It was way back in the 1960s when McDonnell Aircraft first delivered the F4H Phantom II—now known as F-4—which is a tandem two-seat, twin-engine, long-range supersonic jet interceptor and fighter bomber.
This was “in response to U.S. Navy requirements for a high-altitude interceptor to defend carriers with long-range air-to-air missiles against attacking aircraft,” according to defense writer Dario Leone at the Aviation Geek Club.
“Unique in that it carried no internal cannon, the F-4 relied on radar-guided missiles for offense and required a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to operate its advanced sensors and weapons systems,” he continues.
Need for Range
However, the Navy eventually needed a fleet defense fighter that could successfully engage high-altitude bombers that were far beyond visual range. The answer came in the form of the famed F-14 Tomcat—a supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat, twin-tail, variable-sweep wing fighter aircraft that was armed with a General Electric Vulcan M61A-1 20mm gun with nearly seven hundred rounds of ammunition and featured eight hardpoints for carrying ordnance.
The feared fighter, which entered active service in 1974, also possessed the capability of carrying short, medium, and long-range air-to-air missiles AIM-9, AIM-7 and AIM-54, and air-to-ground ordnance that included deadly CBU cluster bombs.
With these specs in mind, which fighter would an experienced RIO select to enter a hostile airspace?
“As a RIO, I preferred the F-14 because it had so many bells and whistles. The F-4 was ’50s technology. The ultimate ’50s technology,” Thomas Foster, a former U.S. Navy RIO F-4/F-14, wrote on Quora.
“However, being in an F-4 squadron was a rush in itself. There was only one other aircraft that had that look and that was the F4U. So the Phantom II certainly passed the look test. While my APQ-72 radar couldn’t find that needle in a haystack (lockdown over high clutter environment) it was big and strong. I once had three Bears at one thousand feet at one hundred twelve miles (I worked my tail off to find those ruskies. In an F-14 I would’ve pushed a button and then made my stick some coffee while the AWG-9 did the heavy lifting). And I was able to break out all three targets at that range. I never regretted my F-4 time and for RIOs felt that the Phantom II was a great way to learn the trade. One drawback was the seat was so low you felt you were IN the jet,” he continued.
As for the F-14 Tomcat, it “was late ’60s technology (except the radar. It too was a product of the ’50s. Hard to believe but true) and what an advance a decade made! The Tomcat weapons system had a good blend of automation and manual control. We would routinely hit the merge vs F-15s and F-16s because I could manually control the intercept while their systems were automatic. We routinely ran those intercepts in pulse search because we didn’t give our position away.”
Foster added that “aerodynamically the Tomcat was magic. It was the size of a B-17 but amazingly maneuverable. And size was the one fixed parameter we had to deal with. It’s hard to sneak up on vermin when you are an aluminum overcast. The jet was amazing in pitch, not so good in roll. And the seats were so high I always felt I was ON the jet. Great visibility.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.