Operational History

A US Navy F-4J Phantom II BuNo 153769 of VF-31 lands on the USS Saratoga.

United States Navy

On 30 December 1960, the VF-121 "Pacemakers" at NAS Miramar became the first Phantom operator with its F4H-1Fs (F-4As). The VF-74 "Be-devilers" at NAS Oceana became the first deployable Phantom squadron when it received its F4H-1s (F-4Bs) on 8 July 1961. The squadron completed carrier qualifications in October 1961 and Phantom’s first full carrier deployment between August 1962 and March 1963 aboard USS Forrestal. The second deployable US Atlantic Fleet squadron to receive F-4Bs was the VF-102 "Diamondbacks", who promptly took their new aircraft on the shakedown cruise of USS Enterprise. The first deployable US Pacific Fleet squadron to receive the F-4B was the VF-114 "Aardvarks", which participated in the September 1962 cruise aboard USS Kitty Hawk.

By the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, 13 of 31 deployable Navy squadrons were armed with the type. F-4Bs from USS Constellation made the first Phantom combat sortie of the Vietnam War on 5 August 1964, flying bomber escort in Operation Pierce Arrow. The first Phantom air-to-air victory of the war took place on 9 April 1965 when an F-4B from VF-96 "Fighting Falcons" piloted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Terence M. Murphy and his RIO, Ensign Ronald Fegan, shot down a Chinese MiG-17 'Fresco'. The Phantom was then shot down, apparently by an AIM-7 Sparrow from one of its wingmen. There continues to be controversy over whether the Phantom was shot down by MiG guns or whether, as enemy reports later indicated, an AIM-7 Sparrow III from one of Murphy's and Fegan's wingmen. On 17 June 1965, an F-4B from VF-21 "Freelancers" piloted by Commander Thomas C. Page and Lieutenant John C. Smith shot down the first North Vietnamese MiG of the war.

On 10 May 1972, Lieutenant Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Lieutenant (junior grade) William P. Driscoll flying an F-4J, call sign "Showtime 100", shot down three MiG-17s to become the first flying aces of the war. Their fifth victory was believed at the time to be over a mysterious North Vietnamese ace, Colonel Nguyen Toon, now considered mythical. On the return flight, the Phantom was damaged by an enemy surface-to-air missile. To avoid being captured, Cunningham and Driscoll flew their burning aircraft upside down (the damage made the aircraft uncontrollable in a conventional attitude) until they could eject over water.

During the war, Navy Phantom squadrons participated in 84 combat tours with F-4Bs, F-4Js, and F-4Ns. The Navy claimed 40 air-to-air victories at the cost of 71 Phantoms lost in combat (5 to aircraft, 13 to SAMs, and 53 to AAA). An additional 54 Phantoms were lost in accidents. Of the 40 aircraft shot down by Navy and Marine Phantom crews, 22 were MiG-17s, 14 MiG-21s, two Antonov An-2s, and two MiG-19s. Of these, eight aircraft were downed by AIM-7 Sparrow missiles and 31 by AIM-9 Sidewinders.

By 1983, the F-4Ns had been completely replaced by F-14 Tomcats, and by 1986 the last F-4Ss were exchanged for F/A-18 Hornets. On 25 March 1986, an F-4S belonging to VF-151 Vigilantes became the last Navy Phantom to launch from an aircraft carrier, in this case, the USS Midway. On 18 October 1986, an F-4S from the VF-202 "Superheats", a Naval Reserve fighter squadron, made the last-ever Phantom carrier landing while operating aboard USS America. In 1987, the last of the Naval Reserve-operated F-4Ss were replaced by F-14As. The last Phantoms in service with the Navy were QF-4 target drones operated by the Naval Air Warfare Centers. These were retired in 2004.

United States Marine Corps

The Marines received their first F-4Bs in June 1962, with the "Black Knights" of VMFA-314 at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California becoming the first operational squadron. In addition to attack variants, the Marines also operated several tactical reconnaissance RF-4Bs. Marine Phantoms from VMFA-531 arrived in Vietnam on 10 April 1965, flying close air support missions from land bases as well as from America. Marine F-4 pilots claimed three enemy MiGs (two while on exchange duty with the USAF) at the cost of 75 aircraft lost in combat, mostly to ground fire, and four in accidents. On 18 January 1992, the last Marine Phantom, an F-4S, was retired by the "Cowboys" of VMFA-112. The squadron was re-equipped with F/A-18 Hornets.

