McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II: the epic story of a true multirole

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

One of the nicknames that the F-4 Phantom II he received during his long and profitable career was: "the Plane of Records". Turning our gaze to the past, retracing the operational career of this extraordinary warplane, we can not help but agree.

Started as a project inside McDonnell Douglas, the F-4 managed to impose itself on the attention of the high military spheres of the United States of America and many of their allies thanks to its exceptional performances that led him to quickly eclipse those of all the other jets introduced into service by all the air forces of the West between the end of the Second World War and the early '60. The F-4 also represented the first example of application in the aeronautical field of the concept, previously used only in the terrestrial and naval field, of "operational platform", ie a high performance weapon system designed to always integrate new updates in order to prolong its operational life and increase its performance. Not only that, the F-4 is still the only successful example of "multirole aircraft" whose operational yield and ductility led to the adoption by all three US air weapons (USAF, US Navy, USMC Aviation).

The prototype of what was to become the "Flying Incudine", called XF4H-1, had its baptism of flight 27 1958 May and after a long period of trials lasted two and a half years, was officially adopted by the US Navy the 30 December 1960.

The USAF and USMC Aviation also decided to adapt, partly giving in to the pressure of the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara because all the air weapons opted for the standardization of the vehicles, partly because the performance of the "Flying Brick" turned out to be so beyond what the high military spheres were used to seeing as being able to dispel any doubt. Bearing witness to this, throughout the course of his career, the F-4 successfully established 15 flight records, including an absolute speed and an absolute altitude record.

Beyond the ungainly form that earned him, among others, the nickname of "Double Ugly", the F-4 could boast as a strength the radar AN / APQ-120, at the time the most powerful flying radar of the world, associated with the AIM-7 missile Sparrow (the first missile with BVR-Beyond Visual Range features, literally "Beyond Visual Engagement") and the pair of J79 engines able to push our hero up to the dreadful speed of Mach 2,2; a respectable performance for a beast of almost 19 tons and able to bring into battle 8.400 pounds of war load between air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, pod with cannon, bombs and auxiliary tanks. In spite of the considerable weight and the external armament negatively influenced the range (however respectable data its 680 kilometers) the incorporation in some variants of a probe for the refueling in flight allowed the "beater of St. Louis" to have the necessary flexibility to complete a very wide range of activities.

Of missions the F-4 has really taken many: air superiority, piloted interceptor, fleet defense, bombardment, ground attack, interdiction, tactical support, anti-radiation missions, precision ammunition release, nuclear alert, photo- Recognition and whoever it is, and so forth. It is almost impossible to list all the combinations of war load that the Phantom he has carried during his decades of career, also because the specimens still in service are continuously updated in order to be able to release the new armaments obtained or developed by users.

In addition to the United States air forces, the "Scary", was also used by the air forces of Australia (leased), United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran, South Korea and Japan. Ben 4 of its 12 users have employed it in about fifteen conflicts, among which stand out: the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. During these wars the Phantom he also met his great rivals: the Mikoyan Mig-21 Fishbed Soviet and his Chinese copy Chengdu J-7 / F-7 Airguard with whom he engaged countless duels to the death on the skies of Vietnam and the Middle East. Although equipped with a more powerful missile armament, the F-4 was initially penalized by the poor accuracy of early versions of AIM-9 missiles Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow and by the lack of an integrated cannon, a shortcoming subsequently corrected by the introduction of the excellent M61 Vulcan starting from the F-4E version.

The Americans presented themselves at the Vietnam war appointment totally unprepared for the type of conflict they faced and this was dramatically clear from the insufficient training of pilots who literally fell from the sky like flies in the first years of the war. However, at the end of the 60 years, the United States began the "Top Gun" program aimed at completely revolutionizing the training of pilots in air-to-air engagement tactics. Moreover, the new versions of the AIM-9 and AIM-7 missiles corrected the problems that emerged in the use of the previous ones and the airmen finally had at their disposal the reliable weapons with which to raise the fates of air combat. These developments also had a positive impact on Israelis and Iranians when their respective fleets of Phantom presented themselves to the appointment with the History in the skies of the Middle East where they made slaughter of planes of Soviet, Chinese and French design in service with the aeronautics of the Arab countries.

Today, at 60 years since its first flight, less than 6% of 5.195 F-4 Phantom II products is still in service with 5 of 12 original users. The F-4 continue to fly with Japan's air forces (73 specimens), South Korea (71 specimens), Greece (34 specimens), Turkey (49 specimens) and Iran (among the 64 and 82 specimens depending on the estimates). All the F-4s still in service have been extensively modified to obtain performance only imaginable by the original F-4B introduced into service in the 1960; however they are the F-4E 2020 Terminator of Turkey those that represent the final epitome of the successful St. Louis twin-engine formula. Although today the cells are worn out and are increasingly difficult to keep in service, in recent years the F-4 has still seen an intense operational use in the hands of the Iranian air forces in bombing missions against ISIS in Iraq and in those of the Turkish air forces, engaged against ISIS in Syria and against the Kurds in both Turkey and Syria and Iraq.

Although the aeronautics of these countries have long wanted to radiate the aircraft left over the next few years, the instability that afflicts the areas of the world where the last users of the "Rhinoceros" are located advises not to let down their guard. The area of ​​the Aegean Sea, the Anatolian peninsula, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Korean peninsula and the East China Sea are all the most "hot" areas in the world, geopolitically speaking, always on the brink of a generalized conflict it could involve one or more major powers, as well as various regional actors. Should one or more of these areas become destabilized, it is to be wagered that the air forces of the above-mentioned countries will still be able to rely on the legendary twin-engine McDonnell Douglas and, despite its age, the "Largest Distributor of Parts of Mig al Mondo "will be able to get out of history and definitively enter the legend.

Note: All the nicknames in quotes in the article refer only to McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

(photo: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / Web / McDonnell Douglas Corporation - today Boeing / Bundeswehr)