McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
F-4 Phantom II
An F-4B Phantom II of Marine fighter-attack squadron VMFA-314, the Black Knights
Role Interceptor fighter, fighter-bomber
National origin United States
Manufacturer McDonnell Aircraft /
McDonnell Douglas
First flight 27 May 1958
Introduction 30 December 1960
Status Active as of 2011
Primary users United States Air Force (historical)
United States Navy (historical)
United States Marine Corps (historical)
Turkish Air Force
Produced 1958–1981
Number built 5,195
Unit cost US$2.4 million when new (F-4E)

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II[N 1] is a tandem two-seat, twin-engined, all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor fighter/fighter-bomber originally developed for the United States Navy by McDonnell Aircraft.[1] It first entered service in 1960 with the U.S. Navy. Proving highly adaptable, it was also adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force, and by the mid-1960s had become a major part of their respective air wings.[2]

The Phantom is a large fighter with a top speed of over Mach 2.2. It can carry over 18,000 pounds (8,400 kg) of weapons on nine external hardpoints, including air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, and various bombs. The F-4, like other interceptors of its time, was designed without an internal cannon, but later models incorporated a M61 Vulcan rotary cannon. Beginning in 1959, it set 15 world records,[3] including an absolute speed record, and an absolute altitude record.[4]

The F-4 was used extensively during the Vietnam War, serving as the principal air superiority fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, as well as being important in the ground-attack and reconnaissance roles by the close of U.S. involvement in the war.[2] The Phantom has the distinction of being the last U.S. fighter flown to attain ace status in the 20th century. During the Vietnam War, the USAF had one pilot and two weapon systems officers (WSOs),[5] and the US Navy one pilot and one radar intercept officer (RIO), achieve five aerial kills against other enemy fighter aircraft and become aces in air-to-air combat.[6] The F-4 continued to form a major part of U.S. military air power throughout the 1970s and 1980s, being gradually replaced by more modern aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle and F-16 in the U.S. Air Force; the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet in the U.S. Navy; and the F/A-18 in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The F-4 Phantom II remained in use by the U.S. in the reconnaissance and Wild Weasel (suppression of enemy air defenses) roles in the 1991 Gulf War, finally leaving service in 1996.[7][8] It was also the only aircraft used by both U.S. flight demonstration teams: the USAF Thunderbirds (F-4E) and the US Navy Blue Angels (F-4J).[2][9][10] The F-4 was also operated by the armed forces of 11 other nations. Israeli Phantoms saw extensive combat in several Arab–Israeli conflicts, while Iran used its large fleet of Phantoms in the Iran–Iraq War. Phantoms remain in front line service with seven countries, and in use as an unmanned target in the U.S. Air Force.[11] Phantom production ran from 1958 to 1981, with a total of 5,195 built, making it the most numerous American supersonic military aircraft.[2][12]



In 1952, McDonnell's Chief of Aerodynamics, Dave Lewis, was appointed by CEO Jim McDonnell to be the company’s Preliminary Design Manager.[13] With no new aircraft competitions on the horizon, internal studies concluded the Navy had the greatest need for a new and different aircraft type: an attack fighter.[14]

In 1953, McDonnell Aircraft began work on revising its F3H Demon naval fighter, seeking expanded capabilities and better performance. The company developed several projects including a variant powered by a Wright J67 engine,[15] and variants powered by two Wright J65 engines, or two General Electric J79 engines.[16] The J79-powered version promised a top speed of Mach 1.97. On 19 September 1953, McDonnell approached the United States Navy with a proposal for the "Super Demon". Uniquely, the aircraft was to be modular—it could be fitted with one- or two-seat noses for different missions, with different nose cones to accommodate radar, photo cameras, four 20 mm (.79 in) cannon, or 56 FFAR unguided rockets in addition to the nine hardpoints under the wings and the fuselage. The Navy was sufficiently interested to order a full-scale mock-up of the F3H-G/H, but felt that the upcoming Grumman XF9F-9 and Vought XF8U-1 already satisfied the need for the supersonic fighter.[17]

The McDonnell design was therefore reworked into an all-weather fighter-bomber with 11 external hardpoints for weapons and on 18 October 1954, the company received a letter of intent for two YAH-1 prototypes. On 26 May 1955, four Navy officers arrived at the McDonnell offices and, within an hour, presented the company with an entirely new set of requirements. Because the Navy already had the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk for ground attack and F-8 Crusader for dogfighting, the project now had to fulfill the need for an all-weather fleet defense interceptor. A second crewman was added to operate the powerful radar.[1]

XF4H-1 prototype

The XF4H-1 was designed to carry four semi-recessed AAM-N-6 Sparrow III radar-guided missiles, and to be powered by two J79-GE-8 engines. Like in the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, the engines sat low in the fuselage to maximize internal fuel capacity and ingested air through fixed geometry intakes. The thin-section wing had a leading edge sweep of 45° and was equipped with a boundary layer control system for better low-speed handling.[18]

An F4H-1F aboard USS Independence.