United States Air Force

In USAF service the F-4 was initially designated the F-110 Spectre prior to the introduction of the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system. At first reluctant to adopt a Navy fighter, the USAF quickly embraced the design and became the largest Phantom user. The first Air Force Phantoms in Vietnam were F-4Cs from the 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron, which arrived in December 1964. Unlike the Navy, which flew the Phantom with a Naval Aviator (pilot) in the front seat and a Naval Flight Officer as a radar intercept officer (RIO) in the back seat, the Air Force initially flew its Phantoms with a rated pilot in the back seat. This policy was later changed to using a navigator qualified as a weapon/targeting systems officer (later designated as weapon systems officer or WSO) in the rear seat. However, because they originally flew with pilots in the rear seat, all USAF Phantoms retained dual flight controls throughout their service life.

An RF-4C-21-MC (AF Serial No. 64-1019) with auxiliary fuel tanks in flight August 1968. This aircraft was assigned to the 192nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Nevada Air National Guard. It was retired to AMARC on 27 January 1982

On 10 July, 1965 F-4Cs of the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron, on temporary assignment in Vietnam, scored the USAF's first victories against North Vietnamese MiG-17s using AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. On 24 July 1965, another Phantom from the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron became the first American aircraft to be downed by an enemy SAM, and on 5 October 1966 an 8th Tactical Fighter Wing F-4C became the first U.S. jet lost to an air-to-air missile, fired by a MiG-21 "Fishbed".

Early aircraft suffered from leaks in wing fuel tanks that required re-sealing after each flight and 85 aircraft were found to have cracks in outer wing ribs and stringers. There were also problems with aileron control cylinders, electrical connectors, and engine compartment fires. Reconnaissance RF-4Cs made their debut in Vietnam on 30 October 1965, flying the hazardous post-strike reconnaissance missions.

Although the F-4C was essentially identical to the Navy F-4B in flight performance and carried the Navy-designed Sidewinder missiles, USAF-tailored F-4Ds initially arrived in June 1967 equipped with AIM-4 Falcons. However, the Falcon, like its predecessors, was designed to shoot down bombers flying straight and level. Its reliability proved no better than others, and its complex firing sequence and limited seeker-head cooling time made it virtually useless in combat against agile fighters. The F-4Ds reverted to using Sidewinders under the "Rivet Haste" program in early 1968, and by 1972 the AIM-7E-2 "Dogfight Sparrow" had become the preferred missile for USAF pilots. Like other Vietnam War Phantoms, the F-4Ds were urgently fitted with radar homing and warning (RHAW) antennae to detect the Soviet-built SA-2 Guideline SAMs.

From the initial deployment of the F-4C to Southeast Asia, USAF Phantoms performed both air superiority and ground attack roles, supporting not only ground troops in South Vietnam but also conducting bombing sorties in Laos and North Vietnam. As the F-105 force underwent severe attrition between 1965 and 1968, the bombing role of the F-4 proportionately increased until after November 1970 (when the last F-105D was withdrawn from combat) it became the primary USAF ordnance delivery system. In October 1972 the first squadron of EF-4C Wild Weasel aircraft deployed to Thailand on temporary duty. The "E" prefix was later dropped and the aircraft were simply known as F-4C Wild Weasels.

Sixteen squadrons of Phantoms were permanently deployed between 1965 and 1973, and 17 others deployed on temporary combat assignments. Peak numbers of combat F-4s occurred in 1972, when 353 were based in Thailand. A total of 445 Air Force Phantom fighter-bombers were lost, 370 in combat and 193 of those over North Vietnam (33 to MiGs, 30 to SAMs, and 307 to AAA).

The RF-4C was operated by four squadrons, and of the 83 losses, 72 were in combat including 38 over North Vietnam (seven to SAMs and 65 to AAA). By war's end the U.S. Air Force had lost a total of 528 F-4 and RF-4C Phantoms. When combined with US Naval/Marine losses of 233 Phantoms, 761 F-4/RF-4 Phantoms were lost in the Vietnam War.

F-4E-43-MC (AF Serial No. 69-7234) 'Wild Weasel' modified to the F-4G configuration with an AGM-88 HARM missile under the wing. This aircraft was assigned to the 37th TFW, George AFB, California, April 1982

On 28 August 1972, Capt Steve Ritchie became the first USAF ace of the war. On 9 September 1972, WSO Capt Charles B. DeBellevue became the highest-scoring American ace of the war with six victories. and WSO Capt Jeffrey Feinstein became the last USAF ace of the war on 13 October 1972. Upon return to the United States, DeBellevue and Feinstein were given vision waivers, assigned to pilot training and requalified as USAF pilots in the F-4. According to the USAF, its F-4s scored 107˝ MiG kills in Southeast Asia (50 by Sparrow, 31 by Sidewinder, five by Falcon, 15.5 by gun, and six by other means).

