When you look at the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, this is a plane that looks like it could be a rocket from some sci-fi movie or show from the old days. In some ways, it was. According to MilitaryFactory.com, the F-104 had a top speed of 1,320 miles per hour. This was about 173 percent of the speed of sound. But there was one minor hiccup. The F-104 needed a lot of runway to take off, mostly because its wings were small. Okay, on the puny side.
A F-104 with its canopy open. (U.S. Air Force photo)
This causes a quandry. One big concern was that the Soviet Union would be able to get control of the air by hitting the runways on the airbases. The United States began testing Zero-Length Launches (ZeLL) with the F-100 Super Sabre. According to The Aviationist, West Germany also was looking into this concept. They had a good reason to do so. They were likely to be on the front lines, and airfields were not only threatened by bombers, but also by fighters and missiles.
Zero-Length Launch of F-100D-60-NA (S/N 56-2904) with Maj. R. Titus as pilot. Note the dummy nuclear weapon on the right wing has been retouched out of the photograph. (U.S. Air Force photo)
ZeLL was accomplished by use of a big, powerful rocket that was installed on the plane. The F-104 was a natural as it was intended to be a point-defense interceptor. West Germany had bought a lot of these planes as multi-role fighters (which resulted in a big investigation as the F-104's manufacturer had… well, let's just say some money changed hands).
German Me-163B Komet. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Germany had used rocket-powered interceptors, like the Me-163 Komet in World War II. The planes hadn't worked well. Still, the Germans gave the ZeLL-equipped F-104 a shot. By 1966, though, the West Germans, as America had earlier, gave up on the idea. But the United Kingdom would solve the problem by developing the V/STOL jet known as the Harrier. That plane would later prove to be a decisive factor in the British winning the Falklands War. And it all started with using rockets to throw fighters into the air.
An AV-8B Harrier assigned to Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 311 lands on amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). The program that created the Harrier came out of the ZeLL experiments. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael McNabb/Released)
You can see more about the ZeLL-equipped F-104 in the video below.