Last of the Great Warbirds

I had initially planned this blog to come out around 26 December and focus on either the Battle of Trenton or the 1914 Christmas Truce.  However, the stars would not align and I could not get pen to paper, nor could I find the time to clearly research and write.  Then through a group I have joined on Facebook, I was reminded of the importance of 21 December 2016.


21 December 2016 marked the last flight of a beautifully ugly workhorse, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.  On 27 May 1958, the ugly F-110, later to be renamed the F-4, made its initial flight.  Less than three years later, it became the fastest and highest flying fighter in the US Navy.  Only in the past couple of weeks has the fighter finally been retired from use by the US military.1

In 1960, the Phantom entered service with the US Navy with the plant to use it as a fleet defense fighter.  The first two-seat fighter changed the face of not just naval aviation, but the evolution of fighter jets.  The big F-4 first knocked the F8U-3 out of the naval competition for a new fighter.  The Rhino, as the Phantom was nicknamed, housed two massive General Electric J79 engines that allowed it to outfly and out power just about any fighter on the planet.2

The ugly plane weighed in at almost 30,000 lbs. empty and could carry its weight in fuel and ordnance.  It had a wingspan of almost 40 feet while being 63 feet long.3  For comparison, the famed B-17 Fortress bomber of World War II had a wing span over 100 feet and a length of 73 feet while carrying the same weight in fuel and weapons payload as the Phantom at about 65,000 lbs.4  It’s powerful engines provided it with enough power to hit Mach 2.2, almost 1500 miles per hour, compared to just under 300 mph for the B-17.


Click the link for a Google Earth size comparison of the F-4 to the B-17.

The McDonnell Douglas company and the US Navy initially had differing ideas on how best to build the new fighter.  Typically, the Navy thought in terms of developing the plane with parts that were already available, not just from their scrap aircraft, but across the fleet.  They saw the need to make the parts as compatible with other aircraft in the Navy.  Whereas McDonnell Douglas thought in terms of streamlining production and ridding the new aircraft of redundant parts while also modernizing the fighter.  McDonnell also began offering subcontracts to companies willing to build equipment that was tailored to the needs of the Phantom and the Navy.5

As parts of the plane were developed they were tested even before they were combined with more complex systems to insure they worked and to save valuable time and money during the Naval testing phase.  I only mention this because the F-4 would appear to be the first joint strike fighter created by the US military that was built and served across multiple branches.  The development of the fighter came in a vast contrast to today’s F-35 Lightning II. (For more on the development of this aircraft, please read LINK my blog on the subject.)

Once the Navy approved of the plane, the Air Force purchased a few, tested them, and decided they wanted the plane as well.  The Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara approved the expense, but limited the number of changes the Air Force could make to keep the costs down.6

The Phantom was built to dominate the skies and haul the equipment around to show off its brute force.  Aside from 4 external missile bays that were arrayed on either side of the fuselage, it also had two external wing hard points that could mount a total of four missiles or bombs and an additional two pylons that generally carried external fuel tanks that could be jettisoned for combat maneuvering.  Also, a centerline mount was used to attach a gun pod. The initial order of the F-4C/D models is noteworthy because of its lack of a cannon.  The SUU-16 cannon was eventually mounted on the centerline as pilots begged for a cannon.  However, that cannon was not very accurate and the later E model was built with an internal M61 Vulcan cannon.7  In Vietnam, the lack of a cannon was problematic.  It has been well documented the missiles of the time were highly unreliable due to their early technology.  The Phantom was forced to duel with North Vietnamese Migs that were much more maneuverable in a horizontal dog fight.  With unreliable missiles and no gun, the best the big fighter could do was make the fight vertical and take advantage of its power until the pilot could get in position for a kill, or hope for the Migs to bug out and head home.

UK Phantom with full air to air payload including gun pod.

The Rhino was an incredibly deadly air to air machine in the right hands.  The United States produced five aces during the Vietnam War.  All of them flew the F-4.

