(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
The F-4 Phantom, or “Phabulous Phantom” as it was affectionately known, served US military forces for a record 38 years. It first flew in 1958 before being used by the Navy as an inceptor from 1960, although it was also quite handy in other types of military missions, including ground support bombing, air superiority, air defense suppression, fleet defense, long range strike, and reconnaissance. It became the F-4 in 1962. There were various versions built over the years.
Its history can be traced back to 1952 when research by McDonnell Aircraft concluded that the navy was in need of an attack fighter. The company designed one and made an unsolicited approach to the navy with it. In 1953, the navy asked for an upgrade to the McDonnell F3H Demon, a carrier based fighter, but then decided that the new Vought F-8 Crusader fighter answered its needs. Consequently, McDonnell developed its new “Super Demon” into an all weather fighter-bomber. But the navy considered it already had the aircraft for ground attack and for dogfighting. So McDonnell further developed the aircraft into a fleet defense interceptor. More alterations were made before the company released its prototype XK4H-1. The aircraft was named the Phantom II and the navy ordered five of the versatile fighters in 1955.
The F-4 Phantom was used by the US Navy as a fleet defense fighter from 1960 and by the US Air Force from 1963 as a fighter-bomber. It flew at more than twice the speed of sound on its first air force flight – that’s a mile in just over two seconds. The aircraft set 16 world records in its time. It climbed to an altitude of more than 98,000 feet in 1959 as part of early testing, or about three times as high as most passenger jets fly. This was done by climbing to 90,000 feet before the pilot turned off the engines and glided up to the record altitude. The pilot then restarted the engines and made it back to earth. The Phantom broke records for getting to certain altitudes in quick time in 1962. It reached 10,000 feet in 34.5 seconds, 20,000 feet in 48.8 seconds, and 40,000 feet in 77.2 seconds, climbing over 700 feet a second, or something like eight times the vertical speed of a large, quick roller coaster. It also set a number of speed records.
General characteristics of the aircraft included a length of 63 feet, a wingspan of 38 feet, a weight of about 14 tons empty and 19 tons loaded, and a crew of two,. Fuel capacity was 2,000 gallons, or 3,300 gallons with external tanks. It had a range of 1,600 miles (with external tanks). Its great advantage was its thrust, allowing a pilot to enter a fight or withdraw very quickly. It could fire radar guided missiles to places outside visual range. The aircraft sometimes lacked agility but pilots reported that it was easy to fly at the extremes of its ability. It produced a fair amount of black smoke which was a weakness, although this could be prevented using afterburner. Another disadvantage was having no internal cannon. In 1967, the F-4C model started carrying an external cannon, but the cockpits didn’t have lead computing gunsights, meaning less than accurate firing. An internal cannon was finally added.
F-4s became the first aircraft to serve the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force at the same time. The aircraft saw action in the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. In Vietnam, the Phantom engaged in 84 navy combat exercises. Various roles were performed by the Phantoms, including as a bomber in North Vietnam and Laos and as a ground attacker supporting troops in South Vietnam. In 1972, an F-4J downed three MiG-17s and was on its return flight when a surface to air missile damaged it. The plane was burning and couldn’t be flown conventionally. The pilots were able to fly it upside down and were eventually able to eject over water. During the Gulf War in 1990, the Phantom participated in numerous missions, losing very few planes. In all, it scored a record 280 air to air victories as well as destructing over 200 anti-aircraft sites.
Defence forces in 11 other countries used the F-4 Phantom: Australia, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, and United Kingdom. Israel was the largest purchaser and used the aircraft in a number of Israeli-Arab conflicts. Those bought by Iran were used in the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980s. The United Kingdom bought 15 F-4Js after the Falklands War. Australia leased 24 F-4Es in the early 1970s, where they became a well regarded aircraft.
The F-4 Phantom has also been used for civilian purposes. One was placed on a rocket sled and crash tested to see what would happen when a plane hit reinforced concrete that might surround a nuclear plant. NASA used an F-4A for several purposes such as short programs, X-15 missions, lifting body flights, and training.
A total of 5,195 F-4 Phantoms were built between 1958 and 1981. This was the longest production run for a military aircraft at the time. About 2,900 were used by the US Air Force, 1,300 by the Navy and Marine Corps, and 900 by overseas forces. Design, production and delivery generated employment equal to over one million person years. The aircraft remained in service in the US until 1996. Israel didn’t retire them until 2004. As at 2006, they were still in use in seven nations. They have become popular museum pieces in a number of countries.