The F-4 Phantom II

Built as a high-altitude interceptor, the F-4 Phantom II quickly demonstrated that it was a special aircraft, establishing over a dozen world speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records. Unique in that it carried no internal cannon, the F-4 relied on radar-guided missiles for offense and required a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to operate its advanced sensors and weapons systems.

The aircraft’s maiden flight occurred in 1958 with deliveries to Navy and Marine Corps squadrons beginning in 1960. Its performance and versatility eventually attracted the interest of not only the US Air Force, but also the air forces of ten foreign nations, making it one of the most widely-employed aircraft in the history of aviation.

For over two decades the F-4 served as both the Navy and Air Forces’ premier air superiority aircraft, and flew with both the Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds.

A nearly perfect machine

While there isn’t any doubt about the aircraft tremendous capabilities, was there anything bad about the iconic F-4 Phantom?

According John Chesire,  F-4 US Navy combat pilot during the Vietnam War, the mighty Phantom was nearly a perfect machine.

US Navy F-4 pilot tells the story of when his skipper flew straight for China after his compass precessed during a MIGCAP mission over North Vietnam

‘Nothing was “bad” about the F-4 Phantom! Only three things as I recall were regrettable… Its excessive engine smoke, its wide turning radius, and its lack of a gun. But its many strengths far outweighed these lesser disadvantages. And with training, they were easily overcome.

‘It was a superior aircraft along with its later more advanced ‘look-down-shoot-down” pulse doppler radar (PD) weapons systems in the “J” model. It was advanced for its time and years later too.

‘Designed as a high speed, long range fleet air defense interceptor against Soviet bombers, it thankfully never met that mission. It later surprised everyone by how diverse its other superior capabilities were. The F-4 was extremely successful in varied multi-missions.

‘It was my most favorite aircraft that I ever flew! It was an awesome aircraft, and we became good friends together, forever!’

Phantom II issues: maneuverability, smoke from the engines and radar

Rick Danzey, who flew US Air Force F-4 Phantom IIs from 1980 to 1988 recalls:

‘The Phantom takes heat for its maneuverability. The hard wing variants did not turn as well as the slatted models. Smaller planes could out turn it however a well flown Phantom was the king until the next generation fighters came out. Even then, a Phantom could do well tactically against 14s, 15s, 16s and 18s. I think that the two-seat Phantom was a tactical advantage as it gave us a second set of eyes in the fight.

F-4E Print
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‘The smoke from the engines was an issue. The smokeless engines made a huge difference/improvement.

‘The radar was a limitation with best contacts occurring inside of 25 miles.

‘Regarding AIM-7 missile employment. My WSO, Fish, and I had the opportunity to shoot one AIM-7F at a PQM-102 (drone F-102). We hit the maneuvering drone right in the weapons bay and broke the drone in half. I did throw a party that night as it was the first kill for the WSEP deployment for our squadron.’

Instead according to Randy Raines, former Capt. USMC (1972 – 1980) F-4 RIO, the Phantom had several issues: 

F-4 Phantom II issues

‘They were always broken. When you reported in from a flight it was “up & up” if the plane and the avionics were working. “up & Down” if the plane was OK but the avionics was down. I can probably count on two hands the number of times I called in “up & up”. I was in four squadrons over my career and everyone of them had all the planes grounded until something could be fixed. Fuel leaks were a huge problem.

‘Designed as an interceptor the structure had a hard time handling the high G’s of 1V1 combat. Then there was the bleed air system (which I understand the USAF shut down) that bleed hot exhaust gas over the leading and trailing edge of the wing when the flaps were down. That system was a continuous problem. Picture hot exhaust leaking next to a wing full of JP-5. We came pretty close to losing a plane because the crew didn’t recognize the problem and didn’t shut the valve controlling the system off.

USN F-4
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‘Then there was the problem in the tail when you pulled the drag chute. Radios, both comm and nav, designed in the 50’s (lots and lots of tubes) were Huge problem! A box maybe 10″ X 10″ by 20″ in the nose wheel well, another one about half that size under my seat, plus control boxes for each cockpit. I remember a section flight out of San Francisco where one plane had the comm, another had the nav, and the third plane was squawking (IFF). Just before I got out they reconfigured my cockpit and installed a Bendix emergency radio above the radar scope. It was similar to the little box you see in Cessnas. Solid state reliability.

F-4 pulse radar

‘The F-4B had a pulse radar. If you were close, lower, had a peaked up set, and you knew about where the boggy was you could get a radar lock in the mountains. No way if you were looking down. The F-4J had a pulse Doppler Radar. When it was working there was no ground clutter. I think I may have had one that worked. But, our F-4’s were old Navy “hand me downs” Scuttlebut had it that one was flown by Randy Cunningham in Vietnam. He and Willy [William Patrick “Willy Irish” Driscoll, Cunningham’s RIO] must have pulled some serious G’s because the pilots said that they couldn’t make it fly straight.

‘The avionics shop got mad at us because we stopped turning on the “main” radio. I heard that the Navy crew that maintained the Blue Angles loved the simplicity of the A-4 that replaced the F-4 during the 70’s gas crisis. I imagine it was the extra time off they had that really pleased them.’

Nevertheless, Raines concludes:  

‘Having said all that, I loved the F-4. It was a great plane that always brought you home.’

How a VMFA-333 F-4 Phantom II scored the only USMC Mig Kill of the Vietnam War

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps