Arguably one of the finest combat fighters of the 20th Century, the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II series was produced in larger numbers since the end of World War 2 than any other Western fighter of the time. The Phantom II grew into an all-around performer and went on to serve with the USAF, USN and USMC (concurrently - the first American aircraft to do so) - and some 11 other nations around the world. The aircraft served American forces in the Vietnam Conflict and was pressed into service in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Though widely retired from most national air forces, some continue to serve today - some 50 years after production had initially begun.
The Phantom II was initially envisioned as an all-weather attack platform and began as a McDonnell company study project. The design, the F3H-G/H was an advanced navy fighter proposal powered by twin Wright J65 turbojet engines, an armament suite of 4 x 20mm cannons and seating for one. At the time, the United States Navy was looking for a replacement of their core F3H Demon series with a more viable and capable type and took notice of the McDonnell attempt. The project began in 1954 and the USN ordered the F3H as two evaluation YAH-1 (AH-1) prototypes, though these fitted with the new General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet (x2). In 1955 the USN turned the AH-1 requirement into a new two-seat, all-missile fighter design - and along with it, the designation of F4H Phantom II was born. Two XF4H-1 Phantom II prototypes were built with the first one flying on May 27, 1958 and quickly outclassing any other aircraft in the skies at the time. These prototypes featured an early form of - what was to become - the legendary General Electric J79 afterburning turbojet engines. F4H-1 (later redesignated the F-4A) was produced in 45 examples, these with the General Electric J79-GE-2/2A turbojet engines. This batch is oft-regarded as a pre-production version of the main aircraft series for the United States Navy, leading up to the first true operational production examples in the F-4B model series, which was essentially the second half of the initial F4H-1 production batch. Full production began in 1957.
The F-4B "fleet defense" model was fitted with the J79-GE-8 series engines, this being an improved form of the A-model' powerplant. The first operational squadron of F-4 operators became the VF-114 of the United States Navy, whom received the F-4B model series in October of 1961, after successful trials off the deck of a carrier the year prior. The United States Marine Corps soon followed suit, seeing the multi-role capabilities of the aircraft, and received their order in 1962 with the intention of utilizing the platform as their primary close air support fighter-bomber. F-4A and F-4B models were quick to land in the aviation record books. Throughout the late 1950's and early 1960's, the two variants went on to set several records in maximum altitude (98,556 feet on December 6th, 1959), time-to-altitude and overall speed (1,606 miles per hour on November 22,1961) among others.
Not to be left behind, the USAF took notice of the aircraft and received 29 on loan from the USN for evaluation - an unprecedented step in itself considering the historical "competition" between these branches of service. The USAF jumped on the Phantom II bandwagon and ordered their own batch as the F-110A (in an effort to replace their slower Lockheed F-104 Starfighters), though this designation was later changed, officially becoming the F-4C Phantom II model. The first USAF F-4C was received in 1963 making the F-4 Phantom II the first such aircraft to serve in the three major military branches at the same time (USAF, USN and USMC). The F-4D was later added to the mix, this variant - with a redesigned radome and improved internal systems - was generally similar to the USAF F-4C series but with USAF electronics instead of US Navy.
The definitive F-4 model came in the form of the F-4E Phantom II, production of which totaled over 1,400 aircraft. F-4E's featured the J79-GE-17 series engines as well as other additions that included an internal 20mm rotary-barrel cannon, leading edge slats and an improved radar system. The radar comprised of an APQ-120 system and the last Phantom II (5,057th example) was an F-4E model for South Korea, delivered in October of 1979.