Wind tunnel testing had revealed lateral instability requiring the addition of 5° dihedral to the wings.[19] To avoid redesigning the titanium central section of the aircraft, McDonnell engineers angled up only the outer portions of the wings by 12°, which averaged to the required 5° over the entire wingspan. The wings also received the distinctive "dogtooth" for improved control at high angles of attack. The all-moving tailplane was given 23° of anhedral to improve control at high angles of attack while still keeping the tailplane clear of the engine exhaust.[18] In addition, air intakes were equipped with movable ramps to regulate airflow to the engines at supersonic speeds. All-weather intercept capability was achieved thanks to the AN/APQ-50 radar. To accommodate carrier operations, the landing gear was designed to withstand landings with a sink rate of 23 ft/s (7 m/s), while the nose strut could extend by some 20 in (50 cm) to increase angle of attack at takeoff.[19]

On 25 July 1955, the Navy ordered two XF4H-1 test aircraft and five YF4H-1 pre-production fighters. The Phantom made its maiden flight on 27 May 1958 with Robert C. Little at the controls. A hydraulic problem precluded retraction of the landing gear but subsequent flights went more smoothly. Early testing resulted in redesign of the air intakes, including the distinctive addition of 12,500 holes to "bleed off" the slow-moving boundary layer air from the surface of each intake ramp. The aircraft soon squared off against the XF8U-3 Crusader III. Due to operator workload, the Navy wanted a two-seat aircraft and on 17 December 1958 the F4H was declared a winner. Delays with the J79-GE-8 engines meant that the first production aircraft were fitted with J79-GE-2 and −2A engines, each having 16,100 lbf (71.8 kN) of afterburning thrust. In 1959, the Phantom began carrier suitability trials with the first complete launch-recovery cycle performed on 15 February 1960 from USS Independence.[19]

There were proposals to name the F4H "Satan" and "Mithras", the Persian god of light.[20] In the end, the aircraft was given the less controversial name "Phantom II", the first "Phantom" being another McDonnell jet fighter, the FH-1 Phantom. The Phantom II was briefly given the designation F-110A and the name "Spectre" by the USAF, but neither name was used.[21]


Early in production, the radar was upgraded to a larger AN/APQ-72, necessitating the bulbous nose, and the canopy was reworked to improve visibility and make the rear cockpit less claustrophobic.[22] During its career the Phantom underwent many changes in the form of numerous variants developed.

VF-74 was the first operational U.S. Navy Phantom squadron in 1961.

The USAF received Phantoms as the result of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's push to create a unified fighter for all branches of the military. After an F-4B won the "Operation Highspeed" fly-off against the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, the USAF borrowed two Naval F-4Bs, temporarily designating them F-110A "Spectre" in January 1962, and developed requirements for their own version. Unlike the Navy focus on interception, the USAF emphasized a fighter-bomber role. With McNamara's unification of designations on 18 September 1962, the Phantom became the F-4 with the Naval version designated F-4B and USAF F-4C. The first Air Force Phantom flew on 27 May 1963, exceeding Mach 2 on its maiden flight.[23]

Phantom II production ended in the United States in 1979 after 5,195 had been built (5,057 by McDonnell Douglas and 138 in Japan by Mitsubishi).[2] Of these, 2,874 went to the USAF, 1,264 to the Navy and Marine Corps, and the rest to foreign customers.[2] The last U.S.-built F-4 went to Turkey, while the last F-4 ever built was completed in 1981 as an F-4EJ by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan. As of 2008, 631 Phantoms remained in active service worldwide,[24] while the Phantom also remains in use as a target drone operated by the U.S. military.

World records

Transcontinental "Operation LANA" in 1961

To show off their new fighter, the Navy led a series of record-breaking flights early in Phantom development:[2] All in all, the Phantom set 16 world records. With the exception of Skyburner, all records were achieved in unmodified production aircraft. Five of the speed records remained unbeaten until the F-15 Eagle appeared in 1975.[3]

  • Operation Top Flight: On 6 December 1959, the second XF4H-1 performed a zoom climb to a world record 98,557 ft (30,040 m).[4] The previous record of 94,658 ft (28,852 m) was set by a Soviet Sukhoi T-43-1 prototype. Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., USN accelerated his aircraft to Mach 2.5 at 47,000 ft (14,330 m) and climbed to 90,000 ft (27,430 m) at a 45° angle. He then shut down the engines and glided to the peak altitude. As the aircraft fell through 70,000 ft (21,300 m), Flint restarted the engines and resumed normal flight.[25]
  • On 5 September 1960, an F4H-1 averaged 1,216.78 mph (1,958.16 km/h) over a 500 km (311 mi) closed-circuit course.[4]
  • On 25 September 1960, an F4H-1 averaged 1,390.21 mph (2,237.26 km/h) over a 100 km (62.1 mi) closed-circuit course.[4]
  • Operation LANA: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Naval aviation (L is the Roman numeral for 50 and ANA stood for Anniversary of Naval Aviation) on 24 May 1961, Phantoms flew across the continental United States in under three hours and included several tanker refuelings. The fastest of the aircraft averaged 869.74 mph (1,400.28 km/h) and completed the trip in 2 hours 47 minutes, earning the pilot (and future NASA Astronaut), Lieutenant Richard Gordon, USN and RIO, Lieutenant Bobbie Long, USN, the 1961 Bendix trophy.[4][26][27][28]
  • Operation Sageburner: On 28 August 1961, a Phantom averaged 902.769 mph (1,452.826 km/h) over a 3 mi (4.82 km) course flying below 125 feet (38.1 m) at all times.[4] Commander J.L. Felsman, USN was killed during the first attempt at this record on 18 May 1961 when his aircraft disintegrated in the air after pitch damper failure.[29]
  • Operation Skyburner: On 22 December 1961, a modified Phantom with water injection set an absolute world record speed of 1,606.342 mph (2,585.086 km/h).[4]
  • On 5 December 1961, another Phantom set a sustained altitude record of 66,443.8 feet (20,252 m).[4]
  • Operation High Jump: A series of time-to-altitude records was set in early 1962: 34.523 seconds to 3,000 meters (9,840 ft), 48.787 seconds to 6,000 meters (19,700 ft), 61.629 seconds to 9,000 meters (29,500 ft), 77.156 seconds to 12,000 meters (39,400 ft), 114.548 seconds to 15,000 meters (49,200 ft), 178.5 seconds to 20,000 meters (65,600 ft), 230.44 seconds to 25,000 metres (82,000 ft), and 371.43 seconds to 30,000 metres (98,400 ft).[30]



