of Flight Operations and former Italian Air Force F-104 pilot, Piercarlo Ciacchi, flew the aircraft from KSC.
And we’re airborne! Fantastic first flight of the Blackbird. More flights and check outs to come before making her full operations capable. pic.twitter.com/u75M1Gn1xo
— Matt Haskell (@mhaskellphoto) January 27, 2021
“I was extremely surprised how well the airplane performed after quite some time on time ground. She was very reactive, precise in its controls and still incredibly fast. The Starfighter still is an amazing airplane after so many years!”, Ciacchi commented according to Warbirds News.
The legendary F-104, that made its first flight in 1954, is still a remarkable aerial platform 67 years later. As already reported, Starfighters says the aircraft can carry out:
- Captive carry of payloads and test articles
- Microgravity experiments
- Pre-launch space payload testing/qualification
- Suborbital spaceflight simulation
- Air-launch of microsatellites
- Human factors and flight physiology research
- Avionics testing/qualification
- Flight suit testing/qualification
- Sponsored video production
- Surveillance and intercept
Interestingly, the aircraft can also be used for jet warbird type training and familiarization for pilots: licensed pilots can get flight training in the F-104 Starfighter at KSC with Starfighters Aerospace.
“The F-104 is a remarkable aerial platform, capable of putting research projects into microgravity, high altitude, high speed, and high G environments. The jets can mimic the ascent, descent and flight profiles of spaceflight vehicles and high performance military aircraft, and — according to NASA estimates — can provide between 60-90 seconds of microgravity during parabolic maneuvers,” Starfighters website explains.
By the way, the company has dubbed the new overall black F-104, “Black Beauty”. However, we can’t but notice that another Starfighter, a single seater of the 9° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 4° Stormo, got that nickname in 2003. Here’s the story of that special colored F-104S/ASA-M.