McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II Set to Retire From U.S. Military Service


The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is one of those rare breeds of aircraft design that has served with the U.S. military for over half a century. The first flight of a prototype occurred on May 27, 1958. In December of 2016, the final flights of U.S. military F-4s will occur, capped off with a final tribute event.

Originally developed from the McDonnell F3H Demon naval fighter, this upgraded design was pitched to the service as a “Super Demon”, a single-seat Navy all-purpose fighter-bomber with many improvements. The Navy had other plans, and asked for a twin-seat all-weather fleet defense fighter; the second crew member would operate a new, powerful radar and weapons system. As designs changed, the new project was named the (now) McDonnell Douglas XF-4H. The project gained momentum, and a total of seven prototypes were ordered. Ultimately, the XF-4H-1 won a competition against the rival Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III. The new multi-role, all weather fighter-bomber was ordered into production, ultimately known as the F-4H-1 “Phantom II”… the original McDonnell FH-1 Phantom was an early jet fighter of Korean War days. During testing, the XF-4H-1 prototypes smashed world records in speed and altitude performance. It would became a workhorse fighter, bomber, interceptor, reconnaissance and Wild Weasel platform during the later Cold War years, serving a variety of U.S. military services as a true multi-role warrior.The early 1960s were critical for the Phantom II’s development. Some 47 Navy F4H-1s were built with originally-designed engines, but none reached fleet service – a more powerful version of the prototypes’ General Electric J-79 engines were fitted for that first widely-used variant. In later 1961 and early 1962, the F4H-1 was compared to the Air Force’s Convair F-106A interceptor on paper, and soon the USAF was issued a pair of early production jets to test. Renamed the F-110A Spectre, the Air Force version beat the F-106A interceptor in many areas, garnering an initial order from the Air Force as their newest fighter-bomber. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed in “multi-role” aircraft, and the Phantom II excelled in many areas, so the platform soon became a cornerstone of the U.S. Department of Defense’s future plans.

In September 1962, the Tri-Service aircraft designation system put the same letters and numbers on airframes used by all U.S. armed forces, and the jet was formally designated the F-4 Phantom II. The Navy’s first production versions became F-4As, and the F-4B designation went to their new operational fighters. The Air Force called their first operational jets the F-4C, but all U.S. military users kept the Phantom II moniker.

Over four thousand airframes were built for the U.S. military. A total of five thousand fifty-seven F-4 airframes were produced at the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis Missouri, and Japan’s Mitsubishi produced one hundred thirty-eight F-4EJs under license, for a grand total of five thousand one hundred and ninety-five airframes!


U.S. Navy Use: The F-4B was the original operational Navy version, and equipment upgrades added different letter suffixes to those designations. Six hundred fifty-one –Bs were built. A dozen F-4Gs were modified from F-4Bs with datalink equipment. Later, many of the F-4Bs were upgraded to the F-4N version. Five hundred twenty-two new-build F-4Js were acquired, and many of these later became F-4S versions. Over eleven hundred seventy Phantom IIs were built for the Navy (and Marines). Dozens of Navy jets were converted into QF-4B and QF-4S remote controlled drones too.


U.S. Marines Use: The Corps operated hundreds of F-4 fighter-bombers, and added a limited production of (forty-six total) photo reconnaissance versions, known as the RF-4B, to their arsenal. The Marine Corps operated many of the Navy-ordered jets for similar missions. One source states that the Navy and Marines regularly swapped airframes after overhauls.


U.S. Air Force Use: The first Air Force fighter-bomber was known as the F-4C, five hundred eighty-three were produced. These and seven hundred ninety-three of the next variant, the F-4D, carried no internal guns, relying on radar and missiles for offense/defense during air-to-air combat. The nine hundred ninety-three F-4Es included an internal 20mm cannon. These three versions were the main variants built for the Air Force, but modifications were common. Slightly over five hundred RF-4Cs were produced, as the photo reconnaissance version. The one hundred sixteen F-4G Wild Weasel Vs were the air defense suppression version of the Phantom II, converted from F-4Es. Dozens of QF-4 models were converted from older fighters; it was the final version of the series. The QF-4E, QF-4G and QRF-4C Full Scale Aerial Targets (FAST) could be flown manned or unmanned; the aircraft could provide both offensive and defensive capabilities during tests.


Foreign Use: Hundreds of Phantom IIs found their way into foreign air forces. Operators that fielded at least one hundred Phantoms include: Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the UK. Only the UK operated naval versions (F-4K, F-4M and fifteen second-hand F-4Js) as they were one of only a few countries in the world which operated aircraft carriers at that point. All others fielded F-4C, F-4D, F-4E, RF-4C and RF-4E versions.

QF-4E 1

As of the end of 2016, only a handful of countries operate versions of the F-4. As a minimum, Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Greece still operate squadrons of F-4E, F-4EJ and/or RF-4C jets. And, the USAF has finished their use of QF-4Es and will ground the few remaining airframes in a December, 2016 “fini” ceremony. The final dates are still “up in the air”, but seem to focus on the 20th and 21st of the month, at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Stay tuned on this web site for more details and coverage!!!

Here’s a look at many versions of the Phantom II which operated over the past half century…

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 35 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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