Cockpit of F-4 Phantom II

The F-4 Phantom is tandem-seat fighter-bomber designed as a carrier-based interceptor to fill the U.S. Navy's fleet defense fighter role. Innovations in the F-4 included an advanced pulse-doppler radar and extensive use of titanium in its airframe.[31]

Despite the imposing dimensions and a maximum takeoff weight of over 60,000 lb (27,000 kg),[32] the F-4 had a top speed of Mach 2.23 and an initial climb of over 41,000 ft/min (210 m/s).[33] The F-4's nine external hardpoints have a capability of up to 18,650 pounds (8,480 kg) of weapons, including air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, and unguided, guided, and nuclear bombs.[34] Like other interceptors of its day, the F-4 was designed without an internal cannon.[35]

The baseline performance of a Mach 2-class fighter with long range and a bomber-sized payload would be the template for the next generation of large and light/middle-weight fighters optimized for daylight air combat.[36]

Flight characteristics

In air combat, the Phantom's greatest advantage was its thrust, which permitted a skilled pilot to engage and disengage from the fight at will.[37] The massive aircraft, designed to fire radar-guided missiles from beyond visual range, lacked the agility of its Soviet opponents and was subject to adverse yaw during hard maneuvering. Although thus subject to irrecoverable spins during aileron rolls, pilots reported the aircraft to be very communicative and easy to fly on the edge of its performance envelope. In 1972, the F-4E model was upgraded with leading edge slats on the wing, greatly improving high angle of attack maneuverability at the expense of top speed.[38]

F-4 Phantom II flight demonstration video

The J79 engines produced noticeable amounts of black smoke, a severe disadvantage in that the enemy could spot the aircraft.[39] This was solved on the F-4S fitted with the −10A engine variant which used a smoke-free combustor.[40]

The F-4's biggest weakness, as it was initially designed, was its lack of an internal cannon. For a brief period, doctrine held that turning combat would be impossible at supersonic speeds and little effort was made to teach pilots air combat maneuvering. In reality, engagements quickly became subsonic. Furthermore, the relatively new heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles at the time were frequently reported as unreliable and pilots had to use multiple shots (also known as ripple-firing), just to hit one enemy fighter. To compound the problem, rules of engagement in Vietnam precluded long-range missile attacks in most instances, as visual identification was normally required. Many pilots found themselves on the tail of an enemy aircraft but too close to fire short-range Falcons or Sidewinders. Although in 1967 USAF F-4Cs began carrying SUU-16 or SUU-23 external gunpods containing a 20 mm (.79 in) M61 Vulcan Gatling cannon, USAF cockpits were not equipped with lead-computing gunsights, virtually assuring a miss in a maneuvering fight. Some Marine Corps aircraft carried two pods for strafing. In addition to the loss of performance due to drag, combat showed the externally mounted cannon to be inaccurate unless frequently boresighted, yet far more cost-effective than missiles. The lack of a cannon was finally addressed by adding an internally mounted 20 mm (.79 in) M61 Vulcan on the F-4E.[38]


F-4C RF-4C F-4D F-4E
Unit R&D cost 61,200 (1965) by 1973
426,004 (Current) by 1973
22,700 (1965) by 1973
158,011 (Current) by 1973
Airframe 1,388,725 (1965)
9,666,702 (Current)
1,679,000 (1965)
11,687,261 (Current)
1,018,682 (1965)
7,090,889 (2008)
1,662,000 (1965)
11,568,927 (Current)
Engines 317,647 (1965)
2,211,092 (Current)
276,000 (1965)
1,921,194 (Current)
260,563 (1965)
1,813,739 (Current)
393,000 (1965)
2,735,613 (Current)
Electronics 52,287 (1965)
363,962 (Current)
293,000 (1965)
2,039,528 (Current)
262,101 (1965)
1,824,445 (Current)
299,000 (1965)
2,081,293 (Current)
Armament 139,706 (1965)
972,472 (Current)
73,000 (1965)
508,142 (Current)
133,430 (1965)
928,786 (Current)
111,000 (1965)
772,654 (Current)
Ordnance 6,817 (1965)
47,452 (Current)
8,000 (1965)
55,687 (Current)
Flyaway cost 1.9 million (1965)
13.2 million (Current)
2.3 million (1965)
16 million (Current)
1.7 million (1965)
11.8 million (Current)
2.4 million (1965)
16.7 million (Current)
Modification costs 116,289 (1965) by 1973
809,470 (Current) by 1973
55,217 (1965) by 1973
384,357 (2008) by 1973
233,458 (1965) by 1973
1,625,065 (Current) by 1973
7,995 (1965) by 1973
55,652 (Current) by 1973
Cost per flying hour 924 (1965)
6,432 (2008)
867 (1965)
6,035 (Current)
896 (1965)
6,237 (Current)
867 (1965)
6,237 (Current)
Maintenance cost per flying hour 545 (1965)
3,794 (Current)

Note: Original amounts were in 1965 United States dollars.[41] The figures in these tables have been adjusted for inflation.

