Because of its physical appearance and performance, the F-104 has often been called the "missile with a man in it." The design was a product of the Korean War, and was unique in several respects. The encounters with the MiG-15 in Korea caused a strong outcry among Air Force fighter pilots for a cheap, lightweight, maneuverable, high-performance fighter to confront future Soviet fighters. The result was the F-104, a fighter that overemphasized rate of climb and brute speed. Intended as a point defense interceptor, range was sacrificed for rate of climb. Range, however, could be extended using external tanks and in-flight refueling. It used an exceptionally small wing span of only 21 feet, and provided low speed lift through air bled from the engine and vented over the wing. Designed as a supersonic superiority fighter, the F-104 was produced in two major versions. Armed with a six-barrel M-61 20mm Vulcan cannon it served as a tactical fighter and, equipped additionally with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, as a day-night interceptor. The USAF procured about 300 Starfighters in one- and two-seat versions.
In 1952, C.L. "Kelly" Johnson designed the F-104, and the first XF-104 made its initial flight in 1954. It was the first aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound and held numerous airspeed and altitude records. On May 18, 1958, an F-104A set a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph, and on December 14, 1959, an F-104C set a world altitude record of 103,395 feet. The Starfighter was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous official world records for speed, altitude and time-to-climb. Using an accelerated loft technique, some F-104s have been flown to higher than 90,000 feet.
Like the F-84F Thunderstreak before it and the F-16 Fighting Falcon of today, the F-104 was selected for use by the NATO allies. More than 1,700 F-104s were built in the U.S. and abroad under the military aid program for various nations including Canada, West Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan and Japan. Several F-104 squadrons are still flying today with the air forces of Italy, Germany and Japan. Some F-104s have been modified to include a second cockpit for transition training and some weapons delivery. A reconnaissance version also exists although it never served with the USAF.