Pilot Rick Svetkoff, front, and co-pilot Dave Waldrop taxi a F-104 Starfighter along the tarmac on April 17th, 2007, during a test mission at the Kennedy Space Center landing facility in Cape Canaveral.
MILITARY DEMONSTRATION TEAMS such as the U.S.Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels are nothing new at airshows, but a civilian demonstration team flying former first-line military aircraft certainly is.
The Starfighters F-104 Demo Team of Tampa Bay, Florida, flies a trio of former Royal Canadian Air Force Lockheed and Canadair F-104 Starfighters throughout the airshow season (usually beginning in March and ending in November). These include one two-seat, lockheed-built CF-104D (N104RB) and two Canadair-built, single-seet CF-104s (N104RD and N104N).
Each one is powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-11 axial-flow turbojet engtne that develops 17,500 pounds thrust in after- burner and can propel them to speeds in excess of Mach number 2, or 1,480mph in level-attitude flight. In fact, the F-104 was the world's first operational fighter plane capable of such speed. The starfighters team was established in 1995, and it maintains working relationships with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, NASA and test pilot schools across America.
Former U.S. Navy A-4 pilot Rick "Comrade" Svenkoff is president and lead pilot of this popular demonstration team. Former U.S. Navy F-14 pilot Mike "Smitty" Smith flies left wing, and former U.S. Air Force F-4 driver Steve Ritchie flies right wing.
Geoff "Hak" Hickman , a former USAF F-16 demonstration pilot, is the demonstration pilot for this unique team. Steve Ritchie , with 339 combat missions in 800 combat hours in the Vietnam War, was the USAF ace of that conflict with five MiG-21 kills.
Rick Svetkoff is doing something that previously only nations have been able to do – put three supersonic fighter jets in the air at one time. And in Rick’s case, it’s not just any supersonic jet; it’s the legendary F-104 Starfighter, a sleek Cold War-era interceptor known to many as the “Missile with a Man in it” or as simply the “Zipper.”
Rick has flown air shows in the F-104 since 1996, both as a solo performer and as part of a two-ship act. A three-ship or larger team had long been Rick’s goal, but it was not until November of 2006 when he acquired a third operational F-104 that the realization of that dream began to truly take shape. The original plan was to be operational as a three-ship team by the spring of 2007. - A Costly Operation.
It goes without saying that operating even one F-104 is a daunting proposition, but multiply that by three and you have an incredible undertaking for a private organization. The expansion to three aircraft has meant growing to a nine-man support team, and members of that team must drive to each show site with a supply of spare parts and support equipment. Even things as seemingly simple as new tires cost $1,000 apiece for these 50-year old aircraft. Each main gear tire is only good for about 10 landings, so that comes to about $100 per landing per tire.
“ You spend $600 every time the three-ship touches down,” says Rick. “So if you’re talking about one hop to get there, three hops during the show, and one hop to leave, you’ve got five landings – so that’s $3,000 just for tires.”
Pinellas County businessman Rick Svetkoff took two rides Tuesday 17 April 2007, in one of his company vehicles -- at nearly 1,000 mph, and more than 7 miles high. He climbed into a fighter jet, zoomed off a Kennedy Space Center runway and flew a test pattern. The sonic booms he created will help NASA decide whether to allow commercial spacecraft to launch from Cape Canaveral.
In 1996, Svetkoff began flying at air shows. After retiring from the airline in 2006, he devotes himself full time to Starfighters. He has nine paid employees, and they travel the air-show circuit. Sponsorships help pay the bills.
A handful of private companies are developing ways to take "space tourists" on journeys away from Earth. NASA is deciding whether these spacecraft could take off from Kennedy, which is better known for launching America's Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle flights. Most of the new vehicles would likely take off like an airplane, or be carried into the altitude attached to an airplane, said Jim Ball, spaceport development manager at Kennedy.
NASA believes that when the spacecraft go supersonic, about 12 miles east of the shoreline, they're not likely to make sonic booms that would bother residents of the Space Coast, Ball said.
Svetkoff's flight was designed to evaluate whether that's true. Like the anticipated commercial astronauts of the future, he took off from the Shuttle Landing Facility, the runway that was designed for landing, but not launching, space shuttles. He climbed to 40,000 feet, completed a loop pattern and plunged back down to the space center on a steep descent. He also got to meet several astronauts and NASA officials. "I believe that's probably one of the highlights of my life," he said afterward.
Svetkoff , who lives in Tarpon Springs,FL. with his wife and two sons, has carved himself an unusual niche. His company owns four F-104 Starfighter jets, a type of fighter formerly used by the U.S. Air Force and others. He and other pilots fly them around the country, mostly at air shows.
"I love it, it's the best job you can get," he said, comparing his jets to Ferraris. "Who wouldn't want to be a race driver or fighter pilot? It's a great deal. "Svetkoff landed at the space center Monday in a Starfighter that normally is housed at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
But within a few years, "I was kind of anxious to get back into fighters again.“ So in 1995, he bought his own fighter jet for about $250,000, and poured more than $1-million more into it to get make it airworthy. This F-104 had been used by the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Norwegian Air Force before Svetkoff was able to buy it privately from a military contractor.
Rick Svetkoff - Rick is the founder of the Starfighters Team and flies the lead aircraft in the three-ship. Svetkoff grew up in Michigan and earned his pilot’s license at age 17. After graduating from college,he joined the Navy in 1978 and flew A-4 Skyhawks until 1984 when he was hired as a pilot by Continental Airlines. He purchased an ex-Canadian CF-104 in 1995 and began flying it in airshows the next year.
