The F-4 Phantom II: The most prolific jet fighter in American history? (2024)

Emily Charles, Curator, American Air Museum: "The 1950s were a tough time for the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Demand for their twin engine banshee fighter had dried up with the end of the Korean War, and they'd virtually bankrupted themselves designing its single engine successor, the Demon. Only to then be beaten by their competitors Vought to a U.S Navy contract.

It seemed the problem was speed. But when McDonnell broke through the sound barrier in September 1953, the US Navy still wasn't interested. Over the next five years, McDonnell would try again and again to meet the US Navy's changing requirements, to no avail. They just couldn't beat the F-8 and the F-11.

That was, until 1958, when McDonnell delivered a prototype, twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather, long-range fighter - A design the US Navy could not ignore. Originally named the Satan, perhaps inspired by its difficult development process, the aircraft was later named after McDonnell's first successful fighter. It would go on to become the most produced American jet fighter in history and a cold war icon. It was, of course, the aircraft behind me, the F-4 Phantom II.

The F-4 Phantom was designed for a new age of warfare. Rather than nimble aerial dogfighting, the F-4 would use advances in radar and missile technology to engage enemy aircraft from beyond visual range. Unusually for a fighter, the aircraft had a crew of two, to cope with the additional workload of all the new equipment. Although the Phantom had been designed for the US Navy, F-4s like this one also found their way into British service."

David Braithwaite: "Of course, the back seat could see out, which in the Vixen you couldn't. So he became more of a partner at those tricky moments. In a combat situation you've got two pairs of eyes. In an ‘intercept’ in a Phantom, you can basically identify an aircraft over 20 miles away. And if you knew what you're up against, then you've won the battle, really."

Emily Charles: "Some described the Phantom as a ‘flying brick’, but its unorthodox design made it versatile. The phantom size and power gave it a large carrying capacity of almost 16,000 pounds. It could take off with the equivalent weight of an entire F-86 Super Sabre - The US Air Force's favourite fighter at the time."

David Braithwaite: "I think it was basically the first supersonic aircraft the Navy had had, genuinely supersonic, that means straight and level. Weighed basically exactly the same as the Vixen but vastly more capable, a great gigantic leap into the present. Probably couldn't turn at altitude as well as the Vixen but, by God, it got there quickly. Very stable, easy to deck-land, very good weapons carrying capability."

Emily Charles: "The F-4 was also adaptable. It could serve in air-to-air combat or be modified for ground attack. On its nine external pylons, the Phantom could carry bombs, rocket pods or air to air missiles. However, it did not have an internal machine gun, an emission which would come back to haunt the Phantom. The most distinctive element of the F4's design were the wings. The wings are mounted low in the fuselage and swept back by 45 degrees. In early prototypes, the angle of the wings was too flat and caused instability in flight. Redesigning the entire wing, however, would impact the strength of the fuselage. So engineers found that by tilting the outer part at a greater angle, they could achieve the same result. They also added a dogtooth leading edge for better control at a high angle of attack.

For a fighter at the time, the F-4 was massive. However, it was fitted with two powerful GEJ79 engines. So, despite the weight of over 27 tons, the F-4 could reach Mach 2.3, twice the speed of sound."

Martin Loveridge: "A guy took me out for the first time in a Phantom and we cruised at 300 knots at sea level. Then he put the aircraft into full burner and being 20 years old, having never experienced anything like it, the kick that you got, literally a kick in the backside from the acceleration of this aircraft was just immense. It really was something that I will never forget."

Jonathan Whaley: "I’d never been Mk 2 in a Phantom and there were rumours that the Phantom couldn't do it. So after one test flight, take off all the pylons, take off all the external stalls, what have you. So we came stomping right down to sea level, supersonic at about 500 feet, eventually, and brought it back, climbed out, said, “aircraft is fully serviceable. Thank you very much. You can now take it away”. Got a phone call from the engineers saying, “What the f have you been doing to this airplane?” I said, “why?” He said, “come and have a look at it”. And I came back and the thing had got so hot all the paint on the leading edge of the wings, it all burnt off and the aircraft needed a total respray."

Emily Charles: "The fuselage is mostly made of titanium, making it strong and rugged, while the engines are mounted low and close to maximise its fuel capacity. Though criticised for its ugliness at first, this is now a trademark of McDonnell Douglas’s later fighters. Having first been designed to land on aircraft carriers, the F-4 Phantom has an arrestor hook which is designed to catch a wire on a ship's deck and bring the aircraft to a quick stop. This hook was responsible for one of the most remarkable Phantom stories. In 1967 over the skies of Vietnam, F-4 pilot Bob Pardot pushed his stricken wingman’s F-4 by its tail hook for nearly 90 miles until they could all eject in friendly airspace, saving all their lives."

Martin Loveridge: "If the other runway was out of use because of crosswinds or ice or whatever, we would land into that cable. And I have to say, instead of going from 0 to 60 quickly, you go from 60 to 0 very quickly. And it's a case of making sure your teeth are in and not wearing glasses. The stop from 140 odd knots to nothing is quite intense."

Emily Charles: "Although the Phantom had been designed for the US Navy, entering service with them in 1960, US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara wanted a unified fighter suitable for all branches of the US military. He pushed the US Air Force to adopt the Phantom in 1963 and despite their hesitancy, they would go on to become its biggest users. The Navy's F-4Bs and the Air Force’s F-4Cs would have their first major combat outing during the Vietnam War. The pilots were in for a rude awakening.

