You’ve probably seen this video before, Legendary Belgian Air Force Silvers Aerobatic Team member, William “Bill” Ongena performing a touch-roll-touch in a Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, a plane that was infamously difficult to control at lower speeds. Until Bill actually performed the maneuver, it was said to be impossible, though clearly it wasn’t. Bill was the first of very few pilots to successfully perform it, though many subsequently tried, with some dying in the trying. Bill tragically passed away, in of all things, a car accident, well before his time. We’ll admit to being a little Starfighter-obsessed here at Warbirds News, and having a contact list full of ex-Starfighter pilots, we thought it would be interesting to send them the video and ask them to comment on the maneuver. The response was overwhelming.
In order of response to our query: (on an editorial note, some of these responses were translated, so please assume any errors are ours)
Wolfgang Czaia, a pilot with more than 27,000 hours of flight time began flying gliders while still in high school in his homeland of Germany, progressing through a variety of aircraft, from the L-19, Dol-27, FW-149, T-6, T-37, T-33, T-38 and a Skyfox (a modified T-33), to a MiG-29, an Iskra Polish jet trainer and a Pilatus PT-9. He has served as a test pilot for the Messerschmitt 262 reproduction project at Paine Field in Everett, Washington. Of all of the planes he’s flown, the F-104 Starfighter stands out as his all-time favorite. He has served as a military flight instructor in F-104s, training German, Dutch, Belgian, and Italian NATO pilots at Fighter Weapons School 10 at Jever Air Base.
Wolfgang’s Comment: “This one shows Belgian Air Force pilot Bill Ongena doing the so-called ‘Touch-Roll-Touch’, but other pilots of other air forces have done it as well. He approaches the runway with gear and take-off flaps extended, touches down briefly, applies full power, and pulls up to about 50 feet while initiating a roll on his upward trajectory. Then comes a power reduction, possibly speed brake extension to slow down, and descent to another touch-and-go. With the landing gear down, full aileron travel (20°) is available, producing a sufficiently good rate to complete a 360° roll without the nose dropping dangerously low. (With landing gear up, the aileron throw is only 10°). It was strictly a “show” maneuver to demonstrate the controllability of the airplane and had no practical application. After Belgian pilot Jacobs was killed during a practice flight, the maneuver was prohibited.”
US Air Force Captain Harold Alston of the 435th, TFS 479th was the first pilot to fly 100 combat missions in Vietnam flying the F-104C. Harold’s Comment: “The important thing is that the pilot did not actuate the landing gear. When the gear and doors are moving it creates a lot of drag. For us old air show pilots we either do an aileron roll with the gear up or gear down, but not with it transitioning. I was impressed with the demonstration.”
Howard “Scrappy” Johnson served as a fighter pilot flying over 7,000 hours in fifteen different fighter planes during his career. In 1953, Major Johnson transferred to Hamilton AFB where he had the first opportunity to hear about the Air Force’s newest, fastest airplane, the F-104A. In 1958, with only 30 hours of flight time in the Starfighter, he shattered the World’s Altitude Record zooming to 91,243 feet. In recognition of the record, Vice President Richard Nixon presented him with the Robert J. Collier Trophy for aeronautical achievement. “Scrappy’s” Comment: “When I was an advisor to the West German Air Force, from 1960-1963, one of my fellow advisors did this same thing, landed A/B (After Burner), take off, roll and BAAAM! crashed. His name was Captain Tom Perfilli. This maneuver was then prohibited.”
Ferry Van Der Geest flew the RF104 in the Royal Netherlands Air Force until the last day of F-104 operations. His squadron got the 104 in 1963 and she was replaced in in 1984 by the RF16. He was with the 306 Squadron from September 1983 until May 1987. He only flew the 104 for 1.5 years with a total of around 320 hours. But according to him, as a young fighter pilot, he had enough adventures with the “Spillone” (Italian for Needle) to fill a book.