Numerous other variants followed such as the F-4F - a dedicated air-superiority fighter exported to West Germany (they would later also take deliveries of F-4E models in 1971). These F-4F's would later be upgraded via the Improved Combat Efficiency upgrade with compatibility with the medium range AIM-120 AMRAAM missile and APG-65 radar functionality. The US Navy utilized the F-4J (beginning in June of 1976) and their J79-GE-10 series engines with a redesigned wing and tail section with improved ground attack capability and replaced their F-4B models. The USMC followed their lead and upgraded their F-4B models with F-4J as well. The Royal Navy operated the F-4K model (received in 1968) which was based on the USN F-4J series though these with the British Rolls-Royce RB168-25R Spey 201 turbofan engines. The Royal Air Force also utilized the F-4 Phantom II in their F-4M FGR.2 models, these based on the Royal Navy's F-4K. F-4M FGR.2 models fulfilled a variety of roles for the RAF including reconnaissance and ground strike along with the typical air defense role. Royal Navy F-4K aircraft were later passed on to the RAF to which they were redesignated as Phantom FG.1 and slated for use in dedicated air defense. Britain was, in fact, the first foreign nation to receive the F-4 Phantom II into their inventories.
Iran received several hundred Phantom II's in F-4D, F-4E and RF-4E models. These aircraft would inevitably see combat against Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq War. Israel became another foreign operator of the Phantom in 1969 and utilized the aircraft in anger during the Yom Kipper War. Israel rebuilt at least 50 such F-4E Phantom II models into their "Kurnass" forms with Elbit avionics packages, Norden APG-76 radar suite and multifunction displays. Israeli also helped Turkey update its F-4E fleet with Elta radar and improved structural support. Japan produced (under license by Mitsubishi) about 150 F-4EJ Phantom II's for their Self-Defense Force (nearly 100 of these later upgraded to "Kai" standard with AGP-76 radar support). South Korea operated the F-4D type while their Northrop F-5 Tigers were under development. Other key Western allies received the aircraft as well, making up a strong portion of defense against Soviet aggression. Australia leased 24 Phantom II's of the F-4E type as well while waiting for their F-111 Aardvarks.
Despite its use as a war fighter, the airframe of the F-4 proved highly versatile to the point that it was further developed as a tactical reconnaissance platform, these designated with the "RF" designation. The F-4 airframe proved adept for the role considering its speed and range. RF models also had the advantage of reconnaissance and digital navigation systems (the latter an ARN-101)and other specialized sensors. The USAF asked for such an aircraft and received the RF-4C as a replacement for their RF-101 Voodoo series. RF-4C's appeared in 1965 and could be distinguished by their longer nose assembly, housing the APQ-99 series of forward-looking radar. An APQ-102 side-looking radar was also part of the design as were KS-72 (forward-looking oblique), KS-87 (forward-looking oblique), KA-56A (for low-altitude work), KA-55A (panoramic), and KS-127 (focal length) cameras. The YRF-4C prototype took to the air on August 9th, 1963 with production beginning in 1964 as the RF-4C. RF-4B reconnaissance aircraft became a part of the USMC inventory in 1965. These were based on the Navy F-4B model but reflected the changes found in the RF-4C. The RF-4E was based on the F-4E and originally intended only for export to Germany but eventually delivered to Greece, Turkey, Israel and Japan as well.
A further development of the F-4 Phantom II series produced the F-4G "Wild Weasel" for the United States Air Force. Wild Weasels were charged with radar suppression and often armed with radar-seeking air-to-surface missiles. These systems operated to good effect in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.
Production of the F-4 Phantom II ended in 1981, comprising some 24 years since production began.
A former F-4 pilot once noted about flying the Phantom II - that the engineers put wings a brick and made it fly. Such was the initial impression of most when looking over the Phantom. In subtle ways, the design was unorthodox but in others, she proved quite traditional - a perfect blend of smooth lines and sharp features. Wings were highly-swept, low-wing monoplanes positioned in the mid-portion of the fuselage - the fuselage itself well streamlined and rounded - while each main wing was cranked up slightly at the ends. Intakes were present to either side of the cockpit seating area and ran the length to the engine exhaust under the tail section. The two-man crew sat in tandem with the pilot in the front cockpit and the systems operator in the rear position, just between and above the intake openings. The nose extended out past the cockpit and housed the powerful radar system. One of the most distinguishing features of the Phantom's design was the unique tail assembly containing a traditional tail fin but horizontal planes that were cranked downwards. The engines exhausted under the tail section, which formed up into the base of the empennage as a whole.
