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In 1952, McDonnell Aircraft began internal studies to determine which service branch was most in need of a new aircraft. Led by Preliminary Design Manager Dave Lewis, the team found that the US Navy would soon require a new attack aircraft to replace the F3H Demon. The designer of the Demon, McDonnell began revising the aircraft in 1953, with the goal of improving performance and capabilities.
Creating the "Superdemon," which could achieve Mach 1.97 and was powered by twin General Electric J79 engines, McDonnell also created an aircraft that was modular in that different cockpits and nose cones could be affixed to the fuselage depending on desired mission. The US Navy was intrigued by this concept and requested a full-scale mock-up of the design. Assessing the design, it ultimately passed as it was satisfied with the supersonic fighters already in development such as the Grumman F-11 Tiger and Vought F-8 Crusader.
Design & Development
Altering the design to make the new aircraft an all-weather fighter-bomber featuring 11 external hardpoints, McDonnell received a letter of intent for two prototypes, designated YAH-1, on October 18, 1954. Meeting with the US Navy the following May, McDonnell was handed a new set of requirements calling for an all-weather fleet interceptor as the service had aircraft to fulfill the fighter and strike roles. Setting to work, McDonnell developed the XF4H-1 design. Powered by two J79-GE-8 engines, the new aircraft saw the addition of a second crewman to serve as a radar operator.
In laying out the XF4H-1, McDonnell placed the engines low in the fuselage similar to its earlier F-101 Voodoo and employed variable geometry ramps in the intakes to regulate airflow at supersonic speeds. Following extensive wind tunnel testing, the outer sections of the wings were given 12° dihedral (upward angle) and the tailplane 23° anhedral (downward angle). Additionally, a "dogtooth" indentation was inserted in the wings to enhance control at higher angles of attack. The results of these alterations gave the XF4H-1 a distinctive look.
Utilizing titanium in the airframe, the XF4H-1's all-weather capability was derived from the inclusion of the AN/APQ-50 radar. As the new aircraft was intended as an interceptor rather than a fighter, early models possessed nine external hardpoints for missiles and bombs, but no gun. Dubbed the Phantom II, the US Navy ordered two XF4H-1 test aircraft and five YF4H-1 pre-production fighters in July 1955.
On May 27, 1958, the type made its maiden flight with Robert C. Little at the controls. Later that year, the XF4H-1 entered into competition with the single-seat Vought XF8U-3. An evolution of the F-8 Crusader, the Vought entry was defeated by the XF4H-1 as the US Navy preferred the latter's performance and that the workload was split between two crew members. After additional testing, the F-4 entered production and commenced carrier suitability trials in early 1960. Early in production, the aircraft's radar was upgraded to the more powerful Westinghouse AN/APQ-72.
Specifications (F-4E Phantom II)
- Length: 63 ft.
- Wingspan: 38 ft. 4.5 in.
- Height: 16 ft. 6 in.
- Wing Area: 530 sq. ft.
- Empty Weight: 30,328 lbs.
- Loaded Weight: 41,500 lbs.
- Crew: 2
- Power Plant: 2 × General Electric J79-GE-17A axial compressor turbojets
- Combat Radius: 367 nautical miles
- Max. Speed: 1,472 mph (Mach 2.23)
- Ceiling: 60,000 ft.
- 1 x M61 Vulcan 20 mm Gatling cannon
- Up to 18,650 lbs. of weapons on nine external hardpoints, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and most types of bombs
Setting several aviation records just prior to and in the years after introduction, the F-4 became operational on December 30, 1960, with VF-121. As the US Navy transitioned to the aircraft in the early 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pushed to create a single fighter for all branches of the military. Following an F-4B's victory over the F-106 Delta Dart in Operation Highspeed, the US Air Force requested two of the aircraft, dubbing them the F-110A Spectre. Evaluating the aircraft, the USAF developed requirements for their own version with an emphasis on the fighter-bomber role.
Adopted by the USAF in 1963, their initial variant was dubbed the F-4C. With the US entry in the Vietnam War, the F-4 became one of the most identifiable aircraft of the conflict. US Navy F-4s flew their first combat sortie as part of Operation Pierce Arrow on August 5, 1964. The F-4's first air-to-air victory occurred the following April when Lieutenant (j.g.) Terence M. Murphy and his radar intercept officer, Ensign Ronald Fegan, downed a Chinese MiG-17. Flying primarily in the fighter/interceptor role, US Navy F-4s downed 40 enemy aircraft to a loss of five of their own. An additional 66 were lost to missiles and ground fire.
Also flown by the US Marine Corps, the F-4 saw service from both carriers and land bases during the conflict. Flying ground support missions, USMC F-4s claimed three kills while losing 75 aircraft, mostly to ground fire. Though the latest adopter of the F-4, the USAF became its largest user. During Vietnam, USAF F-4s fulfilled both air superiority and ground support roles. As F-105 Thunderchief losses grew, the F-4 carried more and more of the ground support burden and by the end of the war was the USAF's primary all-around aircraft.
To support this change in mission, specially equipped and trained F-4 Wild Weasel squadrons were formed with the first deploying in late 1972. In addition, a photo reconnaissance variant, the RF-4C, was used by four squadrons. During the Vietnam War, the USAF lost a total of 528 F-4s (of all types) to enemy action with the majority being down by anti-aircraft fire or surface-to-air missiles. In exchange, USAF F-4s downed 107.5 enemy aircraft. The five aviators (2 US Navy, 3 USAF) credited with ace status during the Vietnam War all flew the F-4.
Following Vietnam, the F-4 remained the principal aircraft for both the US Navy and USAF. Through the 1970s, the US Navy began replacing the F-4 with the new F-14 Tomcat. By 1986, all F-4s had been retired from frontline units. The aircraft remained in service with the USMC until 1992, when the last airframe was replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the USAF transitioned to the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. During this time, the F-4 was retained in its Wild Weasel and reconnaissance role.
These two latter types, the F-4G Wild Weasel V and RF-4C, deployed to the Middle East in 1990, as part of Operation Desert Shield/Storm. During operations, the F-4G played a key role in suppressing Iraqi air defenses, while the RF-4C collected valuable intelligence. One of each type was lost during the conflict, one to damage from ground fire and the other to an accident. The final USAF F-4 was retired in 1996, however several are still in use as target drones.
As the F-4 was initially intended as an interceptor, it was not equipped with a gun as planners believed that air-to-air combat at supersonic speeds would be fought exclusively with missiles. The fighting over Vietnam soon showed that engagements quickly became subsonic, turning battles which often precluded the use of air-to-air missiles. In 1967, USAF pilots began mounting external gunpods on their aircraft, however the lack of a leading gunsight in the cockpit made them highly inaccurate. This issue was addressed with the addition of an integrated 20 mm M61 Vulcan gun to the F-4E model in the late 1960s.
Another problem that frequently arose with the aircraft was the production of black smoke when the engines were run at military power. This smoke trail made the aircraft easy to spot. Many pilots found ways to avoid producing the smoke by running one engine on afterburner and the other at reduced power. This provided an equivalent amount of thrust, without the telltale smoke trail. This issue was addressed with the Block 53 group of the F-4E which included smokeless J79-GE-17C (or -17E) engines.
The second-most produced Western jet fighter in history with 5,195 units, the F-4 was extensively exported. Nations that have flown the aircraft include Israel, Great Britain, Australia, and Spain. While many have since retired the F-4, the aircraft has been modernized and is still use (as of 2008) by Japan, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Iran, and South Korea.