On 10 May 1972, Randy “Duke” Cunningham became the first American air ace of the Vietnam War, along with is Radar Intercept Officer Willie Driscoll. (The Navy guy in back was known as the RIO while the Air Force called them the Weapons Systems Officer, or “wizzo”.  Originally, the wizzo was an Air Force pilot, but that was later changed to putting a navigator in the rear).  Cunningham downed three North Vietnamese Migs, all with relatively unreliable missiles.8


It is important to note that air to air kills were not just relegated to pilots, but also to the guy in back, as was noted in the case of Willie Driscoll.  Two air Force WSOs claim the title.  The last ace of the Vietnam War was the relatively unknown Jeffery Feinstein.  On 13 October 1972, with Lt. Colonel Curtis Westphal on the stick, Feinstein became the fifth and final ace of Vietnam.9


The Air Force aces that stand out the most are undoubtedly Steve Ritchie and Chuck Debellvue.  Debellvue was originally an F4 pilot, but due to a surplus, he was put in the wizzo seat and for a time paired up with Steve Ritchie.  Ritchie achieved ace status first with his fifth kill on 28 August 1972.  For Debellvue, that same kill marked number four.  Two weeks later with Captain J.A. Mackey in front, Debellvue was credited with two more Migs for a grand total of six, making him the highest Mig killer of the war.10, 11

Ritchie and Debellvue

One part of the Phantom’s illustrious history is that is often overlooked is its role as a reconnaissance and forward air control aircraft.  The RF-4 would fly, unarmed, over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  It’s cruise altitude would be around 5000 feet.  The only defense the fighter had, was to vary its speed while it flew down the trail with a camera in the nose clicking away.  The flip side of this same role was to act as a forward air control aircraft and direct other fighter/bombers to targets along the trail.12

RF-4 with expanded nose housing the camera.

The “Night Owls” of the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Udorn Air Force Base in Thailand flew the massive fighters, painted black, in night operations.  In 1972, these fighters worked extensively taking out North Vietnamese anti-aircraft and Surface-to-Air (SAM) sites to create a corridor for the high-altitude B-52 on its way to its target.13

This marks the continued evolution of the aircraft and its multi-role capability.  The role of a Wild Weasel (as these flak suppression aircraft became known), was to go ahead of a strike group and eliminate all possible defenses.  Wild Weasel pilots made themselves a target for a second Wild Weasel to detect and destroy the radars and AA sites that were a threat to the strike force.

As the war in Vietnam started to wind down, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps began to transition away from the Generation 3 fighters to the lighter, faster, and more maneuverable Generation 4 planes such as the F-14 Tomcat, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon (frequently called the Viper), and later the F/A-18 Hornet. Even though the F-4 was sent to the Air Reserve and Air National Guard units, it story was not ending.

In January 1991, the F-4G Wild Weasel entered its last combat role for the United States.  From its creation, it had gone from interceptor, to bomber, to forward air controller, to Wild Weasel, and to fighter.  It would finish its illustrious combat career as a Wild Weasel in the skies over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

The role of the Wild Weasel was to again destroy enemy radar and surface-to-air (SAM) sites to create a safe corridor for strike packages.  In that short war, the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing from George AFB, California and Spanghdahhelm AFB, Germany combined to fly almost 4,000 sorties (one aircraft taking off, delivery ordnance, and landing).  During those missions, they fired over 1,000 air-to-ground missiles while destroying at least 200 SAM sites.14

The payload for this dinosaur fighter was much more high tech than previous models.  The nose mounted M61 Vulcan cannon had been removed and then expanded to fit the AN/APR-47 Radar that sensed incoming radar signals.  In addition, one of the missile bays held a jamming pod.  While the other belly missile wells were either empty or carrying a pair of AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missiles that could be used against Iraqi Migs.  However, the main payload for the flak suppression missions was a pair of AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation (HARM) missiles.15

Unlike the F-4C, D, and E models in which the aircraft was focused on the pilot in the front, the G model focused on the WSO in the rear who searched for targets of opportunity.  The pilot was largely relegated to a glorified bomb hauler.  The Phantom destroyed 75% of enemy radars during the war with the loss of only one aircraft.  That one aircraft was shot up could not refuel, and limped back to a forward base in Saudi Arabia where it ran out of fuel, forcing the crew to safely eject.16

Operation Desert Storm was the last time the great beast saw combat for the United States.  The 190th Fighter Squadron from the Idaho Air National Guard, was the last to fly the Phantom, and began to retire it in October of 1995.