Operational history

United States Navy

A U.S. Navy F-4B from VF-111 dropping bombs over Vietnam, 1971.

On 30 December 1960, the VF-121 "Pacemakers" at NAS Miramar became the first Phantom operator with its F4H-1Fs (F-4As). The VF-74 "Be-devilers" at NAS Oceana became the first deployable Phantom squadron when it received its F4H-1s (F-4Bs) on 8 July 1961.[42] The squadron completed carrier qualifications in October 1961 and Phantom’s first full carrier deployment between August 1962 and March 1963 aboard USS Forrestal.[43] The second deployable U.S. Atlantic Fleet squadron to receive F-4Bs was the VF-102 "Diamondbacks", who promptly took their new aircraft on the shakedown cruise of USS Enterprise.[44] The first deployable U.S. Pacific Fleet squadron to receive the F-4B was the VF-114 "Aardvarks", which participated in the September 1962 cruise aboard USS Kitty Hawk.[42]

By the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, 13 of 31 deployable Navy squadrons were armed with the type. F-4Bs from USS Constellation made the first Phantom combat sortie of the Vietnam War on 5 August 1964, flying bomber escort in Operation Pierce Arrow.[45] The first Phantom air-to-air victory of the war took place on 9 April 1965 when an F-4B from VF-96 "Fighting Falcons" piloted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Terence M. Murphy and his RIO, Ensign Ronald Fegan, shot down a Chinese MiG-17 "Fresco". The Phantom was then shot down, apparently by an AIM-7 Sparrow from one of its wingmen.[19] There continues to be controversy over whether the Phantom was shot down by MiG guns or whether, as enemy reports later indicated, an AIM-7 Sparrow III from one of Murphy's and Fegan's wingmen.[46] On 17 June 1965, an F-4B from VF-21 "Freelancers" piloted by Commander Louis Page and Lieutenant John C. Smith shot down the first North Vietnamese MiG of the war.[47][48]

On 10 May 1972, Lieutenant Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Lieutenant (junior grade) William P. Driscoll flying an F-4J, call sign "Showtime 100", shot down three MiG-17s to become the first American flying aces of the war. Their fifth victory was believed at the time to be over a mysterious North Vietnamese ace, Colonel Nguyen Toon, now considered mythical. On the return flight, the Phantom was damaged by an enemy surface-to-air missile. To avoid being captured, Cunningham and Driscoll flew their burning aircraft using only the rudder and afterburner (the damage to the aircraft rendered conventional control nearly impossible), until they could eject over water.[6]

The Blue Angels flew the F-4J, 1969–74.

During the war, U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom squadrons participated in 84 combat tours with F-4Bs, F-4Js, and F-4Ns. The Navy claimed 40 air-to-air victories at a cost of 73 Phantoms lost in combat (seven to enemy aircraft, 13 to SAMs, and 53 to AAA). An additional 54 Phantoms were lost in mishaps.[49]

By 1983, the F-4Ns had been completely replaced by F-14 Tomcats, and by 1986 the last F-4Ss were exchanged for F/A-18 Hornets. On 25 March 1986, an F-4S belonging to the VF-151 "Vigilantes," became the last active duty U.S. Navy Phantom to launch from an aircraft carrier, in this case, the USS Midway. On 18 October 1986, an F-4S from the VF-202 "Superheats", a Naval Reserve fighter squadron, made the last-ever Phantom carrier landing while operating aboard USS America. In 1987, the last of the Naval Reserve-operated F-4S aircraft were replaced by F-14As. The last Phantoms in service with the Navy were QF-4 target drones operated by the Naval Air Warfare Centers at NAS Point Mugu, California.[19] These airframes were subsequently retired in 2004.[50]

United States Marine Corps

The Marines received their first F-4Bs in June 1962, with the "Black Knights" of VMFA-314 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California becoming the first operational squadron. In addition to attack variants, the Marines also operated several tactical reconnaissance RF-4Bs. Marine Phantoms from VMFA-531 arrived in Vietnam on 10 April 1965, flying close air support missions from land bases as well as from the aircraft carrier USS America. Marine F-4 pilots claimed three enemy MiGs (two while on exchange duty with the USAF) at the cost of 75 aircraft lost in combat, mostly to ground fire, and four in accidents. The F-4 continue to equip fighter-attack squadrons in both the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Reserve throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1980s, these squadrons began to transition to the F/A-18 Hornet, starting with the same squadron that introduced the F-4 to the Marine Corps, VMFA-314 at MCAS El Toro, California. Concurrent with this transition, the Marine Corps RF-4B squadrons slowly disestablished in favor of pod-mounted systems on strike aircraft. On 18 January 1992, the last Marine Corps Phantom, an F-4S in the Marine Corps Reserve, was retired by the "Cowboys" of VMFA-112, after which the squadron was re-equipped with F/A-18 Hornets.[51]

