The arguments have raged in the back bars of officers clubs for years about which fighter is the greatest. (And many times a pilot’s vote is for the airplane he or she happens to be flying at that time.) But in terms of staying power and mission agility, no other military airplane can match the track record of the venerable F-4 Phantom.
Here are 7 photos that prove the point:
The Phantom was the first American military jet made with air-to-air missiles as the primary offensive weapon, and over the course of the airplane’s long history that capability was used to good effect by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and a host of foreign countries including Israel, Iran, and Turkey. USAF F-4 crews alone scored over 107 kills during the Vietnam War.
The F-4’s bombing capability made it a workhorse during the Vietnam War. The Phantom’s power and number of weapons stations allowed it to carry a wide variety of ordnance, which allowed it to be tailored to a specific mission in ways that were impossible for other airplanes.
3. SAM suppression
The “Wild Weasel” variant of the F-4 had the mission of flying into surface-to-air missile envelopes in order to coax SAM operators to come to life. Once they did, the Wild Weasels would take the SAM sites out with Shrike missiles or conventional bombs, but in the process aircrews often found themselves dodging missiles shot at them from the ground.
The photo version of the Phantom had cameras in the nose cone and took advantage of the jet’s speed and agility to get important imagery to military decision-makers in a hurry.
5. Test and evaluation
Phantoms were used by NASA and a variety of military TE squadrons for data points around supersonic flight and other mission areas. At one time the F-4 held 15 world records for flight performance. Here, VX-4’s “Vandy One” with arguably the coolest paint job in military history chases an SR-71 over the Mohave Desert.
6. Flight demonstration
The F-4 was used in the late ’60s and early ’70s by both the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds. The rear cockpit was generally unoccupied for demonstration flights. The Phantom show was a crowd-pleaser — fast and loud. The airplane was ultimately too expensive and too much to maintain on the road, so the Blues switched to A-4s and the Thunderbirds went to T-38s.
7. Target drone
Look, ma, no pilot! At the end of their lives, a number of Phantoms were turned into drones for missile exercises and advanced testing.
Bonus . . . Mothballed asset
Phantom phans, take heart: There are hundreds of F-4s lined up in the Arizona desert outside of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base ready to come back into service if the need arises.