F-104S/ASA-M
N993SF during its first flight (Starfighters Aerospace)

Almost two decades since its last flight in the Italian Air Force an F-104S/ASA-M has just flown again in Florida thanks to Starfighters Aerospace.

On Apr. 27, 2023, a former Italian Air Force F-104S/ASA-M carrying civilian registration N993SF flew for the first time from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida, home of Starfighters Aerospace, the company that operates a fleet of seven F-104s, including five former Italian Air Force “Zippers” for research and development flights as well as pilot/test pilot training. In fact, the F-104 can be used to support a wide variety of tests, including captive carry of payloads and test articles; microgravity experiments; pre-launch space payload testing/qualification; suborbital spaceflight simulation; air-launch of microsatellites; human factors and flight physiology research and many others.

For its return to flight, the N993SF was flown by Piercarlo “Capone” Ciacchi, Director of Flight Operations at Starfighters Aerospace. As already explained many times here at The Aviationist, Ciacchi is a former Italian Air Force F-104 pilot who, among many other things, achieved a notable record flying the 9-99, the last F-104 in special color scheme, as  “Picca 21” for 2 hours and 50 minutes in a Tip + Pylon configuration during his “finiflight” (last flight on the type) on Mar. 26, 2004.

The single seater is the first F-104S/ASA-M to join the Starfighters fleet. The aircraft, with military registration MM6734, was delivered to the Italian Air Force in 1970 and was converted to ASA variant in 1990 and then to the final ASA-M in 1997. It was retired and stored by the service in 2005, at Pratica di Mare Air Base.

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MM6734 on the ground at Grazzanise in December 2002 (Image credit: Author)

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MM6734 on the ground at Grazzanise in December 2002 (Image credit: Author)

As an F-104S/ASA-M, it was the most advanced Starfighter ever produced: although obsolete, uncomfortable and scarcely interoperable with other NATO assets the ASA-M (Aggiornamento Sistema d’Arma-Modificato, Weapon System Update-Modified), incorporated the replacement of some of the most severely stressed airframe components like the main landing gear legs and the horizontal stabilizer, and the complete replacement of those electrical and avionic components that were hard to find on the spare parts market. A new TACAN (TACtical Aid to Navigation), a new UHF radio Have Quick compatible, the introduction of a GPS (Global Positioning System), the installation of the LN-39A2 INS (Inertial Navigation System) and a new cockpit layout improved pilot’s situational awareness and enhanced navigational capabilities. Furthermore, the removal of the AN/ALQ-70 self-defence system, of the M61Vulcan and of all the equipments and fittings related to the strike role.

According to Ciacchi (who posted three interesting videos on his Youtube channel), N993SF will now carry out few additional test flights before being actively involved in research and development activities of Starfighters Aerospace. It joins another former Italian Starfighter, the two seater TF-104G-M (previously MM54258) also known as the “Black Beauty”, that is also expected to take part in the celebrations for the 100th Anniversary of the Italian Air Force on June 16-18 at Pratica di Mare Air Base, near Rome.

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The video of the start up below shows that the original cockpit of the ASA-M has been modified to accommodate modern commercial avionics. As explained when we reported about the TF-104 N991SF, the front panel and consoles saw the integration of the two Garmin G5 Electronic Flight Instruments and the GTN 650 Touchscreen Flight Navigator, new UHF and VHF radios and an iPad connected to the GTN 650’s GPS (Global Positioning System) and WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System).

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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.