United States Air Force

USAF F-4 Summary for Vietnam War action
Aircraft Weapons/Tactics MiG-17 MiG-19 MiG-21 Total
F-4C AIM-7 Sparrow 4 0 10 14
AIM-9 Sidewinder 12 0 10 22
20 mm gun 3 0 1 4
Maneuvering tactics 2 0 0 2
F-4D AIM-4 Falcon 4 0 1 5
AIM-7 Sparrow 4 2 20 26
AIM-9 Sidewinder 0 2 3 5
20 mm gun 4.5 0 2 6.5
Maneuvering tactics 0 0 2 2
F-4E AIM-7 Sparrow 0 2 8 10
AIM-9 Sidewinder 0 0 4 4
AIM-9+20 mm gun 0 0 1 1
20 mm gun 0 1 4 5
Maneuvering tactics 0 1 0 1
Total 33.5 8 66 107.5

In USAF service the F-4 was initially designated the F-110 Spectre[52] prior to the introduction of the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system. The USAF quickly embraced the design and became the largest Phantom user. The first Air Force Phantoms in Vietnam were F-4Cs from the 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron,[53] which arrived in December 1964.[54] Unlike the Navy, which flew the Phantom with a Naval Aviator (pilot) in the front seat and a Naval Flight Officer as a radar intercept officer (RIO) in the back seat, the Air Force initially flew its Phantoms with a rated pilot in the back seat. This policy was later changed to using a navigator qualified as a weapon/targeting systems officer (later designated as weapon systems officer or WSO) in the rear seat. However, because they originally flew with pilots in the rear seat, all USAF Phantoms retained dual flight controls throughout their service life.

On 10 July 1965, F-4Cs of the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 15th TFW, on temporary assignment in Ubon, Thailand,[55] scored the USAF's first victories against North Vietnamese MiG-17s using AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.[56] On 26 April 1966 an F-4C from the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron scored the first aerial victory by a U.S. aircrew over a North Vietnamese MiG-21 "Fishbed".[57] On 24 July 1965, another Phantom from the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron became the first American aircraft to be downed by an enemy SAM, and on 5 October 1966 an 8th Tactical Fighter Wing F-4C became the first U.S. jet lost to an air-to-air missile, fired by a MiG-21.

Early aircraft suffered from leaks in wing fuel tanks that required re-sealing after each flight and 85 aircraft were found to have cracks in outer wing ribs and stringers.[41] There were also problems with aileron control cylinders, electrical connectors, and engine compartment fires. Reconnaissance RF-4Cs made their debut in Vietnam on 30 October 1965, flying the hazardous post-strike reconnaissance missions. The USAF Thunderbirds used the F-4E from the 1969 season until 1974.[9]

435th TFS F-4Ds over Vietnam.

Although the F-4C was essentially identical to the Navy F-4B in flight performance and carried the AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, USAF-tailored F-4Ds initially arrived in June 1967 equipped with AIM-4 Falcons. However, the Falcon, like its predecessors, was designed to shoot down bombers flying straight and level. Its reliability proved no better than others, and its complex firing sequence and limited seeker-head cooling time made it virtually useless in combat against agile fighters. The F-4Ds reverted to using Sidewinders under the "Rivet Haste" program in early 1968, and by 1972 the AIM-7E-2 "Dogfight Sparrow" had become the preferred missile for USAF pilots. Like other Vietnam War Phantoms, the F-4Ds were urgently fitted with radar homing and warning (RHAW) antennae to detect the Soviet-built SA-2 Guideline SAMs.[58]

From the initial deployment of the F-4C to Southeast Asia, USAF Phantoms performed both air superiority and ground attack roles, supporting not only ground troops in South Vietnam but also conducting bombing sorties in Laos and North Vietnam. As the F-105 force underwent severe attrition between 1965 and 1968, the bombing role of the F-4 proportionately increased until after November 1970 (when the last F-105D was withdrawn from combat) it became the primary USAF ordnance delivery system. In October 1972 the first squadron of EF-4C Wild Weasel aircraft deployed to Thailand on temporary duty.[59] The "E" prefix was later dropped and the aircraft was simply known as the F-4C Wild Weasel.

Sixteen squadrons of Phantoms were permanently deployed between 1965 and 1973, and 17 others deployed on temporary combat assignments.[60] Peak numbers of combat F-4s occurred in 1972, when 353 were based in Thailand.[61] A total of 445 Air Force Phantom fighter-bombers were lost, 370 in combat and 193 of those over North Vietnam (33 to MiGs, 30 to SAMs, and 307 to AAA).[61]

The RF-4C was operated by four squadrons,[62] and of the 83 losses, 72 were in combat including 38 over North Vietnam (seven to SAMs and 65 to AAA).[61] By war's end the U.S. Air Force had lost a total of 528 F-4 and RF-4C Phantoms. When combined with U.S. Naval and Marine losses of 233 Phantoms, 761 F-4/RF-4 Phantoms were lost in the Vietnam War.

