The F4H-1 joined VF-121 at NAS Miramar. That squadron provided the first crews for the fleet squadrons to come. VF-114 and VF-74 were the first Phantom fleet squadrons on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, respectively, in 1961.
With its two powerful General Electric J-79 engines, the F4H-1, later redesignated the F-4B, was the first mass-produced model. It could haul a tremendous load into the air, thus gaining an important secondary function: fighter-bomber. Originally intended as a fleet defense weapon, when war came in the 1960s, the Phantom flew into battle with bombs and rockets, as well as its air-to-air weaponry. Indeed, the two other U. S. services to fly the F-4, the Air Force and Marine Corps, used it primarily as an air-to-ground weapon.
Although the Air Force was forced to accept the F-4 in 1962, the service soon realized what a great airplane it was and clamored for more, using the aircraft for everything from air superiority to earth mover, forward air controller, electronic intelligence platform, and a few things in between.
The Navy and the Marine Corps used only two basic models of the Phantom, the F-4B, of which 649 were produced, and the F-4J, with 522 manufactured. Thus, of the more than 5,200 Phantoms manufactured before the production line closed in 1978, the Navy, surprisingly, used only 1,171—approximately 22%. Other Navy Phantoms included the baker's dozen F-4Gs and the F-4N, both derived from the F-4B, and the F-4S, developed from the F-4J, using existing airframes.
The Navy kept the Phantom as its primary fleet defense fighter and escort. The first and last U. S. victories over North Vietnamese MiGs in the Vietnam War were scored by Navy Phantoms from the same carrier that saw them off for the last time, the Midway. VF-21 scored in 1965, and VF-161 in 1973.
Vietnam. That maddening, confusing conflict was the first major test for the F-4, and it was a ringing success. VF-102's F-4Bs stood ready on the deck of the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but the Phantom did not fight until 1964 when the Gulf of Tonkin Incident propelled the United States into its third Asian war in 25 years. The F-4 flew and fought throughout the long nine years in Southeast Asia. Thousands of missions testified to the Phantom's dependability and performance in the region's stupefying heat and humidity. The plane's rock-steady approach, speed, and power endeared it to everyone, from its crews to the men on the ground under enemy fire watching a flight of F-4s lay a string of Snakeyes on enemy positions.
All five U. S. aces in Vietnam wore Phantoms. The Navy's Lieutenant Randall Cunningham and Lieutenant (junior grade) William Driscoll, of VF-96 in the USS Constellation (CV-64), made their five kills in three missions strung out from January to May 1972. The Air Force's three aces, Captain Steve Ritchie, a pilot, and backseaters Captains Charles DeBellevue and Jeffrey Feinstein, also scored during the hectic days of the 1972 offensive. Of the 57 kills scored by Navy aircraft, Phantoms gained 36 plus several "probables."
When the fighting stopped in 1973, F-4s patrolled the South China Sea until North Vietnam finally swallowed the South in April 1975. Phantoms protected the evacuation forces, as well as flying cover for the rescue of the merchant seamen the Cambodians took hostage during the Mayaguez incident in May.
In between all this, the two premier U. S. military flight demonstration teams, the Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds, made history when they both flew the Phantom—the first and only time the two organizations operated the same aircraft (although the Blues flew the F-4J and the T-Birds, modified F-4Es). The Blue Angels flew their Phantoms from 1969 to 1973, until fuel costs necessitated a change to the simpler, single-engine A-4. But for those of us who witnessed the historic simultaneous appearances of the Angels and Thunderbirds during the beautiful Memorial Day weekend of Transpo '72 near Washington, D.C., the memory will remain of sparkling blue-and-gold and immaculate white, trimmed-in-red Phantoms blasting down the runways of Dulles International Airport.
Throughout the late 1970s, even as the Grumman F-14 was rapidly taking its pride of place, the Phantom continued to serve. In April 1980, Marine F-4Ns stood on the deck of the USS Coral Sea (CV-43), ready to protect the small band of helicopters engaged in the aborted attempt to rescue U. S. hostages in Iran. It could have come to that—U. S. Phantoms engaging Iranian F-4s and maybe a few F-14s. It would have been an interesting test. In August 1981, while the headlines focused on the two
F-14s that shot down two Libyan Su-22s over the Gulf of Sidra, Phantoms of VF-74 and VF-103 in the USS Saratoga (CY-60), also on station, might well have scored, too, For several days prior to the F-14/Su-22 engagement, the F-4s turned hard against MiG-23s, and there were times when the U. S, crews were none too sure about the intentions of their Libyan opponents.
With the introduction of the F/A-18, the Phantom's days were numbered. It was nearly gone from the big decks. Only the shore-based air development squadrons, and until recently, the two YF squadrons in the Midway ,flewthe Phantom on active service. The Marines continue to fly the F-4: YMFAs 212, 232, and 235 in Hawaii are assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 24, and the lone reconnaissance squadron, YMFP-3, sends its RF-4B detachments around the world. The Marine Air Reserve musters three YMFAs, 112, 134, and 321. The Corps expects to fly its Phantoms into the early 1990s, with 212 beginning F/A-18 transition in October 1988 and 134 in mid-1989,
There were four Naval Air Reserve squadrons flying Phantoms until VF-301 and VF-302 transitioned to the F-14 in 1984. The Dallas reserves, VF-201 and VF-202, finally traded their F-4Ss for F-14s after the final FA carrier qualification in October 1986. Lieutenant Commander George Kraus, executive officer of VF-202, and Lieutenant Commander Dave Mansfield, squadron operations officer, made the final trap on the USS America (CV -66).
The departure of the FA from the Navy is a time for nostalgic memories. More F-4s came off Free World production lines than any other post-World War II fighter, except for the North American F-86 Sabrejet (5,400) and the Chance Vought F4U Corsair, whose production ended in 1953 with more than 12,000 planes. The F-4 served a decade longer than the propeller- driven Corsair and enjoyed as stellar a record in peace and war.
For the generations of naval aviators to follow, theirs is a loss for never having flown the F-4. To those who did fly and fight the Phantom, here's to you and your aircraft.
Commander Mersky is a Naval Reserve intelligence officer and a civilian writer and an assistant editor for Approach, the naval aviation safety review. He has written or coauthored four books on U. S. naval and Marine aviation.