Cutting Edge NF-104A Conversions

By John Lester


The NF-104 aerospace trainer was a modified F-104A, fitted with a liquid fuel rocket engine in addition to the conventional turbojet. Three F-104A's were converted and used to provide spaceflight training at a fraction of the cost of fully rocket-powered research aircraft, in flight regimes and conditions not obtainable with available operational airplanes. The aircraft enabled pilots to experience the effects of zero gravity flight by flying a "zoom maneuver", in which the aircraft flew a ballistic arc. At the top of the arc, the pilot experienced over a minute of weightlessness.

The NF-104's extra power was provided by 6,000-pound thrust rocket engine built into the tail of the aircraft. It could reach altitudes of over 120,000 feet, where the atmospheric pressure is only one-one hundredth that of the earth's surface. Control at these altitudes was accomplished through the use of hydrogen peroxide controls similar to the X-15 and manned space capsules.

Other modifications included wing tips extended by 24 inches to house the reaction control jets that acted as ailerons to control roll in the thinner air. The vertical tail was enlarged and the engine air inlet cones extended for better pressure recovery and thrust. The nose contained the reaction control jets for pitch and yaw control at high altitudes.

One aircraft was lost in testing. On Dec. 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, Colonel Chuck Yeager (then commandant of the Aerospace Research Pilot School, where all military astronauts were trained) narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after vainly battling to gain control of the powerless, rapidly falling craft. Incidentally, he became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights.. a distinction he could no doubt have lived without.

The Conversions

Cutting Edge makes two conversion sets (cockpit and exterior) and a decal sheet for the NF-104A (and another conversion for the similar JF-104A). The sets are intended for the Hasegawa F-104G/J kit, but you could make them work with the old Monogram F-104C .. though that seems more effort than it's worth.

Despite earlier experience with Cutting Edge conversions, I rushed right out and got the NF-104A sets as soon as the flyer announcing their release arrived in my mailbox. What can I say? I'm a sucker for aircraft that not many others will have on their shelves. I am happy to report that this time, the quality of the detail sets was well worth the price I paid for them.

The first set (CEC48264) provides all the parts to take care of exterior differences between the F-104A and NF-104A - or at least all the ones I can find in my references.

You get 17 resin bits that include:

  • Complete new tail with rocket motor

  • Extended wingtips (2)

  • Extended intake bullets (2)

  • Extra small rocket motor intakes (2)

  • Separate rudder

  • Fuel dump tube

  • Nose with vernier jets

  • Long pitot tube + separate pitch/yaw vanes

  • Section of spine raceway

  • Gun cover

  • Nose wheel

The interior set (CEC48263) includes 15 resin bits plus acetate with instrument dials.The resin pieces make up:

  • Cockpit tub

  • Ejection seat plus two side rails

  • Right and left upper sidewalls

  • Upper and lower instrument panels

  • Coaming

  • Rudder pedals and stick

  • Rear bulkhead

And two parts that are not used for this aircraft

The resin is the typical hard gray polyurethane favored by Cutting Edge. It'll definitely need cleaning before you start with the conversion; my exterior conversion was almost greasy with mold release. I found no bubbles, pits or other flaws, and the surface detailing is crisp and straight. The detail in the cockpit is simply stunning - the ejection seat in fact is a marvel of intricacy. Seat belts are molded on this one, but CE does make the appropriate seat without molded on belts for those who would rather have that.

As is also the norm with Cutting Edge, all parts are on rather huge casting blocks, and will require careful work with the razor saw to free. A couple of the parts, such as the fuel dump, are small and thin enough that I won't attempt to cut them off; instead, I'll use them as templates to scratchbuild bits from styrene stock. I'm not sure I'll use the replacement rudder pedals and such either - I'll have to see when I get to that point in construction whether the effort is worth it.

Instructions are Cutting Edge's strong suit, and the ones that come with these two sets are no different. They are well illustrated, comprehensive, and easy to follow. The modeler is walked carefully through all steps necessary to make the conversion. I wish all instructions were this good!

Also available to compliment the conversion is the Cutting Edge decals (CED48142) "F-104 Starfighter #6". It includes markings for all three NF-104A trainers, including two schemes for the aircraft Chuck Yeager crashed. These markings replicate early and late schemes, for a total of six different marking possibilities. Also on the sheet is a colorful JF-104A with high vis orange wingtips, tail and nose, and a NASA badge. Rounding out the sheet is a F-104A from the first squadron to operate the aircraft, the 83rd FIS at Hamilton AFB, California. All aircraft are natural metal overall, with various detail markings. The decals themselves are crisp, perfectly registered, and appear sufficiently opaque. I've found Cutting Edge decals to be the equal of Aeromaster in quality, and I don't expect any different from this set.


I'm pleased with the quality of the conversion sets and decals, and I look forward to putting them to use on the Starfighter I have stashed in the basement. If you have an interest in a unique variant of the aircraft, and the means to afford these sets, I highly recommend them. These conversions are available direct from Meteor Productions via their website.

They list for:

  • CEC48263 NF-104A Super-detail cockpit -- $15.99

  • CEC48264 NF-104A Exterior conversion -- $23.99

  • CED48142 Starfighters #6 Decals ------------- $8.99

  • CEC48268 JF-104A Conversion -------------- $14.99

Many thanks to my long-suffering wallet for the review sample.

pragolog-sm.jpg (5410 bytes)


Alibris -- library buy/sell used books, movies, music,games

Low prices on books

Stealth Press

< Warship Pictorial No.9:
Yorktown Class Carriers

SP Designs 1/35
Soviet 2S23 Conversion >