Ferry’s comment: “This famous touch-roll-touch was only performed in Belgium, one day a pilot had an afterburner (AB) blow-out and he crashed on the second touch, killing himself in the process. It is an extremely dangerous maneuver with no room for error whatsoever. The average touchdown speed is at around 175 knots and the use of AB is totally mandatory. So far no one has ever done something like this afterward.”
Hans Van Der Werff flew the 104 in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, his total flight time on the F-104 is 2400 hours, though it’s worthwhile to note that the RNAF uses actual flying time instead of block time, so for an apples-to-apples comparison with other pilots from other air forces, adding 10% is in order. Hans flew the 104 from 1968 till 1980, he was instructor-pilot, instrument rating examiner and test-pilot. From 1974 until 1979 he was the official demo pilot for the F-104G for the Royal Netherlands Air Force and he participated in over 100 flying displays.
Hans’ Comment: “I did this maneuver (touch-roll-touch) a couple of times myself during training for my airshow. As you probably know I was the F-104 demo pilot for the Royal Netherlands Air Force from 1974 until 1979. Air staff prohibited me from doing the maneuver after a USAF pilot crashed doing the same thing. Subsequently, I would do a “dirty roll” without touching. To do the maneuver it actually takes as much guts as skill. The low speed/low altitude was the main problem. And then the extended gear made the roll rate a lot less. Also, because the roll was started in a climbing attitude, you had to take care that the roll ended slightly nose down to start the landing within the limits of the runway.”
General Bruno Servadei served with the Italian Air Force flying F-84Fs and F-104Ss. Now retired, he performs in European airshows flying the Fl 100 RGf with the famed Blu Circe Aerobatic Team. General Servadei’s Comment: “I saw Ongena perform this maneuver, live in Turin at Caselle Airport in the 60s, back when I was flying with the F84F. It was amazing, especially for me with piloting the F84F, where Ongena would be able to take off, roll, and land in less distance than it would take my plane to just get its wheels off the ground. On the maneuver itself, it undoubtedly required technical ability but it especially required guts, because the aircraft is flying very close to the ground. I think with a little practicing it could have been done by others, probably with the F-104S variant it would be easier with the plane having 2000lbs of extra thrust. If I were to have attempted the maneuver myself back in the day, the commander on the base would have kicked me out! At the time of Ongena, there was still a free-spiritedness in effect that allowed pilots to do crazy shit like that. In my time I’ve seen many pilots of the 6th Aerobrigata (Now 6 Stormo) doing crazy things. I have seen pilots in the Red Devils (the aerobatic team of the 6 Aerobrigata) flying upside down with their canopy and tails just a few feet from the grass!”
Dave Skilling spent 3 years as an instructor on the F104 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, in the training program for German 104 pilots, and almost 7 years in two separate tours of duty in Europe, flying the 104 with 6 NATO air forces in a strike training role as a part of the NATO Standardization Team for strike wings (the “DOON Team”) for three years.
Dave’s Comments: “First, that sort of maneuver close to the ground takes a lot of practice at that slow speed at a higher altitude, then bringing it down lower and lower until you can do it after a takeoff. I was never in a situation where I could practice sufficiently to make it safe. It takes some unusual yaw “to the top” at the beginning and end, and some zero to negative G’s over the top in order not to lose altitude (I’ve done it at altitude). The US Air Force would ground you for trying such a maneuver after takeoff (except for the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels, who practiced it a lot before their solos did it). By the time I flew in Europe, where it might be more admired, I was a guest pilot at the F-104 bases (even though I was an “inspector”), and wouldn’t have tried such stunts as a guest. I think any 104 pilot who really wanted to do this could have trained in it – but not all would not have wanted to! But few ever got the chance. In my next life, I may be a Thunderbird (and lots of other stuff I didn’t have time for in this life).”
Well there you have it, analysis of one of the most daunting and dangerous maneuvers on record for the F-104 Starfighter by seven men who flew and knew the craft, including one who’s actually performed it and lived to tell the tale. We’d like to thank all those who took the time to contribute by responding to our query, as well as for providing the photos.