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McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft


The McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II was a tactical reconnaissance conversion of the existing F-4 Phantom II fighter line.

Detailing the development and operational history of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft.  Entry last updated on 6/1/2019. Authored by Staff Writer. Content ©
One of the most successful fighter designs of all time was the McDonnell Douglas "Phantom II" twin-seat, twin-jet multirole fighter. Nearly 5,200 of the type were produced from 1958 until 1981 and the aircraft was taken into service with many American allies during the lengthy Cold War period (1947-1991) including Australia, West Germany, Israel, Japan, and the United Kingdom. In time, the excellent airframe was modified to cover other over-battlefield roles including that of the radar-hunting "Wild Weasel", remote-controlled target drone, and tactical reconnaissance. The F-4 series has the distinction of having operated with three of the four major United States armed forces simultaneously - the United States Air Force (USAF), United States Navy (USN), and United States Marine Corps (USMC) - such was its value.

In the tactical reconnaissance role, the aircraft was designated the "RF-4" and carried over all of the excellent traits of the F-4 fighter.

The RF-4B (F4H-1P), built from the F-4B fighter mark, were tactical reconnaissance mounts developed for the USMC. Changes to the base design included an extension of the fuselage in which the frontal section gained over four feet of length. A more compact form of the AN/APQ-99 series radar was fitted and, beyond this, the aircraft held three camera bays to house various camera fits for the role. It also carried the ALQ-126 series Electronic CounterMeasures (ECM) suite and the AN/AAD-4 InfraRed (IR) reconnaissance system. A first-flight for this mark was had on March 12th, 1965 and 46 of this mark were built.

The RF-4C was an all-weather reconnaissance model developed for the United States Air Force (USAF) with two YRF-110A (YRF-4C) prototypes used to prove the design sound. These carried the AN/APQ-99 radar set at first before graduating to the AN/APQ-172 series. There was broader support for available camera fits and the HIAC-1 LOROP (long Range Oblique Photography) pod could be carried along its fuselage centerline (ventrally). The hardpoint also supported a single nuclear bomb if needed. Total production of this mark ended at 503 units.

RF-4Cs participated in the Gulf War of 1991 and its reworked nose was reused in the F-4E fighter models which integrated the M61 Vulcan internal cannon as part of the Phantom II's standard, fixed armament. The RF-4C(H) was a proposed offshoot of the C-model reconnaissance birds and intended to carry IR equipment for the "night hunter" role. The design was to emerge from converting existing RF-4C models but the project was not advanced.

The RF-4E was an unarmed export version offered to U.S. allies. Total production yielded 149 of the mark. The RF-4EJ was a local Japanese air service model with a nose-mounted M61 Vulcan cannon. 15 aircraft were converted to the standard. The final variant of the RF-4 became the RF-4/TM "Isik" operated by the Turkish Air Force - having since been thoroughly modernized to keep up with battlefield requirements and emerging threats.

The RF-4M was another proposed RF model form based in the F-4M and intended for sale to the British Royal Air Force (RAF). This project was not furthered. The RF-4X was to be based in the advanced F-4X high-performance reconnaissance development for Israel. The project was not advanced for budgetary reasons related to the new McDonnell Douglas F-15 "Eagle" air superiority fighter.


YEAR: 1965
STATUS: Active, Limited Service
MANUFACTURER(S): McDonnell Douglas - USA
LENGTH: 58.07 ft (17.7 m)
WIDTH: 38.42 ft (11.71 m)
HEIGHT: 16.47 ft (5.02 m)
MTOW: 58,004 lb (26,310 kg)
POWER: 2 x General Electric J79-GE-15 afterburning turbofan engines developing 17,000lb of thrust each.
SPEED: 1,400 mph (2,253 kph; 1,217 kts)
CEILING: 59,596 feet (18,165 m; 11.29 miles)
RANGE: 1,749 miles (2,815 km; 1,520 nm)
RATE-OF-CLIMB: 40,000 ft/min (12,192 m/min)
OPERATORS: West Germany; Japan; Turkey; United States

1 x 20mm M61 Vulcan internal automatic cannon (some models).

