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The F4 Phantom: The 70-Year-Old Fighter Jet

Written by Liam Bird

Let’s start today’s MegaProject post with a question. How do you know when something is old?
Does this test change with context? Would you say 5 years is old? For a child, probably not, for a ham sandwich? Then probably yes. What about for a fighter jet? 30 years maybe? What about a fighter jet that’s been in service for 65 years? 

That brings us to the topic of today’s post, the F4 Phantom fighter bomber, grandpas fighter jet that still flies today. 


A Bat out of Hell

The F4 Phantom was developed by the company McDonnell Aircraft, later renamed McDonnel Douglass in the early 1950s. Clearly enjoying the supernaturally inclined naming theme, the jet originated in a planned revision to the then-in-use F3H Demon strike fighter, which had been used by the Navy since around 1951.  The new Demon had been planned to be used for close-range naval air superiority. However, McDonnel wanted to expand the role instead, aiming to increase the armament capability and the range. As such, on the 19th of September 1953, McDonnell delivered a new proposal to the United States Navy, the new supersonic jet was referred to as the “Super Demon.” The “Super Demon” was designed to have a brand-new modular design. This meant that every aspect of the aircraft could be swapped out, like building a jet out of Lego, this would greatly increase the ease of repair and allow the “Super Demon” to fulfil both fighter and bomber roles without the need for an expensive refit.

Unfortunately for McDonnel, the Navy already had both a supersonic fighter and a supersonic bomber in the Grumman Tiger and Vought Crusader respectively, which you can find more about in their respective posts. As a result, they saw little reason to shell out the big bucks on an aircraft that fulfilled roles that were already fulfilled. As such, McDonnel was sent packing, their increasingly metal-named aircraft sent with them. 

Despite this, fans of supernaturally named fighter jets should not threaten for on the 18th of October 1954, McDonnell resubmitted its proposal with a few key changes. The jet now had 11 external hardpoints for varying weapon systems and importantly was designed to support both the role of a fighter jet and a bomber meaning the jet was able to swap seamlessly between the roles without the need for swapping parts at all. Unfortunately, tragedy was to strike, rather than naming the aircraft the “Super Mega Demon” or the “Really Super Demon,” McDonnel instead decided to name it the YAH-1 fighter bomber.  

The Navy finally took the plunge on the 26th of May 1955, they already had aircraft to provide for ground attack and dog fighting but they did not have an aircraft for all-weather fleet defence, this was the concept that the military finally settled on for the prototype. The reason for the YAH-1’s selection was its rare capacity for a second seat, this made the jet ideal for the installation of radar. As such, the YAH-1 was renamed the F4H-1. On the 27th of May 1958, the jet made its first maiden flight, this first flight nearly ended in disaster when the landing gear would not extend because of a hydraulic problem. Despite this, the jet made a safe landing and subsequent test flights were made without problem. The F4H passed these tests with sparingly little changes beyond a small redesign to the splitter plates by the engine. The tests ended in December 1958, when the US Navy announced the F4H had won the role of its two-seater fighter aircraft, the very final test would occur 2 years later though, with the first successful launch of an F4H from a carrier, the USS Independence.

So far, we’ve gotten to 1960 but the name has gone from “Super Demon” to just the rather boring F4H. This was deemed a problem and McDonnell quickly began running through the various other names. Not being one to lose their signature style, McDonnell promptly suggested the name “F4H Satan,” this was met with a reasonably understandable response from the Navy; they requested a less controversial name.  McDonnell then suggested the name of “Mithras,” a reference to the mythical religion of ancient Rome of the same name. The cult of Mithras was an early competitor to Christianity and as such the Navy yet again requested a less controversial name. In the end, McDonnell settled on the name Phantom II, the Phantom I being an ill-fated Marine Corps jet that had been used from 1947 until 1949. It should be noted at this point, however, that the US Army called the F4H the Spectre until the Tri-Service aircraft designation system unified the naming system for aircraft between the US military branches in 1962.

Aerial right side view of five F-4 Phantom aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 333 (VMFA-333). https://nara.getarchive.net/media/aerial-right-side-view-of-five-f-4-phantom-aircraft-from-marine-fighter-attack-f76ead

The Early Advancements

Immediately after the development of the Phantom, its modular nature was put to good use. The Navy and Marine corps became the initial adopters of the Phantom II and the earliest versions were equipped with a mixture of radar, infrared search pods and laser bomb guiding systems. This variation in the Phantoms received a boom in 1962 when Defence Secretary Robert McNamara decided that there should be one unified fighter for all branches of the US military, the F-4B (a variant of the Phantom) was chosen for this. Immediately after this, each branch of the US military submitted its own requirements for its variant of the Phantom. With this unification the Phantom was officially redesignated to the F-4, the naval version being designated the F-4B and the Air Force variant being designated the F-4C.


