The Touch-Roll-Touch Was One Of The Craziest Maneuvers Done In A Fighter

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The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, also known as the "Missile With A Man In It," is known for many things. It was the first operational mach two capable fighter, it was designed by the legendary Kelly Johnson and served with 15 nations for almost 50 years. One thing it is not known for is its slow-speed handling.

That is precisely why doing the Touch-Roll-Touch maneuver in it was so amazing. The story goes that this stunt was the product of a legendary Belgian Air Force F-104G pilot and member of their national aerobatic display team, the Slivers, Bill Ongena. Ongena did what no test pilot would try, especially in the sleek and high-speed optimized F-104 Starfighter. He could perform a touch and go, do a full roll and land on the same runway. He called this the "Touch-Roll-Touch" and it was a huge hit with anyone lucky enough to see it in person.

Bill was the first of a small cadre of pilots that ever attempted this ultra-intense maneuver, of which many are said to have died trying. Warbird News has an interesting piece about it that includes some quotes from a group of F-104 pilots who describe the notorious maneuver and underline just how terrifying it really was. One pilot, Ferry Van Der Geest, stated:

This famous touch-roll-touch was only performed in Belgium (note: apparently an American pilot died trying it and other pilots from other air forces did it or died trying to do it as well), 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 did something like this afterwards.


Another pilot, Wolfgang Czaia, said:

"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."


It is amazing how different and seemingly risk tolerant the whole fighter pilot and military culture was back then. To think that something like the Touch-Roll-Touch was even sanctioned at all is just mesmerizing, especially when you consider just how poorly suited the Starfighter was for such a crazy low-speed and dynamic maneuver. Then again, the guys in the cockpit finally had a jet with the power and speed them dreamed about just a decade before, and "strapping on" the tight, hot rod like F-104 in particular was known to have been downright intoxicating. Just imagine all the antics and feats of stick and rudder flying that were NOT sanctioned and never caught on camera during this amazing era, all of them now lost to the great buffer of time.


You can read more Starfighter pilots give their unique impressions of this deadly maneuver by checking out Warbird News's post on it here.

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address