After 21 years with Continental, Rick took early retirement to concentrate on the Starfighters full-time and to get the three-ship act in the air.
Svetkoff, who goes by the call sign “Comrade” due to his Russian surname, was joined by Tom Delashaw to form a two-ship F-104 team in 1997. The team flew together until 2003 when Delashaw lost his life in the crash of a Hawker Hunter in Pennsylvania.
Steve Ritchie - The number two jet is flown by Brigadier General (Retired) Steve Ritchie, one of the legends of American airpower. Ritchie’s over 3,000 flying hours include 800 combat hours, and he is the only Air Force ace of the Vietnam conflict and the Air Force’s first and only ace since the Korean War. He is the only American pilot in history to down five MiG-21s, and was awarded the Air Force Cross, four Silver Stars, ten Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 25 Air Medals.
General Ritchie flew the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam, but the aircraft that he flew right out of flight school from 1965 to 1967 at Eglin AFB, Florida was the F-104. “I flew the two-seater F-104 with Rick to the Eglin airshow in April 2007,” the General recounts. “I flew in the back seat, but I flew the airplane and landed it on the runway at Eglin where I had learned to fly the F-104.
Mike Smith - Flying the number three jet is Mike “Smitty” Smith . His dad was a flight instructor, so he learned to fly at an early age. After graduation from Texas A&M in 1985, he was commissioned in the Navy and flew as a Naval Aviator for 10 years, flying the F-14 Tomcat. As a Tomcat Instructor Pilot at NAS Oceana, he was selected as the Tomcat airshow demo pilot for the east coast and that is how he first met Rick. They saw each other frequently on the 1998 airshow circuit and soon became friends.
When Rick and Tom Delashaw decided they wanted to add a third aircraft, they originally asked Smitty to be the pilot, but it took almost a decade for that to become reality. Smitty currently flies for Southwest Airlines and flies F-16s in the Texas Air National Guard. “Rick called me in the summer of 2007 and said, ‘remember that talk we had nine years ago? Still want to fly the number 3 jet?’ I said ‘does a one-legged duck swim in a circle?’
So I high-tailed it down to Tampa,” Smitty recalls.
Geoff Hickman - Geoff “Hak” Hickman will also fly the number three jet and will assist with the NASA contract work. He is a 1994 graduate of the USAF Academy and has a Masters degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Geoff also was the 2004-2005 USAF F-16 Viper East demo pilot.
Geoff received his certifications in the F-104 in 2007; however the demands of his full-time Management Consultant job will limit the number of shows he can fly. The plan is for Hak to train with the team, stay current in the aircraft and the performance, and fly number three when Smitty’s airline and Air National Guard schedules
conflict with show dates. The Starfighters’ NASA contract research work will also provide Geoff with other opportunities to stay current in the F-104. “It’s important that I stay proficient in the aircraft and in the performance so that we can always put on a great, tight, and safe show for the fans,” Geoff said recently.
Rick Svetkoff Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Steve Ritchie Mike Smith Geoff Hickman
The CF-104 Starfighter #104850 went to Europe after being delivered to the Canadian Armed Forces. There it was flown until it was phased out due to shortcuts (fleet-reduction program). The aircraft was sold to Norway on 23 May 1973 and it arrived at Bodo Air Base 19 November 1973.
On 6 December 1982 it was withdrawn from use when the squadron was replacing the Starfighters by F-16 jets. The 104850 was stored inside "bunker 5" at Sola Air Base with 3400 airframe flight hours. It was treated well and eventually sold (or exchanged) by IFS member Steve Alex in Bangor Maine, USA.
On 15 July 1994 a Norwegian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft arrived in Maine, USA to bring over this toy. The aircraft was stored in a big hangar at Bangor Maine and received maintenance and the paint was removed. After the 104 was flyworthy again it was sold to Rick Svetkoff (The Starfighters Demo Team) in July 1997. The aircraft also had received a civil registration "N104JT" (named after Jet Tech which was the name of Steve's company)
In July 1997 the aircraft was brought over to the Starfighters Demo team in St Petersburg and that same month the team made 2 full engine runs. Soon after Tom Delashaw made a succesfull first flight with this completely bare metal aircraft. It was ready for participation in the Eglin Air Base airshow on 2 November 1997. Here it flew together with the CF-104D "N104RB" and still wearing the bare-metal color scheme.
After the first season was very succesfull both aircraft received a stunning blue-white "STARFIGHTERS" colorscheme which still is used today. Its civil registration had been changed to "N104RD" (We believe the D was for Delashaw). From the moment the team flew 2 aircraft it was decided that Rick Svetkoff would fly the two-seater and Tom Delashaw would fly this 104850.
Sadly, on 22 July 2003 Tom Delashaw lots his life in a tragical take-off accident inside a Hunter aircraft which he had to deliver to a new customer. This was a big shock for the whole Starfighter community as well as for the whole "Starfighters Demo Team“
Tom was replaced by the well known German pilot Wolfgang Czaia which at least flew shows with the team until the end of 2004. Nowadays most of the shows are given with only the CF-104D flown by Rick Svetkoff.
This photo shows Tom Delashaw while he just arrived in 104850 (N104JT) from the first flight in the US after assembly.
Shows Tom Delashow while returning from a succesfull demo at the Eglin Air Show on 2 November 1997
Photo was actually taken by Pete Clukey while flying in #104632 from Pope AFB to Clearwater, Florida back in 2001.