A Canadian government requirement for a license manufacture also favoured the Lockheed proposal due to a collaboration with Canadair based in Montreal. On 14 August 1959, Canadair was selected to manufacture 200 aircraft for the RCAF under license from Lockheed. In addition, Canadair was contracted to manufacture wingsets, tail assemblies and rear fuselage sections for 66 Lockheed-built F-104Gs destined for the West German Luftwaffe.
Canadair's internal designation was CL-90 while the RCAF's version was initially designated CF-111, then changed to CF-104. Although basically similar to the F-104G, the CF-104 was optimized for the nuclear strike/reconnaissance role, fitted with R-24A NASARR equipment dedicated to the air-to-ground mode only as well as having provision for a ventral reconnaissance pod equipped with four Vinten cameras. Other differences included retaining the removable refuelling probe, initial deletion of the fuselage-mounted 20 mm (.79 in) M61A1 cannon (replaced by an additional fuel cell) and the main undercarriage members being fitted with longer-stroke liquid springs and larger tires. The first flight of a Canadian-built CF-104 (s/n 12701) occurred on 26 May 1961. The Canadair CF-104 production was 200 aircraft with an additional 140 F-104Gs produced for Lockheed.
The CF-104 entered Canadian service in March 1962. Originally designed as a supersonic interceptor aircraft, it was used primarily for low-level strike and reconnaissance by the RCAF. Eight CF-104 squadrons were originally stationed in Europe as part of Canada's NATO commitment. This was reduced to six in 1967, with a further reduction to three squadrons in 1970. Up to 1971, this included a nuclear strike role that would see Canadian aircraft armed with US-supplied nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict with Warsaw Pact forces.
When the CF later discontinued the strike/reconnaissance role for conventional attack, the M61A1 was refitted, along with U.S. Snakeye "iron" bombs, British BL755 cluster bombs and Canadian-designed CRV-7 rocket pods. Although Canadian pilots practised air combat tactics, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles were never carried operationally by Canadian Starfighters (however, examples provided to other air forces, such as Norway and Denmark, did carry Sidewinders on a twin-rail centreline station and the wingtip rails). The CF-104D two-seater did not normally carry any armament except for a centreline practice-bomb dispenser.
There were 110 class A accidents in the 25 years that Canada operated the CF-104 resulting in 37 pilot fatalities. Most of these were in the early part of the program centering around teething problems. Of the 110 class A accidents 21 were attributed to foreign object damage (14 of which were birds), 14 were in flight engine failures, 6 were faulty maintenance, 9 were mid air collisions. 32 struck the ground flying at low level in poor weather conditions. Of the 37 fatalities 4 were clearly attributable to systems failures, all of the others were attributable to some form of pilot inattention.
The accident rate of the 104 compares favourably to its predecessor, the F-86 Sabre. In only 12 years of operation the F-86 had 282 class A accidents with a loss of 112 pilots. The Sabre was a also a simpler aircraft and was flown at altitude.
The CF-104 was nicknamed the "Widowmaker" by the press but not by the pilots and crews of the aircraft. David Bashow states on page 92 of his book "I never heard a pilot call it the Widowmaker". Sam Firth is quoted on page 93 in Bashow's book "I have never heard a single person who flew, maintained, controlled, or guarded that aircraft of any force (and that includes the Luftwaffe) call it the Widowmaker". The pilots did refer to it, in jest, as the "Aluminium Death Tube", "The Lawn Dart" and "The Flying Phallus" but generally called it the 104 (one oh four) or the Starfighter.
Low level attack runs in the 104 were done visually at 100 feet AGL and at speeds up to 600Kts. Low level evasive maneuvers could increase speeds to supersonic.
The 104 was very difficult to attack owing to its small size, speed, and low altitude capability. Dave Jurkowski, former CF-104 and CF-18 pilot is quoted "Because of our speed, size and lower level operations, no Canadian Zipper driver was ever 'shot down' by either air or ground threats in the three Red Flag Exercises in which we participated."
The CF-104 was very successful in operational exercises held by NATO. The Canadians first took part in the AFCENT Tactical Weapons meet in 1964 and did so every year after that. This meet was a competition between squadrons from Belgium, France, Germany, USA, Britain, and Holland. Scores were based on several factors. Bomb accuracy, time on target, navigation, mission planning and aircraft serviceability. Pilots were chosen at random from the various squadrons to accurately represent operational capabilities.
AFCENT Tactical Weapons Meet (strike era)
1964: (first participation) Best team went to the 2 Canadians taking part.
1965: Best Nation went to the Canadians, Top individual score went to F/L Frioult of 427.
1966: RCAF was second best Nation, Top individual score went to F/L Morion of 421.
1967: RCAF best team, McCallum and Rozdeba received awards
1968: Second Best Team (427)
1970: Canadians were 1st in strike event.
AFCENT Tactical Weapons Meet (attack era)
1974: (first participation) Top attack pilot Canadian Larry Crabb
1976: 1CAG - Highest scoring nation
1978: The meet was renamed the Tactical Air Meet the scoring was marred by squabbles and announced a tie.
1980: The Canadians did "well"
1982 onward: the meet was changed to a non-competitive setup.
A competition for Recce squadrons. The Canadians first took part in 1966 and managed the following awards:
1968: First place.
1969: First and Second place (441, 439)
1970: 439 won the day competition. (Canada had no IR equipment)
A competition between NATO squadrons with cat mascots.
1979: Silver Tiger Trophy
1981: Silver Tiger Trophy
1985: Silver Tiger Trophy
In the late 1970s, the New Fighter Aircraft program was launched to find a suitable replacement for the CF-104, as well as the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo and the Canadair CF-5. The winner of the competition was the CF-18 Hornet, which began to replace the CF-104 in 1982. All of the CF-104s were retired from service by the Canadian Forces by 1987, with most of the remaining aircraft given to Turkey.
On 22 May 1983, during an airshow at the Rhein-Main Air Base, a Canadian CF-104 Starfighter crashed onto a nearby road, hitting a car and killing all passengers, a vicar's family of five. The pilot was able to eject.