On 28 August 1972, Capt Steve Ritchie became the first USAF ace of the war.[5] On 9 September 1972, WSO Capt Charles B. DeBellevue became the highest-scoring American ace of the war with six victories.[5] and WSO Capt Jeffrey Feinstein became the last USAF ace of the war on 13 October 1972.[63] Upon return to the United States, DeBellevue and Feinstein were assigned to pilot training (Feinstein was given a vision waiver) and requalified as USAF pilots in the F-4. USAF F-4C/D/E crews scored 107½ MiG kills in Southeast Asia (50 by Sparrow, 31 by Sidewinder, five by Falcon, 15.5 by gun, and six by other means).[61]

USAFE F-4G, A-10A and RF-4C in 1987.

On 31 January 1972, the 170th Tactical Fighter Squadron/183d Tactical Fighter Group of the Illinois Air National Guard became the first Air National Guard unit to transition to Phantoms when their F-84F Thunderstreaks were found to have corrosion problems.[64] The F-4's ANG service lasted until 31 March 1990, when it was replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

On 15 August 1990, 24 F-4G Wild Weasel Vs and six RF-4Cs were mobilized to Shaikh Isa AB, Bahrain, for Operation Desert Storm. The F-4G was the only aircraft in the USAF inventory equipped for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) role, and was needed to protect coalition aircraft from Iraq's extensive air defense system. The RF-4C was the only aircraft equipped with the ultra-long-range KS-127 LOROP (long-range oblique photography) camera, and was used for a variety of reconnaissance missions. In spite of flying almost daily missions, only one RF-4C was lost in a fatal accident before the start of hostilities. One F-4G was lost when enemy fire damaged the fuel tanks and the aircraft ran out of fuel near a friendly airbase. The last USAF Phantoms, F-4G Wild Weasel Vs from 561st Fighter Squadron, were retired on 26 March 1996. The last operational flight of the F-4G Wild Weasel was from the 190th Fighter Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard, in April 1996.[65] The last operational USAF/ANG F-4 to land was flown by Maj Mike Webb and Maj Gary Leeder, Idaho ANG.

Like the Navy, the Air Force has operated QF-4 target drones, serving with the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall AFB, Florida.[66] It is expected that the F-4 will remain in the target role with the 82d ATRS until 2013-14, when they will be replaced by early versions of the F-16 Fighting Falcon converted to a QF-16 configuration.[11] Several QF-4s are maintained in historical color schemes, being displayed as part of Air Combat Command's Heritage Flight at weekends, while serving as target aircraft during the week.[67]

Non-U.S. air forces

The Phantom served with the air forces of many countries, including Australia, Egypt, Germany, United Kingdom, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, Spain, South Korea and Turkey.


The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) leased 24 USAF F-4Es from 1970 to 1973 while waiting for their order for the General Dynamics F-111C to be delivered. They were so well-liked that the RAAF considered adopting the F-4E instead.[68] They were operated from RAAF Amberley by No. 1 Squadron and No. 6 Squadron.[69]


AREAF F-4E Phantom II

In 1979, the Egyptian Air Force purchased 35 former USAF F-4Es along with a number of Sparrow, Sidewinder, and Maverick missiles from the U.S. for $594 million as part of the "Peace Pharaoh" program.[70] An additional seven surplus USAF aircraft were purchased in 1988.[71] Three attrition replacements had been received by the end of the 1990s.[68]

F-4Fs of the German Luftwaffe


The German Luftwaffe initially ordered the reconnaissance RF-4E in 1969, receiving a total of 88 aircraft which were delivered from January 1971.[72] In 1982, the initially unarmed RF-4Es were given a secondary ground attack capability, and were retired in 1994.[73]

In 1973, under the "Peace Rhine" program, the Luftwaffe purchased the lightened and simplified F-4F which was upgraded in the mid-1980s.[74] 24 German-owned F-4Fs were operated by the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing of the USAF at Holloman AFB to train Luftwaffe crews until 2002. In 1975, Germany also received 10 F-4Es for training in the U.S. In the late 1990s, these were withdrawn from service, being replaced by F-4Fs.[75] Germany also initiated the "ICE" (Improved Combat Efficiency) program in 1983. The 110 ICE-upgraded F-4Fs entered service in 1992,[74] and are expected to remain in service until 2012.[76] All the remaining Luftwaffe's Phantoms are now based at Wittmund with Jagdgeschwader 71 (fighter wing 71) in Northern Germany.[77]


Hellenic Air Force RF-4E Phantom II, in a special color scheme, lands at RIAT 2008, UK

In 1971, the Hellenic Air Force ordered brand new F-4E Phantoms, with deliveries starting in 1974. In the early 1990s the Hellenic AF acquired surplus RF-4Es and F-4Es from the Luftwaffe and U.S. ANG.[78][79]

Following the success of the German ICE program, on 11 August 1997, DASA of Germany received a contract to upgrade 39 aircraft to the very similar "Peace Icarus 2000" standard.[19] The Hellenic AF operates 35 upgraded F-4E-PI2000 (338 and 339 Squadrons) and 22 RF-4E aircraft (348 Squadron) as of May 2008.


