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The last U.S. F-4s were retired in 1996 (a U.S. Air Force RF-4C during the Vietnam War); about 800 still fly worldwide. (USAF)

Moments and Milestones: The Phantom at 50

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It is the very image of a combat aircraft—all lines and angles and bulges, with cranked wingtips and a swollen crocodile fuselage topped by a broad trapezoidal fin; later versions were festooned with pods and camera housings that simply added to the clutter. At takeoff, the beast weighed in at more than 60,000 pounds; by contrast, an F-86 Sabre at max takeoff weight barely topped 18,000 pounds.

The McDonnell F-4 Phantom II began as an idea for a flying radar platform with missiles capable of protecting a carrier battle group, but it evolved into one of the most versatile strike fighters ever built. It made its first flight in May 1958, and it would be built in great numbers: 5,195, according to Boeing, of which 5,057 emerged from the production lines of heritage company McDonnell Aircraft, and 138 under license by the Japanese company Mitsubishi. It still holds the record for production of a supersonic jet aircraft in the United States. (Russia's MiG-21, with more than 10,000 built, holds the all-time world record.)

The Navy, which initially ordered the airplane, knew what it had once the fighter was equipped with a pair of the then-new General Electric J79 afterburning turbojets, and it sent its new Mach 2-capable acquisition off to set a spate of speed and altitude records. The airplane made its first appearance in combat in Vietnam in 1964. The Air Force ordered it as a multi-role fighter and attack aircraft, eventually buying more than the Navy and Marines did, and it got its guns in 1967, when another pod was added to the C model, this one containing a Gatling cannon. Ordnance totaling 16,000 pounds was attached seemingly anywhere it would fit. A B-29, the heaviest U.S. bomber of World War II, carried only 4,000 pounds more.

When it debuted in combat with a mission flown from the deck of the USS Constellation, the B model was an all-missile airplane. When the E model first flew in 1967, it had the Gatling cannon built into the airframe, thanks to the lessons learned in combat against more agile, gun-wielding Soviet fighters in Vietnam.

For a time, the F-4 flew as the demonstration fighter for both the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels, the only fighter to hold that distinction. When it was replaced by newer and more economical types, airshow crowds missed the noise, the smoke, and the sheer size of the Phantom. To conduct its maneuvers, the big airplane was reputed to use up the boundaries of the county in which the airshow was being held.

When a fighter is sold to all three U.S. air arms, economies of scale come into play and the cost per unit is reduced. In the case of the Phantom, overseas sales expanded the scale even more. Eleven nations acquired either retired U.S. military aircraft or newly built examples, totaling almost 1,200 aircraft. About 800 Phantoms still operate today, flown by Egypt, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey. Another blessing of volume production is the spare parts pool that results. Surplus aircraft in boneyards get picked clean to keep others of the type flying. Today you can buy components for your F-4 from such firms as Derco Aerospace, Inc., a subsidiary of Sikorsky, as easily as finding a carburetor for your '67 GTO down at the parts store.

Nobody gives trophies to airframes for enduring service, but if they did, the F-4 would be a winner.

About George Larson

George Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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About Tony Reichhardt

Tony Reichhardt is a senior editor at Air & Space.

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