May 27, 1958: The F-4 Phantom II Makes its First Flight

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A Brief History

On May 27, 1958, the McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas) F-4 Phantom II naval interceptor made its first flight.  Designed as a carrier airplane to defend the fleet against Soviet supersonic bombers, the concept was to create an interceptor that could climb rapidly and fly fast enough to catch bombers before they got close enough to attack the fleet.

Digging Deeper

Prior to entering service in 1960, the F-4 proved its concept by setting 15 aviation records for such things as speed and altitude.  Designed to shoot down bombers rather than dogfight with fighters, the F-4 was built without a gun and maneuverability was not a priority.  It was to be a big, immensely powerful, fast jet that could quickly shoot down supersonic bombers as far from the fleet as possible.

The reality was that the mission of such a capable platform would inevitably include dog fighting with enemy fighters and serving as a ground attack jet as well.  The U.S. Air Force was impressed with the capabilities of the big jet and also adopted it for its own use.  Armed with 8 air to air missiles (usually 4 Sidewinders for close range and 4 Sparrows for longer range) military theorists of the time saw no need for a gun, expecting combat to be at a longer range than a gun could engage.

Wrong!  In Viet Nam where the rules of engagement greatly limited the advantage of the F-4’s radar to guide long range missiles, the pilots were required to get within visual range to identify each target positively so as to avoid friendly fire situations, which caused combat to occur at close range, where the superior maneuverability of the less powerful and lower technology Soviet jets could frustrate Phantom pilots.  Missiles were not the wonder weapons that they were cracked up to be and often missed or malfunctioned. Often combat was too close for the minimum range to use missiles, and the lack of a gun cost lives and aircraft, as well as many missed opportunities for shooting down the enemy.

USAF F-4 Phantom II destroyed on 18 February 1968, during the enemy attack against Tan Son Nhut, during the Tet Offensive

A jury rigged solution was to carry 20 mm Gatling type guns (Vulcan) in pods under the jets, which limited the Phantom to subsonic flight.  As combat was rarely supersonic anyway, this was not a bad idea. A better idea was to incorporate an internal Vulcan 20 mm cannon into the design of the jet, which was done starting in the F-4E model.  Able to carry as much as 18,000 pounds of rockets and bombs, the F-4 was a rugged and fearsome fighter-bomber.

With 5195 F-4’s built (compared to only 1198 F-15’s built) the Phantom II is the most prolific of any US supersonic aircraft and served the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force until 1996, as well as 11 other countries (some still in use).  From 1960 to the mid-1970’s the Phantom II was the front line American fighter bomber.  Cracked fact:  In the Viet Nam War there were 22 aerial “aces.”  Five Americans flying in F-4’s and 17 North Vietnamese!  No Americans have become an “ace” since then (“ace” meaning a pilot or weapons systems officer responsible for shooting down 5 enemy planes).

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever flown in an F-4?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Davies, Peter E., Adam Tooby, et al.  USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (Air Vanguard).  Osprey Publishing, 2013.

Harkins, Hugh.  F-4 Phantom II in USAF Service.  Centurion, 2013.

Kirk, Robert F.  Warriors At 500 Knots: Intense Stories Of Valiant Crews Flying The Legendary F-4 Phantom Ii In The Vietnam Air War.  AuthorHouse, 2011.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of the first U.S. Navy McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II prototype (BuNo 142259) at the McDonnell plant in St. Louis, Missouri (USA), on 5 June 1958, eight days after its first flight, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.