However, it still has life.  The F-4 during its production run was exported to Australia, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.  As of 2015, only Australia, Germany, Israel, Spain and the UK had withdrawn them from service.17  Sadly though, 21 December 2016 marked the end of its service to the United States when the last QF-4 was flown from Holloman AFB, New Mexico.  The last planes in the US inventory had been used as aerial drones, but are now being replaced by the QF-16 (a sadness of its own).  Finally, the last Phantoms will be hauled out into the desert and used as static targets for a new generation aircraft and a new generation of pilots.

Final flight farewells PhantomFinal taxi and flight of the mighty Phantom.

Such is the sad ending for a fantastic and reputable fighter.  Eventually, the acquisition kinks were worked out and the Phantom ultimately became so successful it was purchased by numerous nations around the globe.  Over 5,000 Phantoms were built in over 20 different models.  The F-4 Phantom II, with its plume of black smoke pointing like an arrow as it road across the sky, will undoubtedly go down as one of the sturdiest and most respected jets to ever wear US markings.


**All images are courtesy of a search on Google.  If you know the original owner of the picture, please let me know so I can contact them.

1  “Boeing.” Boeing: Historical Snapshot: F-4 Phantom II Fighter. Accessed January 09, 2017.

2  Wetterhahn, Ralph. “Where Have All the Phantoms Gone?” Air & Space Magazine. Accessed January 09, 2017.

3  HowStuffWorks Science. Accessed January 09, 2017.

4  User, S. (n.d.). B-17 Specifications. Retrieved January 09, 2017, from

5   Glenn E Bugos. “Testing the F-4 Phantom II: Engineering Practice in the Development of American Military Aircraft, 1954-1969 .” Http:// Accessed January 9, 2017.

6  Ibid.

7  “McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II – Development and Operational History, Performance Specifications and Picture Gallery.” McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II – Multirole / Carrierbased Fighter / Strike Fighter Aircraft – Specifications, History and Images. Accessed January 09, 2017.

8  “Randy Cunningham.” Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham: Vietnam Ace, Prison Inmate. Accessed January 09, 2017.

9  2004 By, Rebecca Grant Contributing Editor, -Amy McCullough1/10/2017, and -Brian Everstine1/10/2017. ”  // .” Air Force Magazine. Accessed January 09, 2017.

10  “Richard “Steve” Ritchie.” Steve Ritchie, Phantom pilot, only US Air Force Ace of Vietnam War. Accessed January 09, 2017.

11  “Vietnam Ace – Chuck DeBellevue.” Vietnam Ace – Chuck DeBellevue. Accessed January 09, 2017.

12  “Where Have all the Phantoms Gone?”

13  Ibid.

14  Profile.php?id=678073688. “Gulf War 20th: Desert Storm Was the First and Last War for the F-4G Advanced Wild Weasel.” Defense Media Network. Accessed January 09, 2017.

15  Ibid.

16  Ibid.

17  “McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II non-U.S. operators.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 09, 2017.

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Chris McMillan

I consider to be myself somewhat of a pretty cool nerd. I have a BBS in History from Hardin-Simmons University and I graduated with honors with an MA in Military History with a concentration on War Since 1945 from the American Military University. Needless to say I love history. When I'm not studying history I'm also keeping track of MLB and my Texas Rangers. I'm also an avid fan of fitness and putting rounds downrange when the time presents itself. I enjoy shooting so much I got Uncle Sam to pay me to do it for a bit. However, the best part of my life is being the husband to a wonderful wife and mother and the daddy to a bouncy, energetic little girl.

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