American Steel: The F-4 Phantom

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On the 8th of November, 1944, a squadron of United States Army Air Force P-51 Mustangs on a standard bomber escort assignment in the skies over the French-German border were engaged by an unknown enemy aircraft. Seemingly materializing from nowhere, the enemy fighter took the Allied planes by surprise, leading to a disorderly scene as the Mustangs quickly attempted to maneuver into combat formation in order to face their attacker. They weren’t quick enough. The enemy fighter claimed two of the P-51s before the squadron members could get into position. Their airborne foe was fast; faster than any aircraft the Mustangs had encountered before, and its blazing speed allowed it to strike more quickly than the P-51s could react. However, after the second of the enemy fighter’s kills, its engines stalled, and the plane plummeted from the sky nose first. The remaining Mustangs swarmed the disabled plane, annihilating its chassis in a hail of machine gun fire, leaving only a smoking mass of debris to fall to Earth. The P-51s were victorious, but the story of the day wasn’t their triumph, it was the plane they had dispatched. An aircraft that was much more than a speedy assailant running a regular anti-bomber mission, but rather a glimpse into the future of airborne combat. A plane powered by jet engines.

The aircraft the squadron of P-51 Mustangs shot down on November 8th, 1944 was the German Messerschmitt Me 262; the first jet engine powered fighter aircraft ever to grace the Heavens. A mauler of a plane, the Me 262 was originally designed by the Nazis as a ground attack bomber, but it was quickly discovered that its jet engines well-outperformed the top speeds of the piston-powered propeller aircraft of the Allied forces, leading to a specialized air to air combat version to enter service soon after its bomber cousins. While the Me 262s were largely successful in their engagements with Allied aircraft, their late introduction into the war coupled with their massive production costs and a requirement for long and rigorous training regimens resulted in the 262s failing to effectively impact the result of the conflict. Nonetheless, the Me 262’s inability to save the Third Reich is only part of its legacy; it stands today as the harbinger of the jet engine based era of air combat.

After the end of the second World War, the United States recognized the pressing need to develop and implement a fighter aircraft powered by jet engines for use by its military. The F-80 Shooting Star and the F-86 Sabre provided the first building blocks to America’s jet fighter fleet; both earning their stripes downing MiGs in the skies over Korea. But, these fighters lacked the versatility and reliability that the United States required in a featured fighter. Enter the F3H Demon and the F-8 Crusader, both capable carrier based aircraft that served admirably in the early years of the conflict in Vietnam. However, the Demon lacked top end speed and the Crusader’s primary armaments were belt fed weapons that had become obsolete with the debut of radar guided missiles and smart bombs. As the U.S.A. moved deeper into the Vietnam War, it was starkly clear that it required a jet fighter with the capabilities to match the demands of the new, modern air combat arena. The United States needed the F-4 Phantom.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II began its life as the XF4H-1, a prototype all weather fleet defense interceptor developed at the behest of the United States Navy. Powered by two J79-GE-8 engines and equipped with a Westinghouse AN/APQ-72 radar, the XF4H-1 could exceed Mach 2 speed and was the first fighter in the world with look-down/shoot-down (a radar system that could detect, track and guide ordinance to an air target as seen by radar) capability. Armed with an array of AIM-7 “Sparrow” and AIM-9 “Sidewinder” missiles, the XF4H-1 packed more firepower than a B-17 Flying Fortress and could more than quadruple its speed. In order to compensate for the enormous workload of operating the radar and flying the aircraft, a second seat was added to the cockpit so a navigator could control the radar in combat situations, allowing the XF4H-1 to perform multiple battle functions simultaneously. Impressed by the XF4H-1’s capabilities, the U.S. Navy chose it over several competitors to become their new primary fighter, and after proving it was capable of completing complicated carrier-based launches and landings, the XF4H-1 was given the designation that would haunt America’s enemies for generations to come: the F-4 Phantom.

In August of 1964, the Phantom made its combat debut flying bomber escort missions in Operation Pierce Arrow: the American bombing campaign targeting North Vietnamese infrastructure and military units. The F-4’s first air-to-air victory would come eight months later in April of 1965, when Lieutenant Terence M. Murphy and his RIO (Radar Intercept Officer), Ensign Ronald Fegan, shot down a Chinese MiG-17 “Fresco” in the airspace over Hainan Island. Just two months following their victory, the first North Vietnamese MiG would fall to F-4 piloted by Commander Louis Page and Lieutenant John C. Smith. With MiG loss totals sky rocketing in the years after the F-4’s arrival, it soon became clear, that in the contested skies over Vietnam, the Phantom was the most skilled hunter in the air.

Although these early successes were promising, the F-4’s introduction was far from flawless. The first generation Phantoms lacked an internal cannon and its engines left distinctive black streaks across the sky, telegraphing its location to enemy anti-air batteries. So, despite its proficiency at destroying MiGs, the losses of both machine and pilot in the first few years the Phantom flew in operations were high. However, both problems proved fixable. With the development of smokeless engines and the addition of an internally mounted 20 mm M61A1 Vulcan Gatling cannon on later F-4 models, these losses were mitigated, allowing the Phantom to reign terror from the heavens for decades to come.

The Phantom would go on to serve in the American aerial forces (including the Marine Corp and Air Force in addition to the Navy) for a period of over 30 years. From its debut in Vietnam, where it earned the reputation as “the world’s largest distributor of MiG parts” for its proficiency in destroying North Vietnamese fighters, to the Gulf War, where it excelled in destroying Iraqi SAM emplacements, the F-4’s distinctive silhouette became synonymous with American air power. It in many ways represents the United States’ initial step the world stage as a superpower; not only the true herald of the jet fighter age, but the first stride on the road to the absolute aerial superiority modern US warplanes enjoy today. For its generation of service in all theaters of combat and its unmistakable roll in countless victories and innovations, the F-4 Phantom takes its place in the hallowed hall of American Steel.

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Wooden hulled, three masted heavy frigate. Named by President George Washington.

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