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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Control sensitivity varies widely. It takes full aft stick to raise the nose for takeoff, yet at certain fuel loadings and at speeds just above Mach 0.9 at low altitude, moving the stick only one inch can produce 6 Gs on the airframe. At above Mach 2, on the other hand, the shock wave that is created moves the center of lift so far aft that pulling the stick all the way back produces only about 2 Gs.

With all its peculiarities and faults, legions have had love/hate relationships with the aircraft. “The F-4 is the last of the fighter pilot’s fighters,” says BAE’s Bob Kay. “You have to fly the F-4.” It has none of the bells and whistles of next-generation fighters. Instead of the multi-function flight displays found in modern fighters, the cockpit instruments are “steam gauges”—round dials with needles. It has an inertial navigation system, best described as cranky. There is no flight management system, no GPS, no Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS), and no “Bitching Betty” voice system to alert the pilot to hazards. You have to navigate, bomb, shoot missiles, fire the gun, look for problems, and evaluate every one of those actions instrument by instrument. For the pilot, this means a lot of time is spent head down, analyzing instrument data; in modern aircraft, on the other hand, much of the information is presented compactly, in head-up displays above the instrument panel.

My affair with the Phantom began upon graduation from pilot training in 1964, when I landed a tour in the Air Force F-4C. Though the Navy and Marine Corps assigned radar operators to the “pit,” as we referred to the second seat, the Air Force thought it would be more effective to use the configuration for two pilots. Wrong. No true fighter pilot chooses to serve as

copilot. The assignment was akin to a shotgun marriage. For two years I languished six feet behind my more experienced comrades, calling off altimeter readings as they bombed, strafed, and fired rockets in training exercises on the gunnery range. Backseaters had to beg, cajole, and whine for stick time, and when we got it, we found that every aspect of flying the F-4 from the rear cockpit was a nightmare. The meager instruments were placed haphazardly in a straight line across the panel. The useless clock and G-meter were located in the center. Why? Because they fit there! Instrument approaches gave you a migraine. And to spot the runway, you had to peer through a knothole on either side of the cockpit, which made landing from the pit an adventure, especially with a crosswind.

Front-seaters were not always thrilled with the F-4 either. In 1972, during his second tour in Vietnam, U.S. Air Force Major Dan Cherry, now a retired brigadier general, flew 185 combat missions in the Phantom; today he recalls: “The F-4 cockpit was uncomfortable, the instruments were poorly arranged, crew coordination was a hassle, it was ugly, and it used fuel like nobody’s business.”

Crews that flew the airplane for the Navy had their own share of problems. By 1966 the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign waged by the Navy and Air Force had really heated up. Large formations of fighter-bombers were striking targets in the Hanoi area daily. That year Commander Dick Adams’ squadron flew combat in F-4s off the carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each Phantom launched from the Rosie’s short catapult with four 500-pound and four 1,000-pound bombs, plus an empty centerline tank, which was refueled during climbout. Before a carrier landing, Phantoms had to achieve a certain landing weight; landing heavy would overstress the arresting cables. For this carrier, the F-4 was a heavy aircraft, and as such could try an approach with fuel for only one or two attempts. On the 1966 cruise, one of the squadron jets on a landing attempt was waved off, and when the pilot ran out of fuel before completing a second pattern, the engines flamed out and the aircraft went deep-six. The crew survived.

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.


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