Stung by the United States Navy's decision to order the F8U Crusader from their opposition, Vought, in 1950, the McDonnell-Douglass's President James McDonnell instructed his design team under the talented Herman Barkey to create a privately funded aircraft that the Navy would really want to purchase. Barkey's resultant concept was a long range strike aircraft with the designation of F3H-G which aroused significant Navy interest for the company to be awarded a contract to construct two prototypes. During the course of development it was decided to change the role of the new airplane to that of a Fleet Defense Fighter that brought it into competition with Vought's projected Crusader 111 project. The change of role led to a redesigned cockpit to incorporate a second seat for the Radar operator. The redesign, designated F4H-1, was found in competition to be slower and less agile than its competitor, but such was the versatility of the design (at a time when the world's Air Forces) were turning more from purchasing pure interceptors to the acquisition of multi-role aircraft) that agreement was soon reached with the US Navy on the final list of specifications. The YF4H-1 made its maiden flight from St Louis Municipal Airport on the morning of the 27th May 1945 with Test Pilot Robert C. Little at the controls.
By no means a pretty aircraft with its stubby nose and odd looking drooping tailplanes the F4H-1 (often dubbed the Double Ugly by servicemen) made up for its lack of beauty with some of the most advanced weapon systems of its day. The long range Radar system in the nose fed data to a central fire control computer, which allowed four AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles to be launched at maximum range. Four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles backed up the primary armament. Despite its lack of success in speed trials against the Crusader III prototype the F4H-1 was soon setting a number of flying records and attracting much interest with several foreign Governments.
The F4H-1 entered service with the US Navy in 1961 (It was re-designated as the F4 in 1962) with VF-101 Grim Reaper squadron based at Key west, Florida. Carrier operations testing was completed by VF-74 squadron by October 1961 which later embarked aboard the USS Saratoga for operational testing. Meanwhile, the USAF was also paying some attention to the new Navy fighter. A Fly-off between a F4 and an Air Force F106 showed that the Navy's fighter was superior in almost every respect. So impressed were the Air Force commanders that they went to the unheard of step of actually borrowing 29 F4s from the Navy, pending the delivery of their own order for the F4C model, to get their own program going. The First USAF squadrons so equipped being the 12th and 15th Tactical Fighter Wings (TFW) based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
In February 1962, Navy squadron VF-102 deployed aboard the world's first nuclear powered Aircraft Carrier, the 75,700-ton USS Enterprise, during its shake-down cruise. The United States Marine Corps also began to replace its aging Skyrays with Phantom F4H-1s in June 1962.The first USMC squadron to receive them being VMF (AW)-314.
It would not be very long before the Phantoms were to receive their baptism of fire. On the 5th August 1964 US Navy Phantoms from the USS Constellation flew top cover on a retaliation raid following the attack by communist Gunboats on United States vessels off the coast of Vietnam. Other Phantom units were soon being deployed to South East Asia as the United States became embroiled in what had previously been a Civil war between the South Vietnamese government and communist guerrilla. F4Cs of the USAF 555th Triple Nickel Squadron beginning operations from Okinawa in December 1964, whilst USMC Phantoms commenced Ground Support operation from Da Nang from April 1965.
Whilst United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps Phantoms were heavily involved in combat operations over Vietnam from April 1965 combat experience with the earlier F4C and F4D models had revealed a number of apparent shortcomings. A major concern was the reliance merely on the AIM-7 Sparrow III (with a 66lb-(30Kg) warhead and a range of 15 miles (25 Km)) and the AIM-9 Sidewinder (with a 24lb-(11 Kg warhead and a range of 2 miles (3.2 Km)) missiles for air-to-air combats. Although USMC pilots early in the hostilities had shot down three MiGs the Americans had lost no less than seventy three fighters and three RF4B reconnaissance versions in combat (mostly from ground fire), plus a further four machines in accidents. In addition the F4Cs radar continually gave trouble, as did the UHF radio which required the removal of the entire rear seat for maintenance. Other serious problems involved leaking fuel tanks and cracks appearing in the outer wing panels. Overall these Phantoms were proving to be a very complicated aircraft for the maintenance crews to keep serviceable.
