America's F-4 Phantom: Taking On the World's Best Fighters (At Almost 60 Years Old)
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is a legendary aircraft — an icon of the Vietnam War and the archetype of the third-generation jet fighter designs that entered service in the 1960s. More than 5,000 of these heavy supersonic fighters were built, and hundreds continue to serve and even see combat in several air forces today.
But the Phantom’s record in air-to-air combat over Vietnam — especially when compared to its successor, the F-15 Eagle, which has never been shot down in air-to-air combat — has left it with a reputation of being a clumsy bruiser reliant on brute engine power and obsolete weapons technology.
This is unfair.
The Phantom’s fundamental flaws were corrected by 1970 — while more recently, Phantoms have had their avionics and ordnance upgraded to modern standards. These modernized Phantoms flown by the Turkish and Greek air forces can do pretty much what an F-15 can do … at a much lower price.
Baptism of Fire:
When the F-4 came out it in 1958 it was a revolutionary design — one that went on to set several aviation records.
Weighing in at 30,000 pounds unloaded, its enormous J79 twin engines gave (and still gives) the aircraft excellent thrust, propelling the heavy airframe over twice the speed of sound at a maximum speed of 1,473 miles per hour.
The early Phantoms could carry 18,000 pounds of munitions — three times what the huge B-17 bombers of World War II typically carried. The weapons officer in the rear-seat could operate the plane’s advanced radar, communication and weapons systems while the pilot focused on flying.
Furthermore, the F-4 came in both ground- and carrier-based models and served in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines. The only other frontline fighter to serve in all three services before or since is the F-35.
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But when the F-4 confronted the lighter-weight MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters of the North Vietnamese air force in 1965, the Phantom suffered.
In the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force had shot down between six and 10 enemy fighters for every one of its aircraft lost in air-to-air combat. In Vietnam, the ratio was closer to two to one (including other aircraft types besides the Phantom).
The F-4’s primary problem was that it had no built-in cannon. Instead, it relied entirely on newly-introduced air-to-air missiles — the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow, the heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder and the older AIM-4 Falcon.
The Air Force didn’t realize those early missiles were terrible.
Studies showed that 45 percent of Vietnam-era AIM-7s and 37 percent of AIM-9s failed to either launch or lock on, and after evasive maneuvers, the probability of achieving a kill fell to eight percent and 15 percent for the two types, respectively. The Falcon missiles were even worse, and the Pentagon later withdrew them from service.
The North Vietnamese MiGs, equipped with both cannons and missiles (on the MiG-21), would outmaneuver the heavier F-4, which for all its speed, was not especially agile. Worse, American pilots weren’t trained for close range dogfights, as the Air Force assumed air-to-air engagements would occur at long range with missiles.
Furthermore, the Phantom’s J79 engines produced thick black smoke, which combined with the aircraft’s larger size, made it easier to spot and target from a distance. On the other hand, the rules-of-engagement over Vietnam prohibited U.S. pilots from shooting at unidentified targets beyond visual range, further crippling the advantages of the missiles.
However, the F-4’s problems began to recede. Air-to-air missile technology dramatically improved with later versions of the Sparrow and Sidewinder. The F-4E model finally came with an internal M161 Vulcan cannon.
Before, some Phantom units made do with external gun pods that vibrated excessively.
In 1972, an F-4 piloted by Maj. Phil Handley shot down a MiG-19 with his plane’s gun — the only recorded aerial gun kill performed at supersonic speed.
Eventually, the Air Force upgraded all of its F-4Es with wing-slats that significantly improved maneuverability at a slight cost in speed. New J79 engines even dealt with the problem of the F-4’s visible black smoke.
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The Navy, in contrast, perceived the problem as being a lack of Air Combat Maneuvering training, and instituted the Top Gun training program in 1968. Navy pilots went on to score a superior kill ratio over Vietnam of 40 victories for seven planes lost in air-to-air combat.
The Air Force’s Phantoms claimed 107 air-to-air kills for 33 lost to MiGs, and the Marine Corps claimed three. Ground fire shot down 474 Phantoms in all services, as the heavy-lifting Phantom fighters did double duty as ground-attack aircraft.
Two sub-variants of the Phantom also distinguished themselves — the RF-4 photo reconnaissance plane, optimized for speed, and the Wild Weasel, specialized in attacking enemy surface-to-air missiles defenses.
The last American F-4s would see action during Operation Desert Storm, before being retired in 1996. The Pentagon later converted some into QF-4 target practice drones.
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Phantoms in the Middle East: