“It's all kind of dull until you remember how sharp those wings are.”
January 18, 2014 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Over the years, Hollywood has made films that have promoted the U.S. Military and films that have advertised specific products. But fifty years ago, those two tendencies intersected for a curious artifact of cinema and the military industrial complex. Say hello to “The Starfighters”.

Any MST3k fan worth his salt can tell you all about "Starfighters": It's a proto-Top Gun with non-professional actors, a boring plot and endless refueling sequences. But more than any of these elements, it is a feature length commercial for Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter.

First introduced in 1958, the Starfighter racked up a number of safety problems and took the lives of a number of pilots (and nearly killed Chuck Yeager in 1963, which is an incident featured in “The Right Stuff”). So in 1964, director Will Zens (who himself served as a test pilot during WWII) filmed “Starfighters” on location at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California.

Given that the plot concerns three new pilots (one of which is played by future congressman Bob Dornan) who have just been transferred, there are near constant scenes of them being told all the different ways the plane is awesome and then them in turn telling others the different ways the plane is awesome. There is an effort to address the safety issue through the main character’s father, who phones repeatedly to convince his son to fly a different plane. There's even a plane crash... but it's due to pilot error.

In addition to describing how awesome the plane is, the film makes pains to portray the Starfighter as irresistible to other countries like West Germany, Italy and Japan. Oddly enough, these were three countries involved in a bribery scandal over purchasing contracts, which included the F-104.

Sadly, there doesn't appear to be an uncut version of the film available online, but you can see the entire MST3k treatment of the movie on Hulu.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (36 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Take these broken wings and learn to fly me to the moon
Sail on silver bird
Have you ever heard
That the bird is the word

posted by Faint of Butt at 7:51 PM on January 18, 2014 [11 favorites]

I can sum this movie up in two words: POOPIE SUIT.
posted by JHarris at 8:03 PM on January 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

What Dr. Strangelove did sarcastically, which was have a long sequence of planes refueling in flight set to romantic music, The Starfighers seems to actively believe in. The MST guys actually had difficulty coming up with jokes to cover all the many, many refueling scenes in the movie.
posted by JHarris at 8:07 PM on January 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Still in service until 2004 in Italy, last crash was 2002. It had a long and infamous career.
posted by arcticseal at 8:10 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I believe in refueling, I do!
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:20 PM on January 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

The F-104 was was always my favorite fighter, as an aviation-nerd. I imagine the design process went like this.


"What'ya buildin' there?"

"A rocket!"

"But where will you put the wings?"


(and scene)

My favorite thing about them might be that every nation that flew them had a variety of sarcastic names for them, usually alluding to how deadly they were to the pilot.

They sure went fast though.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:25 PM on January 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

"Starfighters" easily makes it into my top five MST3k episodes. During the time when I was a library branch manager and a problem would arise, I would frequently think to myself "this is a hell of a way to run a railroad".
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 8:34 PM on January 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Does everyone know the story about The Last Starfighter?

posted by Mezentian at 9:07 PM on January 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

MST3K Episode: The Starfighters

"Yes, welcome to minute SIX of the glorious refueling sequence."

"Makes ya' wonder about the scenes they didn't use."
"The cutting-room floor was remarkably clean!"

BONUS: the intro scene is about Mike and the bots trying to "log on" to the mysterious information superhighway.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:52 PM on January 18, 2014 [9 favorites]

There's even a plane crash... but it's due to pilot error.

Of course it was pilot error. The alternative is that there was something wrong with a Kelly Johnson airplane, and I'm pretty sure God wouldn't let that happen.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:54 PM on January 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's an F104 sitting by the highway just outside Tainan in southern Taiwan. You can climb all over it.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 10:20 PM on January 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

So basically, according to themselves, the Air Force is a bunch of leather-faced, not-so-bright, heavy drinking, dull-witted speed freaks who poop in their pants and can't make it with women, right?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:20 PM on January 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

And as the seasons change, the refueling continues.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:41 PM on January 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Check out Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, a concept album by Robert Calvert, the former frontman of Hawkwind, that satirizes Germany's purchase of the F-104 and subsequent major safety issues. The plane became known as the Widowmaker. An unexpected topic for a rock concept album, but it is surprisingly good. It includes appearances by Brian Eno, Arthur Brown, and Viv Stanshall.
posted by catastropher at 11:22 PM on January 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

In retrospect, the true DEEP HURTING was not rock climbing or sandstorm, it was the the refueling in this movie.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:01 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's nice when it turns out that a really bad movie isn't just incompetent, but actually reprehensible, because it takes that last little twinge of guilt out of the act of mocking it. For while Manos, Red Zone Cuba and the like are terrible, poorly-acted, badly filmed, horribly scripted piles of nonsense, the people who made them were trying to make art, something that reflected a vision, and I can respect that, even if that movie they made that was aimed at the stars traveled about seven inches.

The Starfighters, however, was made to sell a plane that was a safety disaster that actually killed pilots. Its hero is an entitled hotshot pilot bastard, the son of a Congressman, played by a man who in addition to becoming a notorious right-wing growth upon the House (thankfully now removed), has guest hosted both for Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. It has hardly any plot; what there is concerns whether that pilot will go overseas in his shiny deathtrap fighter jet or stay home and do what his daddy says. Dornan and his buddy smoozes and necks with the local lassies in their cars in the desert, then there's a cut-away to lizards mating, which was probably meant to be suggestive, but ends up more like commentary. There's a goes-nowhere joke involving a phone in an airport. The interminable scenes of refueling. And, of course, the poopie suit, which I'm left wondering isn't a sanitized version of the real slang name for it.

Hey, according to the TVTropes page for The Starfighters yesthereisone, Dr. Strangelove actually uses the same refueling footage this movie does! If it was made for this movie, that means maybe Strangelove might not have been made if it hadn't been for this one, so maybe that's one point in its favor.
posted by JHarris at 12:08 AM on January 19, 2014 [13 favorites]

Put on your poopie suit!
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:35 AM on January 19, 2014

To be fair it couldn't carry much fuel
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 12:38 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

omg the intro scene to the Starfighters episode of MST3K where Crow brags about his super sweet computer and then has problems accessing his slipserver to log on to the information superhighway is so gold.
posted by lazaruslong at 1:16 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Huh. The only thing I knew about the Starfighter is it looked neat, though I actually preferred the delta-winged F-106.

However, I could always kind of date Space Invaders or monster movies from a certain period, because they would use stock F-104 footage.
posted by happyroach at 1:46 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The plane became known as the Widowmaker.

It has a lot of company.

There is also apparently a specialized widowmaker called the doctor killer.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:49 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Take these broken wings and learn to fly me to the moon

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again: Kevin Murphy is a god.
posted by Zonker at 5:16 AM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Even as a kid, huddled over my workbench gluing-together a Revell Starfighter model, I wondered how the hell the real plane could fly with those ridiculously tiny wings. But, damn, if it isn't a cool looking thing.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:21 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is also apparently a specialized widowmaker called the doctor killer.

I am fairly certain (at least during the 1980s) the private aviation and boating industries are kept alive by doctors (with a side order of lawyers). How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large one, then buy a boat.
posted by yerfatma at 6:52 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

The plane became known as the Widowmaker.

Also the "erdnagel", or "ground nail".
posted by Artw at 6:56 AM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

God, the F-104, esp. the earlier marks, was a horrible aircraft.

Good: It was fast. Very, very fast. Speed is a very good trait for an interceptor. The view out of the cockpit was good.

Bad: Every single other trait. One unreliable engine, so when it broke, you were screwed. Tiny wings, so when the engine broke, the only things that were worse gliders were the Space Shuttles, and those wings couldn't carry stores, fuel, landing gear -- anything. Tiny fuselage, so it couldn't carry much at all. Because of the tiny wings, the landing gear was all mounted to the body, so the ground track was very narrow. When you're dealing with a plane that, at the best of times, lands at 165 knots, you want a very wide ground track. Turned like a pig -- anything moving that fast with that high a wing loading is going to turn in circles roughly the size of Lake Michigan.

Worst: Completely unforgiving. If you screwed up, you were, at best, in for the Nylon Letdown.

They did at least, after building the first 75, realize that the downward firing ejection seat was TEH DUMBS and fit one that fired up, but only the Euro F-104s got a decent seat. The Lockheed seat in the US F-104s wasn't very good at ejection, and at speed, would happily fling you right into the tail, which would then cut you in half. If you were below 200 feet, pulling the handle meant death anyway -- you'd hit the ground before your chute opened. The Euros put in the Martin-Baker seats, called "zero-zero" seats because the minimum altitude and airspeed for "safe" use was 0.

But in the plane most likely to make you leave with a very loud BANG, a reliable ejection seat would seem to be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, there was an excess of negative brains, and that didn't happen.
posted by eriko at 7:07 AM on January 19, 2014 [20 favorites]

The F-104 didn't just kill pilots, but seemed to take out an alarming number of bystanders. The worst incident I can find is the one in Frankfurt in 1985 which killed six civilians.
posted by scruss at 8:10 AM on January 19, 2014

I'm just going to leave this here...

(Here's to the guys and gals who like to fly...)
posted by gc at 8:52 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

About the Martin Baker: stuffed around the barrel of what was, essentially, the barrel of a 75mm mortar. The pilot's seat was the projectile. It actually was a 0-0 set up though, and would deliver the pilot into the air at a proper altitude for his canopy to deploy; his spine might sometimes compressed a bit, but hey, if it were me, I'd rather walk funny than accompany the aircraft to whatever contingency inspired me to yank the handle. Here's your choice: possibly crippled for life or flaming meatball. Think fast.

The Martin Baker rig was one of the learning projects for us--we budding riggers at rigger school. We spent a whole day on it. Unlike some of our other learning projects, though, we didn't get to do a live jump with one.
posted by mule98J at 12:17 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Watching MST3K on Hulu is terrible...
posted by limeonaire at 12:47 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh god those refueling sequences..,
posted by destro at 1:10 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

"How do you get a Starfighter? Buy a field, and wait."

Who says the Germans didn't have a sense of humour?
posted by Hogshead at 1:15 PM on January 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

German bitpop band Welle: Erdball also did a dramatic take on the plane and its "flying coffin" attributes.
posted by Zarkonnen at 11:10 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Additional trivia: an F-104 was the other plane in the infamous XB-70 Valkyrie mid-air collision.

Part of this was both were built by Lockheed, and part of this was not many planes could keep up with the XB-70, which was stupid fast*.

The thing that made the A-12/SR-71 so incredible was that they could go faster than the XB-70 *and* they could do more than once.

And credit where due: every orbiter in the STS program hit the atmosphere at Mach 25 and survived repeatedly. Only one failed, after the wing was compromised.**

* Stupid fast: could go so fast that it would damage itself in level flight. The only other member of that club was the MiG 25, which would melt the front compressor blades at Mach 2.7, but the power implied it could do Mach 2.9. The first XB-70 ended up being limited to Mach 1.9 after such damage. It's the one that's in Dayton at the USAF museum.

** Ad Astra Per Aspera. Rest in peace Columbia
posted by eriko at 6:22 PM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

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