Where Have All the Phantoms Gone?

How a fighter-bomber-recon-attack superstar ended up as fodder for target practice

F-4s at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the warplane retirement home. (Mark Bennett)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

The C variant had a number of design problems; one of the biggest was lack of a gun. The rules of engagement over Vietnam required that an adversary be identified visually before a missile could be fired at it. The MiGs were small, and to make the ID, shooters had to get close, often much less than the minimum distance that the AIM-7 radar-guided and AIM-9B heat-seeking missiles required to hit a target. At short range, “if you didn’t have a gun, you couldn’t shoot down anything,” says Rich­ard Keyt. The quick fix was the SUU-16/A gun pod with the M61A1 20-mm cannon.

But without a lead-computing sight and with no tracer ammunition, F-4C pilots were denied the visual cues needed to correct aiming errors. Then, in 1967, the F-4D arrived. The D model introduced a lead-computing optical sight for use with the gun pod. In addition, the normal ammunition load now included tracers.

On November 6, 1967, the gunfighter Phantom proved its worth. Captain Darrell “D” Simmonds and First Lieutenant George H. McKinney Jr. were escorting a flight of F-105s that came under attack by two MiG-17s. “We picked up the MiG-17s visually that were shooting at the Thuds [F-105s],” says Simmonds. “I was able to get in there and maneuvered for a perfect ‘uphill dart’ shot. I hit him, came alongside, and looked at him, and he looked at me, then ejected just before the plane hit the trees.” McKinney spotted another MiG-17 and Simmonds swung into a hard turn, accelerating as he lined up for the shot. “We were close, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” the pilot remembers. “I fired and he blew up.” Later, Simmonds realized: “We had used just 497 rounds for the two kills—less than five seconds of firing.”

The D model, however, was not a cure-all. “The guns on the D hung externally, on the centerline, and that created drag,” says Keyt. As for the missiles, the underperforming AIM-9B was abandoned for the Hughes AIM-4D Falcon. Designed to bring down strategic bombers, it required cooling of the seeker head prior to launch and needed a direct hit to score a kill. As pilots found out during what became known as the “Falcon Fiasco,” it came up short in a dogfight. Major James R. Chamberlain, a backseater stationed with the “Gunfighters”—the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang—notes, “The biggest problem with the AIM-4D was the limited amount of cooling time available [two minutes or less], which meant that the missile could not be pre-cooled for a quicker lock-on. And, once available liquid nitrogen was consumed, the missile was a blind, dead bullet—derisively called the ‘Hughes Arrow.’ ” After firing four of the missiles in combat without success, Robin Olds insisted the missiles cost him his fifth kill. He ordered them removed from his fleet.

The Air Force soon trashed the AIM-4D. Newer Sidewinders were substituted. The military also recognized the benefits of an internal gun: The F-4E, introduced in 1967,  had an M-61A cannon mounted beneath a solid-state AN/APQ-120 radar, both inside the aircraft nose. During the time Richard Keyt’s 35th Tactical Fighter Squadron was based at Korat air base in Thailand,  five squadron aircrews were credited with MiG kills, and four used the internal gun.

In 1973, during my third tour in Southeast Asia, I was assigned to the early E model. It was a dream to fly, not only because of the improvements made in gun and missile technology but also because the Air Force had realized the folly of putting two pilots in a fighter. After 1967, virtually all the GIBs—guys in back—were either navigators or radar intercept operators.


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