AIM-9 "Sidewinder" short-ranged air-to-air missiles.
AIM-7 "Sparrow" medium-ranged air-to-air missiles.
Graphical image of an aircrat automatic cannon
Graphical image of an aircraft Gatling-style rotating gun
Graphical image of an air-to-air missile weapon
Graphical image of a short-range air-to-air missile
Graphical image of a medium-range air-to-air missile
Variants / Models

• RF-4 "Phantom II" - Base Series Designation.
• RF-4B - USMC operational model; AN/APQ-99 radar fit; lengthened nose section; three camera bays; ALQ-126 ECM suite; 46 examples completed.
• YRF-4C (YRF-110A) - RF-4C developmental prototypes.
• RF-4C - USAF operational model; AN/APQ-99 and AN/APQ-172 radar fits used; centerline HIAC-1 LOROP pod; nuclear bomb delivery capability retained; 503 examples completed.
• RF-4C(H) - Proposed Night Hunter model with IR equipment.
• RF-4E - Unarmed reconnaissance export model; 149 examples completed.
• RF-4EJ - Local Japanese model; nose-mounted M61 Vulcan cannon; 15 conversions.
• RF-4E/TM "Isik" - Turkish Air Force models.
• RF-4M - Proposed RAF export model; internal equipment fit.
• RF-4X - Proposed Israeli Air Force model born from the proposed (abandoned) F-4X high-performance reconnaissance model.

Our Data Modules allow for quick visual reference when comparing a single entry against contemporary designs. Areas covered include general ratings, speed assessments, and relative ranges based on distances between major cities.

Image of collection of graph types

Relative Maximum Speed
Hi: 1400mph
Lo: 700mph
This entry's maximum listed speed (1,400mph).

Graph average of 1050 miles-per-hour.
City-to-City Ranges
Graph showcases the McDonnell Douglas RF-4C's operational range (on internal fuel) when compared to distances between major cities.
Aviation Era
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Useful in showcasing the era cross-over of particular aircraft/aerospace designs.
Unit Production (715)
Comm. Market HI*: 44,000 units
Military Market HI**: 36,183 units

  * Commercial Market High belongs to Cessna 172.

  ** Military Market High belongs to Ilyushin Il-2.

Altitude Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Supported Roles
Ground Attack
Aerial Tanker
A2A=Air-to-Air; UAV=Unmanned; CAS=Close Support; ASW=Anti-Submarine; AEW=Airborne Early Warning; MEDEVAC=Medical Evac; EW=Electronic Warfare; SAR=Search-Rescue
Commitments / Honors
Military lapel ribbon for Operation Allied Force
Military lapel ribbon for the Arab-Israeli War
Military lapel ribbon for the Battle of Britain
Military lapel ribbon for the Battle of Midway
Military lapel ribbon for the Berlin Airlift
Military lapel ribbon for the Chaco War
Military lapel ribbon for the Cold War
Military lapel ribbon for the Cuban Missile Crisis
Military lapel ribbon for pioneering aircraft
Military lapel ribbon for the Falklands War
Military lapel ribbon for the French-Indochina War
Military lapel ribbon for the Golden Age of Flight
Military lapel ribbon for the 1991 Gulf War
Military lapel ribbon for the Indo-Pak Wars
Military lapel ribbon for the Iran-Iraq War
Military lapel ribbon for the Korean War
Military lapel ribbon for the 1982 Lebanon War
Military lapel ribbon for the Malayan Emergency
Military lapel ribbon representing modern aircraft
Military lapel ribbon for the attack on Pearl Harbor
Military lapel ribbon for the Six Day War
Military lapel ribbon for the Soviet-Afghan War
Military lapel ribbon for the Spanish Civil War
Military lapel ribbon for the Suez Crisis
Military lapel ribbon for the Vietnam War
Military lapel ribbon for Warsaw Pact of the Cold War-era
Military lapel ribbon for the WASP (WW2)
Military lapel ribbon for the World War 1
Military lapel ribbon for the World War 2
Military lapel ribbon for the Yom Kippur War
Military lapel ribbon for experimental x-plane aircraft
* Ribbons not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective campaigns/operations.

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