With thousands of hours of flight time and a coveted ATP pilot’s rating, Evan Dick has flown many aircraft types, including classic fighter jets like the L-39. But even he wasn’t prepared for the raw uncontrollable, power of the F-104 Starfighter.
“Its power-to-weight ratio is just ridiculous,” he says. “I could tell, with the afterburners, it was going to be the most challenging aircraft I’d ever flown. It was like a missile with a man on it.”
“We can out-run, out-climb, and out-accelerate an F-16 all day long,” notes Starfighters International founder Rick Svetkoff. Florida-based Starfighters offers a two-day F-104 flight training to licensed pilots like Dick over the controlled airspace above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The Cold War F-104 was the first aircraft to reach Mach 2 (1,528 mph) and the first to fly to 100,000 feet while taking off under its own power. The aircraft became a production-series fighter in 1958 for the United States Air Force when it was deployed to deter Chinese MiG-15 and MiG-17 fighters in the Korean Straits. It was eventually adopted into the air forces of the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, Italy and a dozen other countries.
Dick got tough-love, hands-on training in the apex fighter jet, which finally retired from Italy’s air force in 2004. Star Fighters has four of the last 12 operational F-104’s, keeping them in pristine condition for those who want to experience flying the apex predator of fighter jets.
The pilot quickly understood this was a different animal. Seconds to react on the L-39 are milliseconds on the Starfighter. Flying with Svetkoff in the front seat, Dick recalls trying to level off at 2,000 feet. “It was more like 3,000 feet—just impossible to stay ahead of the jet,” he says. “When I made a split-second glance at the controls, I was suddenly 500 feet higher.”
Then there were the G forces, which were overwhelming compared to anything he’d previously experienced, even with two stints aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule to the edge of space. At one point, while doing a loop, his vision began to tunnel and he felt the blood drain from his brain, forcing him to back off the throttle. “It’s not like the 1,000-foot loops I’m used to on the L-39—those are over really fast. These go on for 20,000 feet and you pull a lot more Gs.”
But Dick is undeterred, saying it’s “by far the most rewarding flying I’ve done” and praises Svetkoff as being “on another level” as a professional fighter pilot. “Rick makes sure you stay inside the aircraft’s envelope,” he says. “There’s a reason they call the F-104 the widow-maker. If you don’t give it the respect it deserves, there are consequences.”