Some aircraft are remembered for their looks, some for their length of time in front line service and some for their effectiveness as a war machine. The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is remembered for all three and as such is one of the great aeroplanes of the post-war years.
The Phantom was designed in the 1950s as a two-seat all-weather fighter for the United States Navy and first flew on 27th May 1958. Among the test pilots who helped develop this exceptional aircraft was John Young, who went on to become commander of the Apollo 16 mission and 9th man to walk on the surface of the moon. In December of that year the Navy awarded a first production contract and the aircraft entered service with the fleet in October 1961. Meanwhile, the US Air Force and US Marine Corps had decided to procure their own Phantoms with delivery to both services following shortly thereafter. By 1979 when production ceased, a total of 5,195 aircraft had been built – the output peaking at 72 per month in 1967. A total of 4138 went to the US armed forces and a further 1057 to eleven other countries which operated the aircraft.
Numerous versions of the Phantom were produced for a variety of roles with the basic USN and USAF aircraft being the F-4B and F-4C respectively. Powered by two General Electric J-79 turbojet engines each producing 17900 lbs thrust in afterburner, a wide range of ordnance could be carried. The standard fit in the fighter role comprised 4 x AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles in fuselage recesses, 4 x AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on the inboard wing pylons and a 20 mm Vulcan cannon mounted on the centreline pylon (internally in the F-4E/F). Various combinations of weapons/fuel on the five available pylons (16000 lbs maximum) in addition to the Sparrows could be accommodated for ground attack. The Phantom made an enormous contribution during the Vietnam War, accounting for the destruction of well over 200 enemy aircraft in addition to its widespread deployment in the ground attack and suppression of enemy air defence roles.
A total of 118 x Phantom FGR2 (F-4M) aircraft were procured for the RAF and 52 x FG1s (F-4K) for the RN with deliveries commencing in 1968. Shortly thereafter in 1969, with a diminished RN requirement, a batch of the FG1s was transferred to the RAF for air defence duties. The UK aircraft were equipped with the more powerful Rolls Royce Spey engine generating 20,515 lbs thrust in reheat, albeit the marriage of these power plants with the standard airframe created a significant aerodynamic penalty at high level. The FGR2s were used in the fighter/ground attack and reconnaissance roles in the UK and Germany until, together with the RN models, they transferred to the air defence role in the mid to late 1970s, a role they progressively took over from the Lightnings that were being phased out. A top-up buy of 15 x second-hand F-4Js was made in 1984 to enhance the RAF’s interceptor force in the aftermath of the Falklands War. The UK Phantoms were finally retired in 1993 by which time 32 x FGR2s, 15 x FG1s and 1 x F4J had been lost to aircraft accidents. Phantom XV408 last flew in 1992 and is on loan from the Trustees of the RAF Museum.