In the 1960s and 1970s, then U.S.-friendly Iran purchased 225 F-4D, F-4E and RF-4E Phantoms. The Imperial Iranian Air Force saw at least one engagement, resulting in a loss, after an RF-4C was rammed[80] by a Soviet MiG-21 during Project Dark Gene, an ELINT operation during the Cold War. The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force Phantoms saw action in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and are kept operational by overhaul and servicing from Iran’s aerospace industry.[81]


The Israeli Air Force was the largest foreign operator of the Phantom, flying both newly built and ex-USAF aircraft, as well as several one-off special reconnaissance variants. The first F-4Es, nicknamed "Kurnass" (Sledgehammer), and RF-4Es, nicknamed "Orev" (Raven), were delivered in 1969 under the "Peace Echo I" program. Additional Phantoms arrived during the 1970s under "Peace Echo II" through "Peace Echo V" and "Nickel Grass" programs. Israeli Phantoms saw extensive combat during Arab–Israeli conflicts, first seeing action during the War of Attrition.[82] In the 1980s, Israel began the "Kurnass 2000" modernization program which significantly updated avionics.[19] The last Israeli F-4s were retired in 2004.[83]

A pair of F-4EJs with their new air superiority paint scheme


From 1968, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force purchased a total of 140 F-4EJ Phantoms without aerial refueling, Bullpup ASM system, nuclear control system and ground attack capabilities.[84][85] Mitsubishi built 138 under license in Japan and 14 unarmed reconnaissance RF-4Es were imported. Of these, 96 F-4EJs have since been modified to the F-4EJ Kai (?, modified) standard.[86] 15 F-4EJs have been converted to reconnaissance aircraft designated RF-4EJ, with similar upgrades as the F-4EJ Kai. Japan has a fleet of 90 F-4s in service as of 2007, and studies are underway to replace them with either the Eurofighter Typhoon,[87] Dassault Rafale, or one of several others.

South Korea

Republic of Korea ex-USAF F-4E

The Republic of Korea Air Force purchased its first batch of secondhand USAF F-4D Phantoms in 1968 under the "Peace Spectator" program. The F-4Ds continued to be delivered until 1988. The "Peace Pheasant II" program also provided newly-built and former USAF F-4Es.[88] Currently the F-4Ds are being replaced in service by new F-15K Slam Eagles.


The Spanish Air Force acquired its first batch of ex-USAF F-4C Phantoms in 1971 under the "Peace Alfa" program. Designated C.12, the aircraft were retired in 1989. At the same time, the SAF received a number of ex-USAF RF-4Cs, designated CR.12. In 1995–1996, these aircraft received extensive avionics upgrades. Spain retired its RF-4s in 2002.[89][90]


The Turkish Air Force received 40 F-4Es in 1974, with a further 32 F-4Es and 8 RF-4Es in 1977–78 under the "Peace Diamond III" program, followed by 40 ex-USAF aircraft in "Peace Diamond IV" in 1987, and a further 40 ex-U.S. Air National Guard Aircraft in 1991.[91] A further 32 RF-4Es were transferred to Turkey after being retired by the Luftwaffe between 1992 and 1994.[91] In 1995, IAI of Israel implemented an upgrade similar to Kurnass 2000 on 54 Turkish F-4Es which were dubbed the F-4E 2020 Terminator.[19] Turkish F-4s, and more modern F-16s have been used to strike Kurdish separatists in ongoing military operations in Northern Iraq.[92] In September 2010, US Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Tamara Parker confirmed a Chinese-Turkish joint exercise from September 20 through October 4 at the Konya air base in Turkey's central Anatolia region. According to Reuters, the Turkish air force flew F-4s, and China flew Russian-built Su-27s. Reports indicated F-4s successfully defeated Su-27s in air combat exercises.[93][importance?]

United Kingdom

An F-4J of the US Navy alongside an F-4K of the Fleet Air Arm wait to be catapulted from USS Independence; one of the major differences can be seen by the British aircraft's extendable nose wheel. Both variants were eventually used by the RAF

The United Kingdom bought versions based on the USN F-4J for use with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. The main differences were the use of the British Rolls-Royce Spey engines and of British-made avionics. The RN and RAF versions were given the designation F-4K and F-4M respectively, and entered service with the Phantom FG.1 (fighter/ground attack) and Phantom FGR.2 (fighter/ground attack/reconnaissance) British designations.[94][95]

In 1982 during the Falklands War three Phantom FGR2s of No. 29 Squadron were on active Quick Reaction Alert duty on Ascension Island to protect the base from air attack.[96] After the Falklands War, 15 upgraded ex-USN F-4Js, known as the F-4J(UK) entered RAF service to compensate for one interceptor squadron redeployed to the Falklands.[74]

Around 15 RAF squadrons received various marks of Phantom, many of them based in Germany. The first to be equipped was No. 6 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in July 1969. One noteworthy deployment was to No. 43 Squadron where Phantom FG1s remained the squadron equipment for a remarkable 20 years, arriving in September 1969 and departing in July 1989. During this period the squadron was based at Leuchars.[97]

The interceptor Phantoms were replaced by the Panavia Tornado F3 from the late 1980s onwards, and the last British Phantoms were retired in October 1992 when No. 74 Squadron disbanded.[19][97]

Civilian use

Sandia National Laboratories used an F-4 mounted on a "rocket sled" in a crash test to see the results of an aircraft hitting a reinforced concrete structure, such as a nuclear power plant.[98]

One aircraft, an F-4D (civilian registration N749CF), is operated by the Massachusetts-based non-profit organization Collings Foundation as a "living history" exhibit.[19][99] Funds to maintain and operate the aircraft, which is based in Houston, Texas, are raised through donations/sponsorships from public and commercial parties.[100][101]

