Where Have All the Phantoms Gone?
How a fighter-bomber-recon-attack superstar ended up as fodder for target practice.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
(Page 3 of 8)
In March 1966, I was told that if I agreed to take a combat tour, I’d get the front seat. Are you kidding? I made my first front-seat flight at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. I still remember it: a gunnery mission. And oh, the visibility from the front
chair! My landing was the smoothest of “grease jobs.” At that moment, the shotgun marriage turned into a love affair.
After passing my checkout flight, I was stationed at Ubon Air Base in Thailand, a member of the 555th—“Triple Nickle”—Squadron in Colonel Robin Olds’ famed Eighth Wing.
At Ubon, the F-4 was all things to all people. One squadron flew only at night, popping flares and dropping bombs. The other two squadrons flew both day and night, dive-bombing bridges, strafing ground targets, rocketing truck parks, and tangling with the ever-elusive MiGs over Hanoi.
On October 11, 1966, I discovered how tough the Phantom was. An 85-mm round blew a four-foot section off my right engine, and the aircraft caught fire. Still, it held together through the 400 miles back to Ubon.
By the end of 1966, the Phantom had revealed a host of shortcomings. Number one was the dismal record of missile hits against the North Vietnamese MiG-17s and MiG-21s. The AIM-7 radar-guided missile had a probability of kill below 10 percent. Richard Keyt, who flew F-4s for the 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War, recalls: “Our missiles were designed to work in a non-maneuvering environment—a non-turning, 1-G shot at the bomber target flying straight and level at high altitude.” The reality: “F-4s fired in high-G turns at small MiGs that were turning hard and pulling Gs.” To remedy the problem, the Air Force expanded its Weapons System Evaluation Program (WSEP) at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Combat crews were given practice in firing missiles at towed radar-reflective targets.
My backseater, First Lieutenant Jerry K. Sharp, and I took part in that exercise over the South China Sea in December 1966, scoring a hit. On January 2, 1967, we used the skills we had honed in that exercise when we merged with a flight of four MiG-21s that were turning hard to get at us. Sharp got a radar lock-on while under heavy Gs. Then I centered the steering dot, fired two AIM-7s, and watched as the second missile exploded and tore the tail section from the MiG in front of us.
For other F-4 shortcomings, the military contracted out quick fixes. Modifications included the installation of Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) gear—a cockpit system that alerted pilots when their aircraft was being tracked by anti-aircraft-artillery radars or surface-to-air-missile sites. Also added were radar jamming pods, plus chaff and flare dispensers used in combination to confuse tracking radars and to dupe radar-guided or heat-seeking missiles.