The McDonnell F-4 Phantom

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The big F-4 fighter-bomber was gradually evolved from the F3H, with which it had no more than a configurational similarity. Despite its size and bulky look, the F-4 had excellent performance and good maneuverability; it was adopted by both the USN and the USAF. Early F-4’s had no fixed gun, but this was corrected after combat experience in Vietnam showed the need for one. Over 5000 were built, making the F-4 one of the most numerous modern combat aircraft. Many are still in service. Now and then, plans are announced to upgrade the F-4 with new engines and electronics. The RF-4 is a recce version of the F-4 fighter with a camera nose. Currently retired F-4s are being converted into QF-4 target drones.

The F-4 Phantom II (simply “F-4 Phantom” after 1990) is a two-place (tandem), supersonic, long-range, all-weather fighter-bomber built by (originally McDonnell Aircraft Corporation) McDonnell Douglas Corporation. It was operated by the US Navy, the USMC and later the USAF, from 1961 until 1995. It is still in service with other nations. In service, it earned it nicknames like “Rhino” (a reference to both its prodigious nose and its rhinoceros-like toughness) and “Double-Ugly”/”DUFF” (Double Ugly Fat F*er, a reference to the B-52 Stratofortress).

Its primary mission capabilities are: long range, high-altitude intercepts utilizing air-to-air missiles as primary armament; long-range attack missions utilizing conventional or nuclear weapons as a primary armament; and close air support missions utilizing a choice of bombs, rockets and missiles as primary armament. It was one of the few aircraft types that have served in the US Navy, USMC and USAF. It was one of the longest serving military aircraft post-war.

First flown May 27, 1958, the Phantom II originally was developed for US Navy fleet defense. The initial F4H-1 (later F-4B) entered service in 1961. The USAF evaluated it (as the F-110A Spectre) for close air support, interdiction, and counter-air operations and, in 1962, approved a USAF version, the F-4C. The F-4C made its first flight on May 27, 1963, and production deliveries began in November 1963. The Navy/USMC version progressed to the improved F-4J mark, with earlier F-4Bs upgraded in service to F-4N and later the F-4J upgraded to F-4S standard. The USAF replaced the F-4C with the optimized F-4D, and then, from 1967, the F-4E with an internal M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon. 116 F-4Es were later converted for the SEAD “Wild Weasel” role as the F-4G. Reconnaissance versions were also built, the RF-4C for the USAF, RF-4B for the USMC, and the export RF-4E.

Phantom II production ended in 1979 after over 5,000 had been built — more than 2,800 for the USAF, about 1,200 for the Navy and Marine Corps, and the rest for friendly foreign nations.

In 1965 the first USAF Phantom IIs were sent to Vietnam. Early versions lacked any gun armament. Coupled with the unreliability of the air-to-air missiles (AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder) of the time, this major drawback resulted in the aircraft loss after they ran out of missiles. During the course of the Vietnam War, its contemporaries, the MiG-19 and MiG-21, inflicted heavy losses on the F-4s when the American aircraft were ambushed after returning from bombing assignments. This prompted the USAF to introduce an M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon in the nose of the aircraft, below the radome (although no Navy or Marine Phantoms ever had an integral gun). This later version was the mainstay of the USAF Phantom II forces. The last Phantoms in USAF service were retired in December 2004 with the deactivation of the 20th Fighter Squadron, the Silver Lobos. The last Phantoms in Marine Corps service were F-4S models of VMFA-112 and were retired in 1992 when VMFA-112 transitioned to the F/A-18A.

Naval aviators flying the F-4 transitioned to the F-14 Tomcat in the mid-seventies. Some aircraft, however, remained in service aboard the Midway class ships, as their decks and hangars were too small to handle the much larger F-14. Eventually, all Navy F-4s were replaced by the F-14 or F/A-18 Hornet. The F-14 boasted more powerful engines, better agility, a longer-range weapons system, and better close-range dogfight capability.

Operation BOLO

Event Date: January 2, 1967

A ruse designed by the U. S. Air Force to engage Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF, North Vietnamese Air Force) MiG-21s on an equal footing. Because the Lyndon B. Johnson administration prohibited U. S. aircraft from bombing airfields in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) until April 1967, the U. S. Air Force sought another method of reducing increasingly dangerous levels of MiG activity in North Vietnam. Consequently, in December 1966 Seventh Air Force Headquarters planned a trap for the MiGs by exploiting deception and the weaknesses of the North Vietnamese ground radar network.

Normally U. S. Air Force strike packages flew in standard formations, which included refueling Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers at lower altitudes than their McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II escorts. In Operation BOLO, F-4s imitated F-105 formations-including their electronic countermeasure emissions, attack patterns, and communications-to convince North Vietnamese ground controllers that their radars showed a normal F-105 strike mission. However, when controllers vectored VPAF MiG interceptors against their enemies, the MiG-21s found F-4s, equipped for air-to-air combat, rather than the slower bomb-laden F-105s.

To maximize fighter coverage over Hanoi and deny North Vietnamese MiGs an exit route to airfields in China, Operation BOLO called for 14 flights of U. S. Air Force fighters to converge over the city. Aircraft from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) based at Ubon Air Base in Thailand would fly into the Hanoi area from Laos, while fighters from the 366th TFW based at Da Nang would arrive from the Gulf of Tonkin.

Marginal weather on January 2, 1967, delayed the start of the mission until the afternoon and prevented more than three flights of F-4s from reaching the target area. Colonel Robin Olds, 8th TFW commander, led the first of the three flights; Lieutenant Colonel Daniel “Chappie” James led the second flight; and Captain John Stone led the third flight. Olds’s flight passed over the Phuc Yen airfield twice before MiG-21s popped out of the clouds. The intense air battle that followed lasted less than 15 minutes but was the largest single aerial dogfight of the Vietnam War. Twelve F-4s destroyed seven VPAF MiG-21s and claimed two more probable kills. Colonel Olds shot down two aircraft himself. There were no U. S. Air Force losses. The VPAF admits that it lost five MiG-21s in this battle. One of the Vietnamese pilots shot down that day, Nguyen Van Coc, went on to become North Vietnam’s top-scoring ace, credited with shooting down nine American aircraft.

Ultimately Operation BOLO destroyed almost half of the VPAF inventory of MiG-21s. Although bad weather prevented the full execution of the plan, it did achieve its primary objective of reducing U. S. aerial losses. Because of the reduced number of MiG-21s, the VPAF had no choice but to stand down its MiG-21 operations.

References Bell, Kenneth H. 100 Missions North. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1993. Middleton Drew, ed. Air War-Vietnam. New York: Arno, 1978. Momyer, William W. Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1978. Nordeen, Lon O. Air Warfare in the Missile Age. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985. Pimlott, John. Vietnam: The Decisive Battles. New York: Macmillan, 1990. Ta Hong, Vu Ngoc, and Nguyen Quoc Dung. Lich Su Khong Quan Nhan Dan Viet Nam (1955-1977) [History of the People’s Air Force of Vietnam (1955-1977)]. Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House, 1993.

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