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center acquired an F-4A Phantom II on 3 December 1965. It made fifty-five flights in support of short programs, chase on X-15 missions and lifting body flights. The F-4A also supported a biomedical monitoring program involving 1,000 flights by NASA Flight Research Center aerospace research pilots and students of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School flying high-performance aircraft. The pilots were instrumented to record accurate and reliable data of electrocardiogram, respiration rate and normal acceleration. In 1967, the F-4A supported a brief military-inspired program to determine whether an airplane's sonic boom could be directed and whether it could possibly be used as a weapon of sorts, or at least an annoyance. NASA also flew an F-4C in a spanwise blowing study from 1983 to 1985, after which it was returned to the Air Force.[102]


QF-4E AF Serial No. 74-0626 at McGuire AFB in May 2007 with an A-10 in the background.
A U.S. Marine Corps RF-4B, 1982
F-4A, B, J, N and S
Variants for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines. F-4B was upgraded to F-4N, and F-4J was upgraded to F-4S.
F-110 Spectre, F-4C, D and E
Variants for the U.S. Air Force. F-4E introduced an internal M61 Vulcan cannon. The F-4D and E were the most numerously built, widely exported, and also extensively used under the Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) U.S. air defense system.
F-4G Wild Weasel V
A dedicated SEAD variant with updated radar and avionics, converted from F-4E. The designation F-4G was applied earlier to an entirely different Navy Phantom.
F-4K and M
Variants for the British military re-engined with Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans.
Simplified F-4E exported to and license-built in Japan.
Simplified F-4E exported to Germany.
QF-4B, E, G, N and S
Retired aircraft converted into remote-controlled target drones used for weapons and defensive systems research.
RF-4B, C, and E
Tactical reconnaissance variants.



An F-4F on display described as the "World's largest distributor of MiG parts", because of the high number of this type of enemy aircraft shot down

The Phantom gathered a number of nicknames during its career. Some of these names included "Rhino", "Double Ugly",[103] the "Flying Anvil", "Flying Footlocker", "Flying Brick", "Lead Sled", the "Big Iron Sled" and the "St. Louis Slugger".[104] In recognition of its record of downing large numbers of Soviet-built MiGs,[105] it was called the "World’s Leading Distributor of MiG Parts".[103] As a reflection of excellent performance in spite of its bulk, the F-4 was dubbed "the triumph of thrust over aerodynamics."[106] German Luftwaffe crews called their F-4s the Eisenschwein ("Iron Pig"), Fliegender Ziegelstein ("Flying Brick") and Luftverteidigungsdiesel ("Air Defense Diesel").[107]

Imitating the spelling of the aircraft’s name, McDonnell issued a series of patches. Pilots became "Phantom Phlyers", backseaters became "Phantom Pherrets", fans of the F-4 "Phantom Phanatics", and call it the "Phabulous Phantom". Ground crewmen who worked on the aircraft are known as "Phantom Phixers".[2]

The Spook

The Spook

The aircraft's emblem is a whimsical cartoon ghost called "The Spook", which was created by McDonnell Douglas technical artist, Anthony "Tony" Wong, for shoulder patches. The name "Spook" was coined by the crews of either the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing or the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing at MacDill AFB. The figure is ubiquitous, appearing on every imaginable item associated with the F-4. The Spook has followed the Phantom around the world adopting local fashions; for example, the British adaptation of the U.S. "Phantom Man"[103] is a Spook that sometimes wears a bowler hat and smokes a pipe.[108]

Aircraft on display

The Collings Foundation F-4D Phantom II, with Vietnam-era "Ritchie/DeBellevue" markings, taxis at Selfridge ANGB, May 2005

Worldwide there are a number of F-4 Phantom IIs on display. For example, a Phantom II F-4C-15-MC, 63-7699, which is on loan from the USAF Museum, is on display at the Midland Air Museum, Coventry, England, UK;[109] a Phantom II F4H-1, BuNo 145310, U.S. Navy,[110] is located at French Valley Airport, Murrieta, California, USA;[111] and there is a dwindling number of reserve F-4s stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, USA.[112][113] The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle has an F-4C Phantom II on display. This F-4C was built in 1965 and served in Vietnam, shooting down three MiG-21s. At the entrance point to Homestead Air Reserve Base in South Florida, there is an F-4 on display. Grissom Air Reserve Peru,Indiana. Cockpit indoor display and outdoor full plane. Currently the United States Air Force Academy has an F-4 on display in the south-west corner of the Terrazzo.

One aircraft, an F-4D, is operated by the Massachusetts-based non-profit organization Collings Foundation as a "living history" exhibit.[19][114] Funds to maintain and operate the aircraft, which is based in Houston, Texas, USA. are raised through donations/sponsorships from public and commercial parties.[100][101]

Notable accidents

Specifications (F-4E)

3-side view of the F-4E/F.

Data from The Great Book of Fighters[74] Quest for Performance,[18] and Encyclopedia of USAF Aircraft.[41]

General characteristics


VF-96 F-4J "Showtime 100" armed with Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles.


See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists


  1. ^ The aircraft was originally designated the AH, and later re-designated F4H, by the United States Navy, while the original designation by the U.S. Air Force was "F-110A Spectre". The F-4 designation came about in 1962 when the designation systems for all branches of the U.S. military were unified by the order of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Within McDonnell Aircraft, the F-4 was referred to as Model 98.[1]
  1. ^ a b c Swanborough and Bowers 1976, p. 301.
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