During this period, the Phantom faced many challenges in Vietnam. As much as we speak about the guerrilla nature of the Vietnam war we should not forget that there was a large-scale air war. As a direct result of this, the F-4J was created from 1966-1972, the new F-4J was designed for improved air-to-air and ground-attack capabilities similar to the focuses that were present in the original “Super Demon” design.  This is where we also get the first of many world records that the Phantom achieved, the F-4J became the first aircraft in the world with operation lock-on capabilities. This meant that the jet could use its onboard radar to detect, lock on, and guide a missile to its target completely independently from the input of the pilot, this would change air combat for the rest of time.  

Beyond this, there were a further 3 variants of the Phantom developed for the United States. Two of these variants are the F-4N and F-4S which developed from modifications made to the F-4J. The F-4N firstly introduced an improved smokeless engine, which led to a major improvement in the reliability and aerodynamic performance of the aircraft. This was then supplemented in 1965 with the RF-4B Phantom, this aircraft was developed for the Marines and was used to take photographs for military intelligence

These variants demonstrated how the Phantom was effectively the Swiss army knife of fighter jets. If you needed anti-personnel capability you could call on an F-4J for advanced bombing capabilities. If you needed air superiority you could call up an F-4S with its advanced radar and radar targeting systems, and if you needed to scout out enemy positions an RF-4B could be called in with its advanced anti-anti-aircraft technologies. This ultimately explains how when the production of the Phantom ended in 1979 over 5,000 jets had been produced and shipped. Not only was this an unprecedented amount, but the jet had also been shipped to an unprecedented number of countries. During its lifetime, the jet was put in use by the United States, Australia, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

The Phantom truly lasted a record-breaking amount of time. For example, when Iran joined the war against the so-called Islamic State in December 2016 it announced its intent with an airstrike in eastern Iraq. This airstrike was carried out by an F-4J Phantom, which was an outstanding 60 years since the first flight.

A left side view of an F-4E Phantom II and an F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel Phantom II aircraft from the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron. Both aircraft are equipped with AN/ALQ-119 electronic countermeasures pods and AGM-45 Shrike missiles. The F-4G is also equipped with an AGM-78 Standard anti-radiation missile on the left inside wing pylon. https://picryl.com/media/a-left-side-view-of-an-f-4e-phantom-ii-and-an-f-4g-advanced-wild-weasel-phantom-b1df9e


If that wasn’t impressive enough the Phantom also has several world records under its belt:

  • On the 6th of December 1959, the second prototype F4H-1 performed a climb to 30,040 metres  Once at this altitude the pilot, Commander Lawrence E Flint Jr., stopped the engines before restarting them which led to him gaining the world record for the highest stop-start ever performed by a fighter jet until The F22 Raptor, which you can also find more about in another post on this channel. 
  • Another world record was earnt on the 24th of May 1961, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of naval aviation in the United States a group of Phantoms flew across the continental United States, managing to make the crossing in 2 hours and 47 minutes. This set the record for the fastest crossing of the United States until an SR-71 Blackbird beat this record in 1974.
  • And finally, on the 28th of August 1961, an F4H-1F Phantom set the top speed record for aircraft by achieving a 1,452 Kilometres per hour top speed.

As well to the above records, the Phantom would set various speed and altitude records over the remainder of its deployment which ranged from the sustained altitude record to the record for top average speed, both scored in 1961. 

These records largely match the descriptions given by pilots who commanded the aircraft in combat, most would have seen combat in Vietnam where the Phantom proved to be a deadly efficient aircraft, easily capable of outmanoeuvring and outshooting the equivalent Russian Migs. 

The Devil’s in the Details

As we have covered, the Phantom had a modular design and had numerous variations upon that design for each branch of the military. It is truly impossible to capture just how customizable this aircraft was but we’re going to attempt anyway.

The Phantom was originally designed to be a carrier-based interceptor for the US Navy, as such early on it was fitted with several key components and features that would befit the role. From birth, the aircraft was equipped with an advanced Doppler radar system which helped specialise the carrier F-4 as an interceptor. The clear early focus of the F-4 was speed, it could achieve a maximum speed of Mach 2.23 and a climb rate of over 41,000 feet per minute. (That works out to 210 metres per second)

This insane speed allowed the interceptor to gain an easy edge against almost all soviet contemporary competitors. However, what was even more insane was the fact that the Phantom did not seem to sacrifice much. The Phantom was capable of carrying over 60,000 lbs of equipment, this broke down as anything ranging from 12 air-to-air missiles, a broad assortment of conventional ground attack munitions from rockets to bunker busters and it was even capable of carrying nuclear munitions. To go alongside this, the earliest models of the F-4 were also equipped with a short-range cannon for ground attack. 

An air-to-air right side view of an F-4E Phantom II aircraft dropping six Mark 82 500-pound low-drag bombs over a range. The aircraft is carrying an auxilliary fuel tank on each wing. The aircraft is assigned to the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing.