Originally designed as a missile-armed fleet defender, the F-4 Phantom ultimately grew into a multi-role, multi-service performer. Original armament included the AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range air-to-air missile system. This was also augmented by the use of the short-ranged AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. A M61A1 20mm multi-barrel rotary cannon was added to the mix and provided for a close-in weapon system when the thought of a "missile-only" aircraft was abandoned. In the ground strike role, the Phantom could take on a mixture of bombs, fuel tanks, missiles and rocket pods as needed. In the Wild Weasel air defense role, the Phantom was armed with HARM anti-radiation missiles. The astounding airframe could take on up to 16,000lb of external ordnance on various under-wing and under-fuselage hardpoints. One centerline and four underwing hardpoints were provided along with semi-recessed placements for AIM-7 Sparrows under the fuselage.
A USN F-4B Phantom II completed the first operational American combat sortie over Vietnam from USS Constellation on August 5th, 1964. In all, F-4B, F-4J and F-4N models operated for the US Navy and made "ace" an American household term not heard since the end of the Korean War. Phantoms tangled with Soviet-made MiG-21 "Fishbeds", MiG-19 "Farmers", MiG-17 "Frescos" along with a healthy supply of ground-to-surface missiles from Vietcong SAM sites. Probably the most well-known Phantom aces to come out of the war would be USN Lieutenant Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) William P. Driscoll in their F-4J "Showtime 100". The USAF operated Phantoms in greater numbers than any other branch of American service. As a result, this group suffered greater losses by war's end. Regardless, the USAF was well-represented with their own crop of aces during the conflict and made up some 16 permanent-based squadrons in Vietnam. The USMC operated Phantom II's in Vietnam in the form of F-4B's and RF-4B's. These Phantoms conducted close-support strikes from land and sea-based origins with at least 75 being lost to lethal enemy ground fire. Phantoms of all types accounted for 100 total MiG kills in the conflict.
At least 24 F-4F "Wild Weasels" and 6 RF-4C models were called to action in support of Operation Desert Storm. Their use in the conflict was brought about by necessity as the USAF had no viable aircraft to fulfill this role. As such, Wild Weasels operated with distinction throughout the war with just one lost fatally to enemy ground fire.
The USN had replaced all of their aging Phantom II's with the new swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat by 1983 and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets by 1986. The USMC received their F-4 replacements in the form of F/A-18 Hornets a few months before the USN. The USAF has continued use of some F-4's in the target drone role as the QF-4 of which there are 50 in service as of this writing. Use of these drones is expected to continue till at least 2013.
What makes a top five legendary fighter? In this authors opinion, it is production numbers, combat history and multi-purpose use. The Phantom II series superseded all these traits to become such an aircraft. Considering it was produced in a period of relative peace with over 5,000 examples is noteworthy - numbers such as this were achieved with regularity in World War 2 - a time of global war altogether. The Phantom II followed this achievement up with a stellar combat record, in particular, throughout the Vietnam Conflict going toe-to-toe with various MiG types. Including both the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Phantom II crews were credited with the destruction of 280 enemy aircraft. The Phantom's multi-purpose use need no mention but it is deserved. The airframe proved capable of most any type of role envisioned by warplanners - from radar suppression and enemy aircraft interception, to strike and reconnaissance. The Phantom II also proved capable of operations from land and sea-based origins. To that, we add the capability of her pilots, systems operators and ground crews, for without them, the Phantom II could quite possibly never have been what history showed her to be. With all this, it's no wonder the Phantom II became one of the most respected and remembered aircraft of her time - with some examples still in operational service today.
June 2013: The German Luftwaffe retired the last of its Phantom IIs on June 29th, 2013, marking the end of their 40-year long commitment to the European power. The first Phantom IIs arrived on German soil in 1973 and were expected to fulfill their requirement for no more than ten years.
July 2016: Turkey is pinning its strike fighter hopes on the Lockheed F-35 Lighting II series aircraft to replace its aging stock of McDonnell F-4 Phantom IIs in the same role. The F-35A will be fielded alongside the results of the indigenous TFX next generation fighter program currently in the works.