On 31 January 1972, the 170th Tactical Fighter Squadron/183d Tactical Fighter Group of the Illinois Air National Guard became the first Air National Guard unit to transition to Phantoms. The F-4's ANG service lasted until 31 March 1990, when it was replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

On 15 August 1990, 24 F-4G Wild Weasel Vs and six RF-4Cs were mobilized to Shaikh Isa AB, Bahrain, for Operation Desert Storm. The reason for this was that the F-4G was the only aircraft in the USAF inventory equipped for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) role since the EF-111 Raven lacked the offensive capability of the AGM-88 HARM missile, while the RF-4C was the only aircraft equipped with the ultra-long-range KS-127 LOROP (long-range oblique photography) camera. In spite of flying almost daily missions, only one RF-4C was lost in a fatal accident before the start of hostilities. One F-4G was lost when enemy fire damaged the fuel tanks and the aircraft ran out of fuel near a friendly airbase. The last USAF Phantoms, F-4G Wild Weasel Vs from 561st Fighter Squadron, were retired on 26 March 1996. The last operational flight of the F-4G Wild Weasel was from the 190th Fighter Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard, in April 1996. The last operational USAF/ANG F-4 to land was flown by Maj Mike Webb and Maj Gary Leeder, Idaho ANG. Like the Navy, the Air Force continues to operate QF-4 target drones, serving with the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron, it being expected that the F-4 will remain in the target role with the 82d ATRS until 2013/14.

Non-U.S. air forces

The Phantom served with the air forces of many countries, including Australia, Egypt, Germany, United Kingdom, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, Spain, South Korea and Turkey.

Australia

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) leased 24 USAF F-4Es from 1970 to 1973 while waiting for their order for the General Dynamics F-111C to be delivered. They were so well-liked that the RAAF considered adopting the F-4E instead. They were operated from RAAF Amberley by No.1 Squadron and No.6 Squadron.

Egypt

In 1979, the Egyptian Air Force purchased 35 former USAF F-4Es along with a number of Sparrow, Sidewinder, and Maverick missiles from the US for $594 million as part of the "Peace Pharaoh" program. An additional seven surplus USAF aircraft were purchased in 1988. Three attrition replacements had been received by the end of the 1990s.

Germany

The German Luftwaffe initially ordered the reconnaissance RF-4E in 1969, receiving a total of 88 aircraft which were delivered from January 1971. In 1982, the initially unarmed RF-4Es were given a secondary ground attack capability, and were retired in 1994.

In 1973, under the "Peace Rhine" program, the Luftwaffe purchased the lightened and simplified F-4F which was upgraded in the mid-1980s. 24 German-owned F-4Fs were operated by the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing of the USAF at Holloman AFB to train Luftwaffe crews until 2002. In 1975, Germany also received 10 F-4Es for training in the U.S. In the late 1990s, these were withdrawn from service, being replaced by F-4Fs. Germany also initiated the "ICE" (Improved Combat Efficiency) program in 1983. The 110 ICE-upgraded F-4Fs entered service in 1992, and are expected to remain in service until 2012.

Greece

In 1971, the Hellenic Air Force ordered brand new F-4E Phantoms, with deliveries starting in 1974. In the early 1990s the Hellenic AF acquired surplus RF-4Es and F-4Es from the Luftwaffe and U.S. ANG.

Following the success of the German ICE program, on 11 August 1997, DASA of Germany received a contract to upgrade 39 aircraft to the very similar "Peace Icarus 2000" standard. The Hellenic AF operates 35 upgraded F-4E-PI2000 (338 and 339 Squadrons) and 22 RF-4E aircraft (348 Squadron) as of May 2008.

Iran

In the 1960s and 1970s, then U.S.-friendly Iran purchased 225 F-4D, F-4E and RF-4E Phantoms. The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force Phantoms saw action in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and are kept operational by overhaul and servicing from Iran’s aerospace industry.