The inclusion of this internal cannon however would prove to be quite controversial. Later versions of the F-4 would be built completely without it and to a large part, many historians have agreed that the cannon was more or less completely pointless. This was not a view shared by the pilots as can be seen by Marine Corps General John R Dailey who was once quoted as saying “everyone in RF-4s (the marine’s variant) wished they had a gun on the aircraft.” In fact, it would be an F-4 Phantom that would score the world’s only ever supersonic gun kill, scored on June 2nd 1972, by Air Force Colonel Phil Handley.

The gun would not be the only element of the aircraft which was known to cause problems however, very soon after commissioning the slogan of F-4 pilots became “speed is life,” but in truth, this was proved to be quite the opposite. In many tests, the F-4 was shown to lack the manoeuvrability of its Soviet counterparts, it may have had a far greater speed but it was far worse in turns.  This was changed with time though; in later years the F-4 would only get more manoeuvrable and the newest variants are so manoeuvrable that they are the chief training aircraft of both the US Air Force and Navy.

The final detail about the Phantom was its cost, it wasn’t any $125 million super jet like its successor the F22 but it did fetch between three and four million dollars depending on the model, with the most expensive being the F-4D, which when fully equipped could reach just a little over 5 million dollars.

Combat Usage

The Phantom has faced many deployments over the years.  The first of these deployments was to Vietnam as part of the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron of the USAF. Over its service in Vietnam, the Phantom shot down 107.5 enemy aircraft, .5 from an incident where an F-4D using it’s 20 mm gun pod managed to heavily damage an enemy but could not confirm the kill. 

On top of this, the Phantom completely revolutionised how air-to-air combat worked, no longer did one pilot have to confirm the target, get into position and then confirm the kill, now there was a GIB (the Guy In the Back). The GIB would hold the duties of communicating with the base, guiding munitions to their targets and achieving radar lock-on, for the first time in world history a jet could kill another jet that it couldn’t even see.

The first combat engagement of the Phantom occurred on the 26th of April 1966. In this engagement, a F-4C from the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21. Around two months later a Phantom from the same squadron would be granted the macabre honour of being the first Phantom to be shot down, by a SAM, anti-air missile launcher, over North Vietnam. The Phantom was deployed throughout the entire Vietnam war and would score its first ace in 1972 with Captain Steve Ritchie.

Vietnam would not mark the end of the Phantom’s story though. At the outbreak of Operation Desert Storm on the 15th of August 1990, several Phantom F-4G aircraft were redesignated the ‘Wild Weasels’. These Wild Weasels were sent in the first wave of the assault to suppress enemy anti-air defences. The Phantom would continue to be used throughout the war in Iraq, although primarily limited to reconnaissance missions from then on. 

By 2016, most of the United States F-4s had been sold off and replaced by the newer F-16 Fighting Falcon. Despite that, usage of the aircraft has continued in the primary air forces of Israel, Iran and Egypt, with several other countries holding reserve forces of F-4s. These aircraft have been proving themselves crucial in recent years while fighting against the so-called Islamic State. The largest non-US user of these aircraft in Israel is estimated to have around 220 operational and combat-ready Phantoms.

F-4E Phantom II aircraft from the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing. The aircraft is carrying an inboard 2,000-pound GBU-10 laser guided bomb, a Pave Spike laser designator, and two inboard AIM-9J Sidewinder missiles (left side to right).

Round Up

So, we have seen how the F-4 Phantom has developed from its very early and metal-inspired names of the “Super Demon” strike fighter to the veteran of the 20th century we know it as today. We have seen how it still dominates aerial world records, even long after its prime, and how it has proved essential to innumerous victories over various conflicts. Has this got you interested? Well, if you said yes then fear not, both NASA and the civilian non-for-profit organisation the Collings Foundation have been able to purchase F-4D decommissioned Phantoms, so if you want to buy a Phantom all you have to do is start a multi-million-dollar charity or a new space race. 

Before you do, however, it’d be important to cover one last thing about the reputation of the Phantom, which is that it has often been derided as one of the ugliest jets of all time. Its pilots have reportedly given it nicknames across the years ranging from “Snoopy” to “Double Ugly” to “The Flying Anvil” and even “The Flying Brick.” What the Phantom may have in capabilities and service record it seems to lack in style. 

So now we come back to the question I asked you at the start… What makes an old fighter jet old? If it can still shoot, drop bombs, and breach the sound barrier is it really old? Or just a classic.


Airborne Appendices

There is one more story with the Phantom which didn’t quite fit in anywhere else, the last air-to-air kill ever scored by the RAF was scored by a Phantom. Unfortunately, its target was an RAF Jaguar, this incident occurred on May 25th 1982 and came about thanks to many flaws in both the technology of the Phantom in question and flaws of communication. The pilots believed they were carrying a dummy missile and it was common practice in Germany for RAF jets to engage friendlies with their dummy payloads to keep them on alert.

Luckily only the Jaguar was killed and the pilot managed to eject.

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