The F4 Phantom... Birth of A Legend
Forty years ago on May 27, 1958, McDonnell Aircraft's chief test pilot Bob Little took the F-4 Phantom II on its maiden voyage.
Little expected to go supersonic but immediately ran into problems with the hydraulics and the nose gear.
"But on the fourth flight, we got a real taste of the aircraft's performance, and I knew we had a winner. We lit up the afterburners and, in no time, we were at Mach 1.8 and 50,000 feet. It outclassed anything I had ever flown up until that time, and I knew there was nothing that could touch it."
The F-4 Phantom II, a supersonic two-place twin-jet fighter, flew in every kind of weather, on every classic fighter mission, for the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines, as well as 11 foreign countries.
Under its own financing and initiative, McDonnell Aircraft had begun developing an all-weather attack fighter in August 1953, shortly after it lost a competitive bid to build a Navy supersonic air-superiority fighter. McDonnell had already produced more than 1,000 carrier-based jet aircraft, the FH-1 Phantom, the F2H Banshee and the F3H Demon. Now it was looking at developing a single-seat aircraft with 45-degree swept wings to replace the Demon.
McDonnell worked on its design (first designated the F3H-G and then the AH-1) and continued negotiating with the Navy. Although there was no military requirement for the aircraft, the Navy released details of a desired mission: an aircraft to be deployed from a carrier, armed with air-to-air missiles instead of guns, that could cruise out to a radius of 250 nautical miles, stay on combat patrol, attack an intruder when necessary, and return to the carrier deck within three hours.
McDonnell reconfigured the AH-1, removing the guns, adding Sparrow missiles, and substituting more powerful engines. The combined thrust of the GE J-79 engines would allow the F-4 to climb straight up after takeoff and give the Navy its first Mach 2 aircraft. Since the Navy was undecided about an aircraft with 1 or 2 places, the company designed both versions.
A formal proposal went to the Navy in August 1954, and a letter of intent for two prototype aircraft and one static aircraft was returned in October 1954. The configuration of the aircraft evolved right up to the signing of the detail specifications in July 1955 when the primary mission for the 2-place Phantom became an all-weather fleet air defense aircraft that retained its attack capabilities from earlier designs.
In May 1958, the prototype, now designated the F4H-1, made its first flight. In December 1958, the Navy awarded a production contract to McDonnell. In July 1959, the aircraft was formally christened the F-4 Phantom II in tribute to McDonnell’s FH-1 Phantom, which was the company’s first jet fighter and the first carrier-based combat jet aircraft in the world (under contract, 1943; first flight, 1945). By February 1960, the new aircraft was starting sea trials, which included its first catapult take-offs and arrested landings. On Dec. 29, 1960, the first Navy squadron began to train with the fighters. The first F-4 aircraft went into operational squadron service with the fleet in October 1961.
By January 1962, the U.S. Air Force acquired its first Phantom II aircraft; and by June 1962, the first F-4 aircraft was delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps. By September 1964, the Phantom goes international, with sales to Britain's Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
Given the upgrades already performed and those under contract, the F-4 Phantom II will probably still be flying in 2015 — nearly 60 years after its first flight.
Boeing supports the F-4 today with a team of six engineers, under contracts with Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Combined, the six have more than 150 years of experience with the Phantom.