What Couldn’t the F-4 Phantom Do?

A tribute to McDonnell’s masterpiece fighter jet.

In Vietnam, the U.S. Navy used the F-4 for ground attack. (US Navy via D. Sheley)
Air & Space Magazine

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The snappy response of the J79 turbojets made one aspect of landing on a carrier safer. Earlier engines had often lagged behind urgent power requests. In a memorable moment landing on the USS Midway, Chesire realized that his tailhook had failed to engage an arresting cable—after he’d already fully idled back both engines (a rookie mistake). The Midway’s deck camera recorded his Phantom plunging off the end of the carrier. He slammed the throttles forward. Instead of a large splash, the F-4 reappeared—“going straight up, in full afterburner,” says Chesire—as the J79s delivered just-in-time thrust.


Combat air patrol missions were proactive: Instead of escorting or defending, F-4s went looking for trouble. MiG pilots with North Vietnam’s air force were happy to oblige. Part of a two-Phantom patrol to waylay Hanoi-based MiGs, Guy Freeborn launched from the USS Constellation on August 10, 1967. “We were hungry,” says Freeborn, who had never encountered a MiG. Lurking beneath a thin cloud layer, “we figured we might be pretty close to their path. Then, holy crap, here come three MiG-21s out of the clouds right over us.”

The Phantoms shifted into afterburner and sped to 575 mph to develop enough energy to turn aggressively. F-4s hemorrhaged speed while turning—“It was a big, dirty airplane in terms of drag,” says Freeborn—so MiGs could generally out-turn the Phantoms. But the Russian fighter’s fancy footwork didn’t often trump the F-4’s brute, drag-strip acceleration.

The lead Phantom launched two Sparrow missiles, which lost radar lock on the MiGs. Freeborn had other issues beside the finicky, radar-guided Sparrow: Behind him sat a RIO with no combat experience. “I felt I couldn’t rely on him to stay cool, get a radar lock-up, and do what he had to do,” he recounts. As the Phantoms rapidly closed the gap, he chose “Heat” on his front-seat weapons selector and launched an AIM-9 Sidewinder. The streaking heat-seeker locked on to and hit one of the MiGs. Though smoking and trailing fuel, the fighter remained airborne. Before Freeborn could unleash the coup de grâce, the pilot in the lead F-4 finished off the MiG with a Sidewinder. “I told my backseater, ‘Look! That bastard just shot my MiG!’ ”

With only one target remaining, Freeborn quickly triggered another Sidewinder, which promptly misfired. “I said, ‘Oh man, it’s just not my day.’ ” He cycled the weapon selector once more and lit the next AIM-9. “That one blew him to pieces,” he says. He later discovered that neither MiG pilot had survived.

The third MiG-21? Last seen miles away, “streaking back towards Hanoi,” says Freeborn.


Before stealth, there was night. Darkness provided cover for the “Night Owls” of the Air Force 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based at Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, during the Vietnam War. “The first time I walked into the squadron, I noticed everything was painted black,” says Doug Joyce, today a retired Air Force colonel.

Missions centered on tactical interdiction and forward air control. Standard strikes were two-craft affairs. “We seldom flew in big gaggles like the day guys did,” Joyce explains. “Nor could we do a lot of jinking around as we came down the chute on a bomb run, because of the risk of spatial disorientation in the dark.” From Phantoms with painted-black bellies, Night Owls dispensed both dumb bombs and laser-guided ones, as well as cluster bombs. Looming terrain and ground fire posed dangers: “37mm anti-aircraft was the biggest threat,” says Joyce. “When they couldn’t see you, they’d just shoot everywhere. If there was any moonlight at all, of course, that F-4 would show up as a big black shape in the moonshine.”

One of the premier graveyard-shift gigs—reserved for the most experienced Owls—was supporting B-52s on bombing raids to Hanoi. “It was pretty breathtaking,” says Joyce, describing pyrotechnics in the night skies in the spring of 1972. “At the very beginning, even with Wild Weasel support, they shot hundreds of SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] at us. At the altitudes the B-52s were at, we were close to the service ceiling of the F-4. You didn’t want to use afterburner because you just lit yourself up. And you couldn’t maneuver laterally in these formations because there were other airplanes next to you.”

Plumes of metallic strips called chaff were released to distract radar-guided SAMs fired at the B-52s. However, Joyce says it had the opposite effect on the F-4s dispersing it: “Here we are in this very heavily defended SAM environment, and we’re appearing on enemy radar screens at the pointy end of a bright stream of chaff.” It amounted to an arrow pointing out the Phantom to North Vietnamese missile operators (see “The Missile Men of North Vietnam,” Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015).


“I always said if you were worried about dying, you weren’t doing a good job,” says Chuck DeBellevue, a retired Air Force colonel. He wasn’t much of a worrier. In Vietnam, DeBellevue flew 220 missions in the F-4 and shot down six MiGs, becoming America’s highest scoring ace of the war.

In 1963, a land-based variant of the Phantom emerged from the McDonnell assembly line. Optimized for both ground support and air superiority, the Air Force F-4C was distinguished by flight controls in both front and back seats and was primed for manual “down the chute” dive-bombing and tactical interdiction. In time, the Air Force bought twice as many F-4s as the Navy.

A pilot surplus put DeBellevue into the F-4 back seat for duty as a weapons systems officer. Unlike their Navy counterpart, the initial backseaters in Air Force F-4s were pilots. However, the Air Force soon decided that navigators were better suited to be F-4 WSOs—or “Wizzos.” “A lot of pilots were not really happy going into the back seat,” says DeBellevue. “But, as a navigator, I was just pleased as pink.” In November 1971, he was assigned to the 555th Tactical Squadron at Udorn, Thailand.

DeBellevue recalls that on the day he reported, he got a blunt greeting from the 555th scheduler. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’ve got one year—if you live. Tomorrow morning you start on the dawn patrol.’ ” As a weapons systems officer, DeBellevue flew nearly 100 missions deep into North Vietnam.

“Crossing the fence into North Vietnamese airspace, you’d start psyching up,” says DeBellevue. Once the F-4 engaged an enemy, he says, “nothing that was happening outside the cockpit was important to me.” With an impending life-or-death event looming at near supersonic speeds, he narrowed his focus to managing weapons systems, acquiring the enemy aircraft on radar, calculating direction of intercept, and feeding the frontseater what he needed to know.

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