While its time with the USAF was brief, the Starfighter found much more lasting success with other NATO and allied nations. In October 1958, West Germany selected the F-104 as its primary fighter aircraft. Canada soon followed, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, and Italy. The European nations formed a construction consortium that was the largest international manufacturing program in history to that point, though the Starfighter’s export success was marred in 1975 by the discovery of bribe payments made by Lockheed to many foreign military and political figures for securing purchase contracts. The Starfighter eventually flew with fifteen air forces, but its poor safety record, especially in Luftwaffe service, brought it substantial criticism. The Germans lost 292 of 916 aircraft and 116 pilots from 1961 to 1989, its high accident rate earning it the nickname “the Widowmaker” from the German public. The final production version, the F-104S, was an all-weather interceptor built by Aeritalia for the Italian Air Force. It was retired from active service in 2004, though several F-104s remain in civilian operation with Florida-based Starfighters Inc.
The Starfighter featured a radical design, with thin, stubby wings attached farther back on the fuselage than most contemporary aircraft. The wing provided excellent supersonic and high-speed, low-altitude performance, but also poor turning capability and high landing speeds. It was the first production aircraft to achieve Mach 2, and the first aircraft to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet (30,000 m) after taking off under its own power. The Starfighter established world records for airspeed, altitude, and time-to-climb in 1958, becoming the first aircraft to hold all three simultaneously. It was also the first aircraft to be equipped with the M61 Vulcan autocannon.