One of the best airplanes during the Vietnam War was The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. This airplane entered the US military service in the 1960s, and more than 5,000 examples were produced. Out of that number, hundreds are still in great condition, and they are used in the country’s defense.
The Phantom was never the perfect aircraft, especially if you were to compare it to the F-15 Eagle that has never been destroyed in the air-to-air combat. However, the F-4 has a special place in the US forces, and it will always remain one of the most authentic airplanes. At first, the aircraft relied on brute engine power and weapons which were obsolete, but these flaws were corrected by 1970s. Nowadays, of course, the F-4s have everything according to the modern standards. And they are saving a lot of money because they are capable of doing everything an F-15 can do, but at a lower price.
The first F-4 was produced in 1958, and it was completely different from the other planes at the time. Unloaded, the aircraft weighed 30,000 pounds and thanks to the J79 twin engines, it had excellent thrust to weight ratio and it could, and still can, reach impressive speeds. Speaking of which, the F-4 Phantom can go up to 1,473 miles per hour. Back in the day, this beast could be loaded with 18,000 pounds of ammunition which is three times more than what famous B-17 bombers, which were active during the Second World War, could carry. The plane had the advanced radar that was operated by the weapons officer in the backseat while the pilot was focused on flying.
The F-4 penetrated through every pore of the US military. It served in the US Air Force, as expected, but it was also used by the Marines and Navy. Both ground- and carrier-based models were available, and all of these models were eagerly used.
Even though it was the state-of-the-art plane, the losses in Vietnam were huge. While the US army had success in the Korean War and shooting approximately 8 and losing 1 in air-to-air combat, the situation in Vietnam was different. The ratio was 2-1, which was far from satisfactory, and many F-4s were hit. The missiles it used were radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow, the heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the AIM-4 Falcon, but it took some time for the US to realize that these were all awful. A large percentage of missiles couldn’t be launched at all or locked on, and during and after large maneuvers, the probability for the airplane to hit the target with one of those missiles was under 15 percent.
To make matters worse, the American pilots were not trained for close range combat, and that was something North Vietnamese exploited. Furthermore, the J79 engines were leaving a thick black smoke behind them which make these, already large planes, easy to spot. But that was not all. While the Vietnamese forces shot the US airplanes down, the US pilots had to identify the target first before they launched the missiles. They were crippled, indeed.
However, in the years to come, better Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles were produced, and the F-4 Phantom was becoming more capable. In 1972, Maj. Phil Handley created history. He managed to shoot down a MiG-19 using only the plane’s gun, and this is the only case of such shooting. Note that this happened at supersonic speed. Later on, the F-4Es received wing-slats, making the aircraft easy to maneuver, but slowing them down slightly. Still, the speed reduction was a small price to pay for the increase of maneuverability. The engines were improved as well, and there was no more a black trail behind the tail of the F-4.
The Middle East Utilization
The Phantoms were not used only in the Vietnamese War. They were also heavily used in the Middle East where most of the combat took place after the situation in the Asia-Pacific region calmed down. When the Israeli fought the Egyptians and Syrian air forces, they recorded 116 air-to-air kills. The fights took place in 1969, during the so-called War of Attrition. Four years later, Egyptians used MiGs to attack the Ofir Air Base. Just two of the allied airplanes managed to survive, but they knocked down seven enemy planes.
While the Israeli had success against the Syrians and Egyptians in air-to-air combat, they struggled against Arab surface-to-air missile batteries. 36 Phantoms were lost during the battles, and most of them were shot down by the SAMs. The Phantoms showed their true strength in the War in Lebanon when they managed to destroy all 30 of Syria’s SAM batteries which were located in the Bekaa Valley. Even though the Phantoms were followed by the new F-15s and F-16s, not a single plane was lost. Furthermore, the USA sold 225 F-4 Phantoms to Iran before the revolution, and they helped them defeat the Iraqi forces.
F-4 Phantom in the 21st century
Believe it or not, but the Phantom is still used in service. It is strange when you think about it. The airplane which was produced in 1958 and entered the US military service at the beginning of the 1960s is used in 2018. Yes, it has been modified throughout the years and constantly improved but how did the F-4 survive next to far better F-15 and F-16 fighter jets.
In their fourth generation, these two airplanes managed to shoot more than 80 Syrian third-generation MiGs in Lebanon at no loss. They proved the supremacy in the Gulf War when only one plane was shot down compared to 33 losses of the enemy. In order to keep up with the modern jets, the F-4 Phantom integrates modern hardware that its relatives use. The Phantoms which flew over the Turkish and Greek air forces have state-of-the-art pulse-doppler radars, which means that they have the eyes that can look down with missiles that can shoot down. For those who are not familiar with the context, let us explain. In the past, the high-flying airplanes couldn’t notice the low-flying jets since the radar waves bounced off the ground and gave incorrect data. This problem has been solved, and the more modern devices are now used, and they can detect any low-flying aircraft.
This is not all, even the electronics and instruments are updated. Today, the F-4s are equipped with Heads Up Displays so that the pilots have their instruments in front of them. Many countries bought these airplanes from the US. For instance, Germany used them until 2013 and even though they do not use them currently, the planes are safeguarded and garaged for future use. Also, one part of South Korean air force consists of the F-4Es, while Japan is another country with American airplanes. Furthermore, Iran and Israel are the two countries in the Middle East that have been in possession of the F-4.
The F-4 Phantom has proven to be versatile and adaptable, which is its biggest trait. This only shows that even though it had flaws at first, this jet is considered a part of the United States history and heritage. Honestly, who would have thought that planes which took their first flight in 1958 would patrol the sky in 2018? We are confident that the F-4 Phantom is going to live on, maybe in some other form and with some new technology, but it will survive.