The Canadair CF-104 Starfighter, a Canadian variation of Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter, was a principal figure in the narrative of Cold War aviation. This article dives into the development, design, performance, and operational history of the CF-104, highlighting its significance in safeguarding Canada’s interests and airspace during one of history’s tensest eras.

The Cold War, a period characterized by the nuclear arms race and intense rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, demanded cutting-edge military equipment. For Canada, the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter became a symbol of its commitment to the collective defense and its technological evolution in aerospace.

History of the Development of the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter

In the backdrop of the 1950s, Canada, as a vital NATO member, felt the pressing need to upgrade its aerial fleet. The objective was clear: secure an advanced, supersonic jet capable of quick reaction times, long-range interception, and reliable nuclear strike capabilities, if needed.

Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter had already caught the world’s attention with its innovative design and remarkable performance. Recognizing its potential, Canada decided to adapt the F-104 to meet its specific operational and environmental requirements. Thus, the CF-104 was born.

Canadair CF-104 Starfighter

Design of the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter

The CF-104’s design mirrored the aerodynamics of the original F-104 but featured modifications suited to Canada’s unique requirements.

Technical Specifications:

  • Wingspan: 21 feet 9 inches (6.63 meters)
  • Length: 54 feet 9 inches (16.7 meters)
  • Height: 13 feet 6 inches (4.1 meters)
  • Weight (empty): 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 29,027 pounds (13,170 kg)

Distinct from the American version, the CF-104 had enhanced avionics, improved all-weather capability, and modifications to boost its nuclear strike role. However, its thin wings, although beneficial for speed, were a drawback for handling at slower speeds and caused challenges during landing.

Performance of the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter

The CF-104, powered by the Orenda-built J79-OEL-7 engine, was tailored for Canada’s defense needs.

Performance Metrics:

  • Engine: J79-OEL-7 turbojet
  • Thrust: 15,800 lbf (70.28 kN) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: Mach 2.2 (1,450 mph or 2,334 km/h)
  • Service ceiling: 58,000 feet (17,678 meters)
  • Range: 1,630 miles (2,623 km)

Compared to contemporaries like the Soviet MiG-21, the CF-104 was on par in terms of speed and altitude but had an edge in avionics and weapon systems. However, its range was comparatively limited, making mid-air refueling crucial for extended missions.

Canadair CF-104 Starfighter

Military Use and Combat of the Canadair CF-104 Starfighter

The CF-104’s armament and military engagements were tightly intertwined with the Cold War’s strategic landscape.


  • Primarily equipped for the nuclear strike role with the Douglas AIR-2A Genie rocket.
  • Provision for conventional bombs, rockets, and Sidewinder missiles for air-to-air combat.

While the CF-104 was not engaged in any full-fledged war, its value as a nuclear deterrent was undeniable. Throughout its service, it underwent numerous NATO exercises, reinforcing the alliance’s defense posture.

Competing aircraft during its tenure included the Soviet MiG-21 and the French Mirage III. While the CF-104 did not have any direct combat encounters with these jets, it held its ground in terms of capabilities.

Canada wasn’t the sole operator; Germany, Turkey, Norway, and Denmark also flew Starfighter variants, with the CF-104 adaptations influencing some of their configurations.

By the 1980s, the CF-104’s time had come. The advent of more advanced multi-role fighters like the CF-18 Hornet signaled its retirement. By 1986, the last CF-104 squadron was disbanded.

The Canadair CF-104 Starfighter, a testament to Canada’s aerospace industry and commitment to NATO, holds a revered spot in aviation history. Though its operational life was bereft of actual combat, its significance during the Cold War remains undiminished. As an embodiment of rapid technological progress and evolving defense paradigms, the CF-104’s legacy is a reminder of the need for vigilance, adaptation, and innovation in the ever-changing realm of aerial warfare.

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