While the F-4 was officially retired from active U.S.U.S. Air Force duty in 1996, many Phantom IIs of various varieties may still be seen in museums worldwide.
Our former U.S.U.S. Air Force officer gives us his professional assessment of the F-4 Phantom: My essays on other fighter planes, such as the MiG-25 Foxbat and the F-105 Thunderchief, have often alluded to the F-4 Phantom; thus, I think it’s about time I wrote about the Phantom herself.
We’ll begin with a tune by “fighter pilot’s minstrel” and Vietnam War veteran Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dick Jonas (United States Air Force). As a member of the 433rd TFS, also known as “Satan’s Angels,” of the 8th TFW, also known as the “Wolf Pack,” based in Ubon, Thailand, and led by Col. Willam “Hoot” Gibson, Dick flew several missions in the F-4.
“Well I’m a Son of Satan’s Angels/And I fly the F-4D/As mean as I could be/I’m one of ol’ Hoot Gibson’s lads, as mean as I could be/I’m one of ol’ Hoot Gibson’s lads, as mean as I could be/I’m a Son of Satan’s Angels and I fly the F-4D… “
Let’s delve deeper into why the Phantom was a jet fighter worthy of a love song.
A more official name for the plane was the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The original Phantom, the F.H.F.H. Phantom of the 1940s, was the inspiration for this plane’s moniker; during its brief service life, it made history as the first jet aircraft to take off and land on an aircraft carrier and later as the first U.S. jet fighter in operational service with the Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy’s demand for an all-weather fleet defense interceptor led to the development of the Phantom II, which first took to the skies on May 27, 1958. The Air Force and Marine Corps soon followed suit.
Between 1959 and 1962, the F-4 established many world records for speed and altitude. Before the F-15 Eagle, another McDonnell Douglas creation that broke five records in 1975, no other aircraft had ever come close. With a maximum takeoff weight of 60,000 pounds (27,215 kilograms), a length of 63 feet (19.2 meters), a wingspan of 37 feet 5 inches (11.7 meters), and a height of 16 feet 5 inches (5.03 meters), a Phantom Redux’s (yes, I just made that phrase up on the spot) top speed of Mach 2.23 (1,711 mph/2,753 kmh) is all the more impressive (5 meters). Pilot and Vietnam War veteran Dick Anderegg remarked that the massive bird’s speed and size were “evidence that if you put enough thrust behind a brick, you can make it fly.”
Of all, the Phantom II wasn’t built for speed but for battle, and with Vietnam looming on the horizon after her official adoption by the U.S.U.S. Military Forces, she would see more than her fair share of action in the air war.
Indeed, on July 7, 1965, two Phantoms, one of which was an F-4C, shot down two MiG-17 “Frescoes,” marking the first kills of the conflict for the United States Air Force. Despite the F-4’s outstanding speed and power, its pilots had difficulty dealing with the slower but more agile MiG-17s and MiG-21 “Fishbeds” that North Vietnam used. In addition to the Phantom’s poor maneuverability, early models lacked a gun, and the extremely limited rules of engagement (R.O.E.s) imposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara further hampered the pilots of the United States Navy, United States Air Force, and United States Marine Corps. There was a period when the U.S.U.S. air-to-air kill ratio against their Communist opponents dipped to an abysmal 2:1.
Phantoms first lost the air battle but later won with better aviator training and tactics, the inclusion of the gun, and (perhaps) the loosening of R.O.E. rules by L.B.J.’s successor, “Tricky Dicky” Nixon. U.S.U.S. Air Force F-4 MiG Combat Air Patrol (MiGCAP) missions achieved a much more respectable 5.5:1 kill ratio, while U.S.U.S. Navy MiGCAP missions achieved a 6.4:1 kill ratio.
The late great U.S.A.F. Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, who had previously accumulated 12 aerial victories from his service in WWII, shot down four MiGs, increasing his classification from “double ace” to “triple ace” with a final score of 16 kills. During Operation Bolo, Robin scored one of his most notable victories as a senior officer and killed two MiGs. On January 1, 1967, then-Col. Olds and his “Wolfpack” successfully impersonated a formation of F-105s on a bombing mission; when the MiG-21s took the bed, the Phantom drivers pounced. As a result, seven “Fishbeds” were eliminated without losing a single Phantom.
During their tenure in the Israeli Air Force, the Phantom earned a new combat moniker: Kurnass (Hebrew for “Sledge Hammer”). Israeli fighter pilots used their “sledge hammers” to bring down 116.5 enemy aircraft during numerous Arab-Israeli conflicts, including the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the War of Attrition. During the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1981 to 1988, Iranian F-4 pilots were responsible for downing 80 Iraqi aircraft.
Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq would be the F-4’s final adversary in the skies. Suppressing enemy air defenses (S.E.A.D.) against Saddam Hussein’s dense network of surface-to-air missiles (S.A.M.s) and supporting radar systems was one of the most nerve-wracking missions of the air campaign phase of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. This mission was assigned to the F-4G variant of the Phantom. Noting what the late, great aviation historian Robert F. Dorr had to say about it:
Hundreds of further combat flights were flown by F-4G Advanced Wild Weasels without loss, and they were responsible for destroying 74% of the enemy missile radars. “Just one F-4G Phantom was lost.”
Although the U.S.U.S. Air Force deactivated the F-4 in 1996, many Phantom IIs of various varieties may still be seen in museums worldwide. Amazingly, the Iranian Air Force still actively uses the ancient warbird.