The US strategy in Vietnam was based on overwhelming aerial firepower, and the Phantom was a huge part of that. The US Air Force deployed the F4 in an-air-to air combat role in Vietnam, shooting down enemy fighters and bombers and they also used it for air-to-ground combat operations.

In 1965 the US launched Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial bombing campaign designed to boost morale in South Vietnam and destroy the war effort in North Vietnam. However, early on in the campaign, US aircraft began to fall prey to Soviet built surface-to-air missiles, or SAMS.

Spike Naysmith: "We were getting pretty close to the target area. And I saw a guided missile, a SAM missile, take off from the ground and it doesn't shoot at you, it shoots where you're going to be, takes quite a complicated formula for it to meet. So if you turn, it turns, and if you turn really hard, you can dodge it. You don't see it coming, boom. It gets you. My backseater’s last words of his short life were, “Hey Spike here it comes” And I looked to the left and there was a SAM missile, right, right there. I barely had time to blink my eyes and it didn't hit the plane, but it went off. It exploded above. Everything came down. A piece of shrapnel hit me in the arm here and came out here and stuck in my leg here."


Spike was shot down by a surface-to-air missile on 4 September 1966. His co-pilot was killed by the missile. Spike was a prisoner of war for 6.5 years.

Emily Charles: "To combat this threat, certain F-4 squadrons were set the task of suppressing enemy air defences and destroying North Vietnamese SAM installations. The concept was named Wild Weasel. Specially modified F-4s would fly deep into enemy territory and attempt to destroy enemy SAMS before they could be shot down themselves. These were some of the most dangerous missions of the war, leading to the unofficial motto YGBSM, standing for ‘You've gotta be sh*tting me’. Wild Weasel is still carried out today by F-16s of the US Air Force. By 1966, phantoms were beginning to face a new enemy in the skies over Vietnam - Soviet supplied and flown MiG 21s.

At first, both the US Navy and US Air Force felt confident the F-4 phantom speed, acceleration and firepower would give them the advantage over the MiG. But limitations in the F-4 design were immediately highlighted. The Phantom's radar and missiles were supposed to give it an advantage at long range. But this technology proved highly unreliable. The rules of engagement also specified that MiGs must be clearly identified and displaying hostile intent before they could be engaged.

This required Phantom pilots to get in close, something that aircraft was just not designed to do. The F-4s vast size and weight made it less manoeuvrable than the smaller MiG and its engines also had the unfortunate tendency to leave a smoke trail that made it visible from a distance. Worst of all was the lack of an internal gun for short range engagements. Only on F-4 Phantom E was this finally installed.

Navy phantoms, like the one behind me, were regularly used to support bombing missions in Vietnam. This one served aboard the USS America for ten months in 1972, supporting operations Linebacker 1 and 2 - America's final and most destructive aerial campaigns of the conflict. While US forces lost around 150 F-4s during the two operations, US Navy Squadron VF 74, which this aircraft served with, remarkably made it through their tour without losing a single Phantom to enemy action."

Spike Naysmith: "Some of the missions were pathetic and you know, we're flying four airplanes, each one costs 3 million bucks. There's two guys on each airplane and we take off and go to North Vietnam. Everybody in the world is shooting at you and you dive bomb a crossing of two roads where they think there might be fuel buried under the roads. So here we are and all these fancy airplanes and boom, boom, boom and blow up a lot of dirt. I can remember one mission where we dropped bombs on a bamboo bridge and the bombs were longer than the bridge."

Emily Charles: "All in all, the F-4 performed well in Vietnam, as did the US Air Forces as a whole, but they just could not resurrect the failed strategy of using air power against guerrilla forces. As political support waned back home, the US was eventually forced to withdraw from the war in 1975.

American bombing took a huge toll on Vietnamese civilians. F-4s dropped napalm and cluster bombs, both of which are now banned by much of the international community. But as Vietnam came to an end, the Phantom’s story was far from over.

Archive clip: "Wing Ops alert to Phantoms… scramble, scramble, scramble."

Emily Charles: "The Air Ministry had previously derided the Phantom in the late 1950s, describing it as looking like it had been rolled out upside down. But they were forced to review their decision in the wake of the cancellation of the TSR 2 programme. Specially built British Phantoms known as FGR1s were received by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in 1968 and were used to defend HMS Ark Royal's Air Group."

David Braithwaite: "My last two years flying the British Phantom, I really enjoyed because I could make that thing dance. Loved it. Phantom’s a lovely aircraft, lovely aircraft."

Emily Charles: "The RAF were equipped with the FGR2 in 1969, an aircraft like this one served in Germany in ground attack and reconnaissance roles close to the East German border. From 1982, Phantoms were sent to the Falkland Islands to provide air defence in the aftermath of the conflict, including this one which served in the Falkland Islands between 1983 and 1985.

While it's now been replaced by more modern aircraft like the F-15 Eagle, over 5000 Phantoms were built and used operationally across the globe. At the height of the Cold War, Phantoms were in service in almost every continent and were operated by nations like Germany, Japan, Australia and Egypt.

The F-4 Phantom is undoubtedly one of the most prolific, versatile and enduring jet fighters of all time. In 2014, a Turkish F-4 was reported to have conducted an airstrike against ISIS militants in Iraq. And even now, the F-4 is still in limited service with some nations, at nearly 70 years old. Who knows how much longer it will serve."

The F-4 Phantom II: The most prolific jet fighter in American history? (2024)
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