A Starfighter Reborn

An airline pilot finds a second career.

Rick Svetkoff seated in his favorite ride
Rick Svetkoff seated in his favorite ride.Les Abend

Even nonpilots can look at an F-104 Lockheed Starfighter and see it as the quintessential definition of a fighter jet. The shockingly short, almost straight wing is a contrast to the delta and swept designs of its day. The leading edge is literally razor-sharp, a characteristic that compelled Air Force mechanics to utilize a cover to protect them from injury. And the fuselage, with its aerodynamic wasp waist, is merely a vessel to house a monster jet engine—or, as the airplane was touted by Lockheed, “missile with a man in it.”

The F-104 was used by the U.S. Air Force from 1958 to 1969. Other countries bought versions of the fighter throughout its production, where it was built by foreign manufacturers through a Lockheed license agreement. The Italian air force was the last military to operate the airplane, ending its service in 2004. Unfortunately, early in its career, the F-104 had a miserable accident rate. The Germans dubbed it the “widow-maker.”

The airplane itself has a colorful enough history to be the entire focus of this column, but that’s not my intent. Instead, I wanted to showcase the president and CEO of Starfighters Inc., Rick Svetkoff, a retired airline colleague who resurrected his livelihood by pursuing a second career with perseverance and determination.

Rick greeted us at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex after our group of seven processed through security. We’d made special plans for this tour arranged by Geoff Hickman, a former Air Force veteran, F-16 airshow demo pilot and colleague of Rick.

A tall, lanky guy, Rick spoke with a relaxed, welcoming demeanor. If you had met him at a local watering hole, the first guess of his occupation might not necessarily have him strapped into a vintage Mach-2 jet. Discount the thinning hair, and the steely-eyed focus of a fighter pilot is still there.

Like most folks with ambition, Rick’s second career started with a dream. He loved the airshow circuit and, as a kid, always wanted to be a fighter pilot. The Navy offered that opportunity after he graduated college, where he flew the A-4 Skyhawk among other assorted jets. For the airshow team, Rick decided on the F-104 more out of happenstance because it became available at the right time during his search, even though it hadn’t actually been a consideration. It became apparent that fate made the right choice with the F-104.

F-104 Starfighter
The F-104 Starfighter earns its ­nickname as the “missile with a man.” in it.Lockheed Martin

Rick purchased the first Starfighter in 1995 and then bought two other F-104s shortly thereafter. By 1996, the three airplanes became the only Starfighter performers in the world, with Lakeland’s Sun ’n Fun being one of the first events. At the time, Rick was still gainfully employed as a Continental Airlines pilot, a career he had begun in 1984 after the Navy.

When the writing on the walls indicated that seniority and quality of life had the potential to change unfavorably in 2006 because of the looming United Airlines merger, Rick elected to hang up his hat as a 767 captain. After 22 years, he retired early at the age of 51, eagerly devoting all of his time to his Starfighter career.

In the background, NASA presented Rick with a new and potentially more lucrative opportunity. That being said, those of us who have become accustomed to a comfortable, steady paycheck—especially with years of longevity—tend to remain married to the airline rather than take a risk with the unknown. Rick had a wife, two kids and millions of dollars’ worth of airplanes to feed.

With the demands of the airshow circuit taking their toll, and slim profit margins despite sponsorships, it seemed the time was ripe to explore a new possibility with NASA. Because of activity starting to buzz in the commercial space industry, the agency asked Starfighters Inc. if they would consider a proposal to fly hardware designed to be flown aboard commercial spacecraft. Rather than find out too late that a piece of equipment would break or malfunction when subjected to high G-loads or high speeds, the F-104 would become the test vehicle. The airplane very closely simulates the G-forces experienced during a launch cycle.

By 2009, Rick had an agreement with NASA to operate out of Cape Canaveral, using the 15,000-foot space shuttle landing runway. The Starfighters are housed and maintained in the same hallowed hangar that investigators used to piece together the parts of the Challenger after the 1986 accident. Perhaps the hangar can be considered a good omen with it now being used for efforts that safely move the space program forward.

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Beyond the hardware testing, the government has licensed Starfighters Inc. for its current focus of training both civilian and military pilots. The Air Force uses the F-104 to broaden the experience for test pilots. And for civilian pilots who have never been astronauts, the training offers the opportunity to experience space flight in anticipation of being part of a crew for upcoming launches by commercial enterprises like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing.

If you have an extra $17,900 to spend per 35 to 40 minutes of flight time, Starfighter Inc. will train licensed pilots to fly the F-104. The program involves about three days of ground school, which includes ejection-seat operation. The F-104 was the first airplane to train astronauts on the space shuttle arrival profile, so this is now the most popular sortie. You begin the descent over the runway at 25,000 feet and 325 knots, turn base at 15,000 feet, and then land over the threshold at a slow 180 knots.

And if the space shuttle arrival has you yawning, another profile is flying to high altitude and seeing Mach 2 on the instrument panel. Rick offers a discount for multiple flights. For those thinking the price tag is a little high, consider the fact one tire on the F-104 costs $1,200, which allows for about six landings before replacement.

What I find astonishing is Rick’s fortitude shortly after taking the leap from the airline. Not only was he investing blood, sweat and tears into a risky endeavor that was not quite making a profit, but he found himself in financial straits because of a $1 million investment with his retirement funds. He had trusted a retired pilot from another airline who turned out to be financing a Ponzi scheme with concert promotions. After attorneys prosecuted the case and put the man responsible behind bars, Rick recovered only a third of his money.

I could point an I-told-you-so finger, but yours truly invested in the same fund, fortunately losing only a fraction of Rick’s investment amount. Regardless, it was a devastating experience. Looking on the bright side, it compelled Rick even more to make a success of Starfighters Inc.

Though Rick is unassuming and humble, it would appear he has gained recognition and respect not only from NASA but other governmental agencies as well. For the moment, he is the only game in town safely training future astronauts. A cool way to repurpose an old airplane and an airline career.