As the only jet capable base in South Vietnam during the opening stages of the US involvement in Vietnam, Da Nang soon became very congested and its facilities were soon being stretched to the maximum. To relieve some of the congested air space around Da Nang the USMC made the decision to establish a new base at Chu Lai, south of Da Nang. The Chu Lai base was to be in all effects a land-based aircraft carrier utilizing a very short metal runway, with catapult launching and arrester hook landing procedures. Although Chu Lai was to allow an extra two extra squadrons to be deployed in addition to relieving some of the pressure on Da Nang its presence would not long go unnoticed by the communist guerrillas. Soon, as many as 3,000 Viet Cong had the Chu Lai base under siege, with the result that the base's Phantoms were soon being fully employed on strictly base security operations, rather than taking their part in the Rolling Thunder operations against North Vietnam
Chu Lai Phantoms would also be involved in one of the most horrific air accidents during the Vietnam conflict. A F4 Phantom from USMC squadron VMFA-542 was in a mid-air head on collision with a KC-13OF whilst the latter was in the process of refueling two other Phantoms from USMC squadron VMFA-314. Both of the colliding aircraft were destroyed immediately with the loss of eight aircrew. Of the two VMFA-314 aircraft that had been taking on fuel, one crashed into the sea after the crew had ejected, whilst the other made a forced landing at Chu Lai
In 1964, the Royal Navy ordered a 'anglicized' F4K, which had a wider fuselage to house the Rolls-Royce Spey, fan engines. Forty-eight machines were delivered to the United Kingdom as the Phantom FG.1. However the premature retirement of the Carrier HMS Victorious coupled with the prohibitive cost of refitting HMS Eagle meant that only the carrier HMS Ark Royal was available to operate the Phantom. As a result twenty aircraft of this order were transferred to RAF Strike Command, equipping No. 43 squadron at Leuchars. The twenty eight Royal Navy aircraft began trials by No.700P squadron based at Yeovilton in Devon before being passed to No.767 squadron for type conversion training, and finally becoming operational with No.892 squadron, also at Yeovilton. From March 1969 No.892 squadron made a number of cruises with these aircraft aboard HMS Ark Royal using the Phantom. In 1978 these aircraft were transferred to the RAF'S No.111 Squadron for Air Defense of the United Kingdom.
The use of Rolls-Royce Spey engines in the British Phantoms dramatically increased the unit price of the aircraft whilst decreasing maximum speed, height and performance at altitude. With the cancellation of the Hawker Siddeley P1154 VTOL strike attack aircraft project the RAF ordered a further 116 Phantom F4M from McDonnell-Douglas for use in the interdiction/strike and reconnaissance roles. The F4Ms (Known in RAF service as the Phantom FRG.2) were a combination of the British features with those of the American F4C, but also including a more advanced APQ-100D Radar, inertial navigation system and various other improved equipment items. These FRG2s were used to equip RAF Germany squadrons and were a common sight in BAOR during the 1970s.
The F4E which first flew on the 30th June 1967 and entered service with the USAF in the following year was to resolve many of the early problems experienced with the F4C, and was to be the most widely built variant of the Phantom with 1,397 examples being manufactured. In this model a M61A1 20mm Vulcan six barreled cannon was fitted under the nose, and a new AN/APO-120 solid state radar fire control system was fitted in an extended nose fairing. Other modifications on this model involved changes to the fuel cells, tailplanes and the removal of the powered wing folding. The F4E was to prove to be extremely popular with export orders being received from Germany, Korea and Japan. In addition this model was at one time the mount of the famous USAF Thunderbirds Demonstration Team.
|Wing Span||38 ft 4 in||11.70 m|
|Length||62 ft 10 in||19.20 m|
|Height||16 ft 3 in||4.96 m|
|Wing Area||530 sq ft||49.2 sq m|