Israel

The Israeli Air Force has been the largest foreign user of the Phantom, flying both newly built and ex-USAF aircraft, as well as several one-off special reconnaissance variants. The first F-4Es, nicknamed "Kurnass" (Heavy hammer), and RF-4Es, nicknamed "Orev" (Raven), were delivered in 1969 under the "Peace Echo I" program. Additional Phantoms arrived during the 1970s under "Peace Echo II" through "Peace Echo V" and "Nickel Grass" programs. Israeli Phantoms saw extensive combat during Arab–Israeli conflicts, first seeing action during the War of Attrition.[78] In the 1980s, Israel began the "Kurnass 2000" modernization program which significantly updated avionics.[28] The last Israeli F-4s were retired in 2004.[79]

Japan

From 1968, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force purchased a total of 140 F-4EJ Phantoms without aerial refueling and ground attack capabilities. Mitsubishi built 138 under license in Japan and 14 unarmed reconnaissance RF-4Es were imported. Of these, 96 F-4EJs have since been modified to the F-4EJ Kai ("modified") standard. 15 F-4EJs have been converted to reconnaissance aircraft designated RF-4EJ, with similar upgrades as the F-4EJ Kai. Japan has a fleet of 90 F-4s in service as of 2007 and studies are underway to replace them with either the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, or one of several others.

South Korea

The Republic of Korea Air Force purchased its first batch of ex-USAF F-4D Phantoms in 1968 under the "Peace Spectator" program. The ex-USAF F-4Ds continued to be delivered until 1988. The "Peace Pheasant II" program also provided newly-built and ex-USAF F-4Es. Currently F-4Ds are being replaced in service by new F-15K Slam Eagles.

Spain

The Spanish Air Force acquired its first batch of ex-USAF F-4C Phantoms in 1971 under the "Peace Alfa" program. Designated C.12, the aircraft were retired in 1989. At the same time, the SAF received a number of ex-USAF RF-4Cs, designated CR.12. In 1995–1996, these aircraft received extensive avionics upgrades. Spain retired its RF-4s in 2002.

Turkey

The Turkish Air Force received 40 F-4Es in 1974, with a further 32 F-4Es and 8 RF-4Es in 1977-78 under the "Peace Diamond III" program, followed by 40 ex-USAF aircraft in "Peace Diamond IV" in 1987, and a further 40 ex-U.S. Air National Guard Aircraft in 1991. A further 32 RF-4Es were transferred to Turkey after being retired by the Luftwaffe between 1992 and 1994. In 1995, IAI of Israel implemented an upgrade similar to Kurnass 2000 on 54 Turkish F-4Es which were dubbed the F-4E 2020 Terminator.

Phantom FG.1 of No. 43 Sqn. Royal Air Force

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom bought versions based on the USN F-4J for use with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. The main differences were the use of the British Rolls-Royce Spey engines and of British-made avionics. The RN and RAF versions were given the designation F-4K and F-4M respectively, and entered service as the Phantom FG.1 (fighter/ground attack) and Phantom FGR.2 (fighter/ground attack/reconnaissance).

After the Falklands War, 15 upgraded ex-USN F-4Js, known as the F-4J(UK) entered RAF service to compensate for one interceptor squadron redeployed to the Falklands.

Around 15 RAF squadrons received various marks of Phantom, many of them based in Germany. The first to be equipped was 6 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in July 1969. One noteworthy deployment was to 43 Squadron where Phantom FG1s remained the squadron equipment for a remarkable twenty years, arriving in September 1969 and departing in July 1989. During this period the squadron was based throughout at Leuchars.

The interceptor Phantoms were replaced by the Panavia Tornado F3 from the late 1980s onwards, and the last British Phantoms were retired in October 1992 when 74 Squadron disbanded.

Civilian use

Sandia National Laboratories used an F-4 mounted on a "rocket sled" in a crash test to see the results of an aircraft hitting a reinforced concrete structure, such as a nuclear power plant.

One aircraft, an F-4D (civilian registration NX749CF), is operated by the Massachusetts-based non-profit organization Collings Foundation as a "living history" exhibit. Funds to maintain and operate the aircraft, which is based in Houston, Texas, are raised through donations/sponsorships from public and commercial parties.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center acquired an F-4A Phantom II on 3 December 1965. It made fifty-five flights in support of short programs, chase on X-15 missions and lifting body flights. The F-4A also supported a biomedical monitoring program involving 1,000 flights by NASA Flight Research Center aerospace research pilots and students of the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School flying high-performance aircraft. The pilots were instrumented to record accurate and reliable data of electrocardiogram, respiration rate and normal acceleration. In 1967, the F-4A supported a brief military-inspired program to determine whether an airplane's sonic boom could be directed and whether it could possibly be used as a weapon of sorts, or at least an annoyance. NASA also flew an F-4C in a spanwise blowing study from 1983 to 1985, after which it was returned to the Air Force.