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)
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On September 9, 1972, DeBellevue was paired with pilot John Madden on a patrol mission to North Vietnam. Afterward, he was to make one of the last flights leaving Hanoi. “We crossed the Red River and I picked up two blips on the radar at 11 o’clock,” he recalls. Immediately he knew what they meant: “MiG-19s, a very dangerous airplane,” he says. “We couldn’t outrun—we didn’t have gas to run. So we had to fight. We turned on them.” Both MiGs jettisoned fuel tanks, ready to rumble. “They turned into us, and the fight was on,” he says.

“We fired two Sidewinders at the trailing MiG,” he says. “One hit him, and he dropped out of the fight.” DeBellevue couldn’t see that the enemy had in fact crashed and burned, officially making him an ace. “But the other guy was turning hard into us anyway, so we put all our attention on him,” he says. The F-4 launched a heat-seeker, which immediately soared out of sight. “It looked like it was heading for the sun, which isn’t good news,” he says. “Even from the back seat, I could see the MiG, and by this time he was really making angles on us.”

A streak entered his field of view: The errant Sidewinder had rejoined the battle. It ended up in the MiG’s afterburner. “He rolled out wings-level, and then rolled inverted” says DeBellevue, of the MiG’s pilot. “He was at about twelve or fifteen hundred feet when he started a split-S. The first 90 degrees was perfect. After that—he turned to dust.”

Even as he was being toasted at the officers’ club the night of his fifth and sixth victories, “they handed me transfer papers and told me to be ready to leave at six the next morning,” he says. The Air Force removed aces from combat. Stateside, after graduating from pilot training, he was soon in the Phantom again—this time the front seat. When he retired from the Air Force 26 years later, Chuck DeBellevue was the last American ace on active duty.

***

Jim Schreiner had flown Air Force A-10s and was facing a desk job in 1990 when he was offered one more flying tour. He suggested a General Dynamics F-16 or a McDonnell Douglas F-15, the elite fighters at the time. In his book Magnum! The Wild Weasels in Desert Storm, coauthored with Brick Eisel, he described his assignment flying 1969-vintage F-4Gs instead. “It was still a fighter,” he says today, “but not exactly what I was thinking of.”

Twenty years after SAMs downed more than 200 American warplanes in Vietnam, “Wild Weasel” pilots like Schreiner flew upgraded Phantoms into SAM-filled skies during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. This time, the outcome was very different: Not a single U.S. aircraft was downed by an Iraqi radar-guided SAM.

The Wild Weasel F-4s were fitted with an AN/APR-47 radar-homing-and-warning system, which enabled them to sniff out missile sites. Also, the back-seat configuration was altered to accommodate additional radarscopes and inertial navigation equipment. The Weasel’s most pertinent weapons were two or four AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles, designed to follow the SAM radar beam right back to its origin.

At 2 a.m. on the first night of the war, Schreiner and his backseater, Dan Sharp, one half of a two-aircraft mission, quickly found the Iraqi SAM sites. Early on, North Vietnamese SAM operators had connected the dots (energized radar equals missile exploding through the roof) and learned to keep their radar powered down until the last moment before launch. “The Iraqis hadn’t yet figured out that it wasn’t a good idea to have the sites up,” says Schreiner. “So they had them all turned on.” The result was a “target-rich environment,” says Schreiner. “Lots of things to look at and shoot at.”

In the cockpit, he watched as each anti-radiation missile found its mark, and the icon representing a SAM site on the Phantom’s radar screen was replaced by a symbol indicating where it used to be. Air-to-air threats were a non-issue—AIM-7 Sparrows carried for self-defense were never used. “There was never any reason to,” says Schreiner. “Had there been any threat, we had plenty of F-15s in the air to take those out.” None of the Wild Weasels were hit by anything larger than small-caliber ground fire. “We continued to fly until they called a halt to the air war,” says Schreiner. 

***

“yes, 68,000 is well above the F-4’s operating range,” says Jack Petry. “We weren’t supposed to go above 50-, so we didn’t tell anybody.” That day in January 1965, while he and his backseater, Captain Ray Seal, were chasing the Titan II rocket, their Phantom’s “smash”—flight energy—pushed the space program’s comfort zone.

In his helmet headset, Petry could hear that the range controller at Cape Canaveral was getting nervous: “Break it off,” the controller repeated.

“Negative,” Petry replied, assuring the controller that his finite momentum wouldn’t mess with the missile. “The whole idea was to keep the airplane pointed at the missile,” he says. “So we stayed with it just as long as we had the airspeed—to keep the cameras rolling.”

For a fleeting moment, his altimeter eclipsed 68,000 feet. “We had virtually no energy left,” says Petry. “We weren’t flying anymore at that point—just riding. But the F-4 stayed quite stable.”

The Titan leaned into its trajectory and barreled downrange. Petry broke away inverted and maneuvered to restore airflow over the wings. He and his backseater kept Gemini II in the F-4’s camera sights, he says, “until we fell out of the sky.”  

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