Sep 25th, 2023

The F-4 Phantom II – A Legendary Aircraft

The F-4 Phantom II: McDonnell-Douglas’s superb fighter was the backbone of American air superiority in the 1960s and 1970s — truly a legendary aircraft.

History of the F-4

Navy F-4

The plane was designed by McDonnell Douglas engineer, Dave Lewis and first flew in 1958.  The Navy adopted the plane in 1960.  The Marine Corps quickly followed suit. In what can only be described as “miraculous” the Air Force ordered a plane that was first flown by the Navy and it entered the Wild Blue Yonder in 1963.

The F-4 in Vietnam

AF F-4

The adoption of the F-4 coincided with the growing tensions in Southeast Asia.  After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, Navy, Marine and Air Force F-4s appeared over the Vietnam landscape and waters.

The C, D and E models were all used.  Initially the aircraft had no internal gun, this was the trend of the time.  Conventional wisdom held that with the advent of air to air missiles, guns were obsolete.  The conventional wisdom was wrong.  The C and D models got 20mm gun pods mounted and the E model featured an internal 20 mm gun.

Marine Corps F-4

The pilot flew in the front seat and the navigator in the back.  The AF called the backseater a WSO (weapons system operator) while the Navy preferred RIO (radar intercept officer)

Randy Cunningham (USN) became the first ace of the Vietnam War in the F-4.  Steve Ritchie followed in the Air Force and was eventually surpassed by Chuck DeBellevue.

F-4 Records and Novelties

At one time the F-4 held over 15 air records.  This included an altitude record of 98,557 feet in 1959 and a cross country speed record, traversing the United States in less than three hours in 1961.  Later time to climb records were set. Navy Commander “Jeff” Davis set a speed record over a 100 kilometer closed circuit in the F-4 on September 25, 1960 over Edwards Air Force Base. The Phantom averaged over 1,390 MPH on the course.


Both services air demonstration teams used the bird.  The AF Thunderbirds used the F-4E from 1969 to 1973.  While the Navy Blue Angels used the J model from 1969 to 1973 as well.  Higher fuel prices were a major factor in ending the F-4s tenure as the primary show bird.

Blue Angel

F-4 use in Overseas Militaries

The F-4 was flown by nearly a dozen countries.  Besides Vietnam, the fighter saw action in the First Gulf War as the Wild Weasel.  The Phantom was a star performer during the Yom Kippur War as Israel’s surrounding neighbors attacked.  Most ironically, Iran bought the aircraft before the fall of the Shah of Iran.  The aircraft was therefore used in the Iran-Iraq War.  Presently the aircraft is still being used by nations such as Egypt and Iran.

The Last US Flight of the F-4

The F-4 was officially retired by the US Air Force in 2017.  This concluded a 50+ year service life.  For an excellent article on the last flight and the team who pulled it off, see this story.  The pictures are worth the view all by themselves.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.  Truly a legendary aircraft.

Note: An earlier version of this post was made in September 2019. Learn how it all began with the Wright Brothers.

This formation of F-4 Phantom II fighter aircraft, sporting a Vietnam Era paint scheme, fly in formation during a heritage flight demonstration over Northwest Florida. The Heritage Flight program was established in 1997 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the U. S. Air Force and involves fighter aircraft from World War II to recent all flying in formation to both celebrate and demonstrate the evolution of Air Force Air Power.

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