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5,000 Built: Why the Old F-4 Phantom II Fighter Keeps Flying

F-4 Phantom II. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
F-4 Phantom II. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

One of the most adaptable airframes ever used in the U.S. Armed Forces, undoubtedly, was the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. During a four-decade service run, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine Corps all operated the Phantom – an all-weather, supersonic fighter, bomber, and interceptor.

The Phantom’s adaptability, paired with its commendable, and consistent performance attributed to the fighter earning a ceremonious distinction: the F-4, with 5,195 units built, is the most produced American supersonic military aircraft ever.

Flying Strong and Setting Records

Taking flight in 1958, the Phantom was an envelope-pusher, setting 16 different performance records, including for speed and altitude. The Phantom was well ahead of its time – its speed record remained unbeaten until 1975, when the still-serving F-15 Eagle, with its 50,000 pounds of thrust, set a new mark. 

With a top speed of Mach 2.2, the Phantom is quite fast – “Speed is life” was the motto of Phantom pilots – which is remarkable given the Phantom’s brawny dimensions and hulking weight. Measuring 63 feet long, with a max takeoff weight of over 61,000 pounds, one might expect the Phantom to lumber in the air. That is not the case, of course. The Phantom’s two General Electric J79 engines enable 1,400 miles per hour speeds, a service ceiling of 60,000 feet, and a climbing rate of 41,300 feet per minute. 

The Phantom was regarded for its acceleration, allowing for smooth engagement and disengagement. However, the Phantom was not particularly maneuverable. Enemy MiGs could typically outturn the F-4, which wasn’t designed for dogfighting and suffered from adverse yaw in tight turns. Instead, the F-4 was intended to fire radar-guided missiles from beyond visual range, not engage in air combat maneuvering, using internal cannons. Actually, the original Phantom variants didn’t even have a cannon, just nine external hardpoints capable of carrying more than nine tons of weaponry. The omission of a cannon was a mistake.  

“That was the biggest mistake on the F-4,” John Chesire, who flew 197 combat missions in the F-4 during Vietnam, once said. “Bullets are cheap and tend to go where you aim them. I needed a gun, and I really wished I had one.” 

“Everyone in RF-4s wished they had a gun on the aircraft,” Jack Dailey, Director of the National Air and Space Museum, said. 

Without guns, special emphasis was placed on the F-4’s heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles, which at the time featured new (unreliable) technology. Often, pilots had to fire multiple missiles at one target. The problem was compounded in Vietnam where rules of engagement required visual identification of the enemy, in effect precluding long-range missile attacks. Regardless, the F-4 is credited with shooting down 107 MiGs in Vietnam

By the time Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait, the F-4 had been in service for three decades. Still, the F-4 proved valuable, operating as “Wild Weasels,” rousting out enemy SAMs. Equipped for a Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) role, the F-4 was vital in protecting coalition aircraft against Saddam’s sophisticated air defense system. 

In 1996, the Phantom’s U.S. active-duty service run ended – after nearly fifty years. The jet lives on, however. Greece operates 18 F-4s out of Andravida Air Base. South Korea still has 27 F-4Es. Turkey has 54. And Iran, our former ally, operates 62 F-4s, alongside their still-running F-14 Tomcats.  

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom

Mockup of the proposed U.S. Navy McDonnell F3H-G/H. In 1953, McDonnell Aircraft began work on revising its F3H Demon fighter, seeking expanded capabilities and better performance. The company developed several projects including a variant powered by a Wright J67 engine, and variants powered by two Wright J65 engines, or two General Electric J79 engines. The J79-powered version promised a top speed of Mach 1.97. On 19 September 1953, McDonnell approached the United States Navy with a proposal for the Super Demon. Uniquely, the aircraft was to be modular — it could be fitted with one- or two-seat noses for different missions, with different nose cones to accommodate radar, photo cameras, four 20 mm cannon, or 56 FFAR unguided rockets in addition to the nine hardpoints under the wings and the fuselage. The Navy was sufficiently interested to order a full-scale mock-up of the F3H-G/H. It depicted the different sizes of the Wright J65 and General Electric J79 afterburners, with the J79 on the right side of the mockup and the J65 on the left. The further development led directly to the F4H Phantom II.

F-4 Phantom

McDonnell Douglas (Mitsubishi) F-4EJ Kai Phantom II

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Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.