Key Point: The Phantom has proven both versatile and adaptable over time.
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is a legendary aircraft — an icon of the Vietnam War and the archetype of the third-generation jet fighter designs that entered service in the 1960s. More than 5,000 of these heavy supersonic fighters were built, and hundreds continue to serve and even see combat in several air forces today.
But the Phantom’s record in air-to-air combat over Vietnam — especially when compared to its successor, the F-15 Eagle, which has never been shot down in air-to-air combat — has left it with a reputation of being a clumsy bruiser reliant on brute engine power and obsolete weapons technology.
This is unfair.
The Phantom’s fundamental flaws were corrected by 1970 — while more recently, Phantoms have had their avionics and ordnance upgraded to modern standards. These modernized Phantoms flown by the Turkish and Greek air forces can do pretty much what an F-15 can do … at a much lower price.
Baptism of Fire:
When the F-4 came out it in 1958 it was a revolutionary design — one that went on to set several aviation records.
Weighing in at 30,000 pounds unloaded, its enormous J79 twin engines gave (and still gives) the aircraft excellent thrust, propelling the heavy airframe over twice the speed of sound at a maximum speed of 1,473 miles per hour.
The early Phantoms could carry 18,000 pounds of munitions — three times what the huge B-17 bombers of World War II typically carried. The weapons officer in the rear-seat could operate the plane’s advanced radar, communication and weapons systems while the pilot focused on flying.
Furthermore, the F-4 came in both ground- and carrier-based models and served in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines. The only other frontline fighter to serve in all three services before or since is the F-35.
But when the F-4 confronted the lighter-weight MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters of the North Vietnamese air force in 1965, the Phantom suffered.
In the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force had shot down between six and 10 enemy fighters for every one of its aircraft lost in air-to-air combat. In Vietnam, the ratio was closer to two to one (including other aircraft types besides the Phantom).