During the initial design of the Phantom, several proposals had been considered for a cannon-armed version. In fact, the original F3H-E proposal was designed around a quartet of 20-mm cannon. However the philosophy of the day was that the air-to-air missile was the wave of the future and that the internal gun was an obsolete holdover from an bygone era. Consequently, all Phantoms to reach production had been armed exclusively with missiles.
However, the all-missile fighter had shown some serious drawbacks in the initial air-to-air battles over Vietnam. The earlier Sparrow, Falcon, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles did not perform up to expectations. They were expensive, unreliable, and vulnerable to countermeasures. Many an enemy MiG was able to escape unscathed because a Phantom-launched missile malfunctioned and missed its target. The Phantoms could carry a podded cannon mounted on the centerline, but it was relatively inaccurate, caused excessive drag which reduced the performance of the Phantom carrying it, and took up a valuable ordinance/fuel station.
An initial F-4 variant with an internal M61 cannon had been proposed by McDonnell to the USAF in March of 1961, but had met with little enthusiasm. McDonnell began a new design study for a gun-armed Phantom in late 1964 and finally got the attention of the Air Force. The gun-armed F-4E was finally funded in June of 1965. It was destined to be produced in greater numbers than any other single Phantom variant.
The main difficulty in equipping the Phantom with an internal cannon was in finding a place to put it. The solution was found in using the sharper, longer nose of the F-4C reconnaissance version. The new nose was fitted with an AN/APG-30 radar set and an external pod was mounted underneath the nose that could carry a single six-barrel 20-mm General Electric M61A1 rotary cannon
The first YRF-4C (62-12200) was modified to test this new arrangement. A lead computing gunsight was cannibalized from an Air National Guard F-100D. Flight test instrumentation was carried in a centerline pod. Temporarily redesignated YF-4E, the modified aircraft first flew on August 7, 1965.
After 50 flights, the first YF-4E was re-engined with J79-GE-J1B engines (prototypes of the -10 and -17 series). The results with the YF-4E were sufficiently encouraging that two other YF-4Es were produced by modifying an F-4C (63-7445) and an F-4D (65-0713). These planes had the definitive nose-mounted cannon installation. The second YF-4E had the gun and no radar, but the third had both the gun and the radar. Both aircraft were powered by the J79-GE-J1B engines, but both were later re-engined with the definitive J79-GE-17 powerplant, which required new mounts and additional titanium sheeting in the engine bays to accommodate the higher temperatures.
The severe space constraints in the new nose meant that a new ammunition feed system had to be designed for the M61A1 cannon. In addition, the proximity of the gun to the radar set required that very effective vibration dampers and noise/blast eliminators had to be designed.
An initial batch of 96 F-4Es was ordered in August 1966 as part of an F-4D contract. The first production F-4E (serial number 66-0284) flew on June 30, 1967, R. D. Hunt and Wayne Wight being the crewmembers.
The gun installation underneath the nose precluded the installation of the large radar set that was fitted to the F-4C and F-4D, so the F-4E carried the solid-state Westinghouse AN/APQ-120 X-band radar set which had a smaller antenna. However, due to the late delivery of the AN/APQ-120 radar, the first 30 F-4Es were delivered without any radar at all. Most were fitted with the new radar when it eventually became available.
The AN/APQ-120 was to have been provided with a Hughes-developed coherent on-receive Doppler system (CORDS), which it was hoped would make it easier to detect low-flying aircraft up against ground clutter. However, this system proved to be so erratic that the initial deployment was slipped from the 35th F-4E to the 120th. Continued problems caused CORDS to be be cancelled on January 2, 1968.
The F-4E was to have been fitted with the AN/APS-107 radar homing and warning system, but this equipment performed unsatisfactorily and the first 67 F-4Es were delivered without any RHAW at all.
The weight of the gun and its 639-round ammunition drum was counterbalanced by fitting an additional 95-gallon fuel tank in the rear fuselage, bringing total internal fuel capacity to 1993 gallons. One of the two fin-mounted pitots (the upper one) was relocated to the extreme nose. The F-4E retained the semi-recessed AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles and the external store stations of the earlier variants. The engines were a pair of J79-GE-17 engines with an afterburning thrust of 17,900 pounds. In the interest of eliminating excess weight, the powered folding wing mechanism of the earlier USAF Phantoms was finally eliminated. Also deleted was the emergency ram-air turbine what sat inside a recess on the upper rear fuselage.
The second production F-4E (66-0285) flew for the first time on September 11, 1967. It differed from 66-0285 by having a slotted stabilator. This slotted stabilator was added in order to give greater tailplane effectiveness, helping to counteract the increased weight in the nose. The second production F-4E also introduced the long "turkey feather" afterburner, which became a trademark of the F-4E. As the first fully aerodynamic representative F-4E, 66-0285 was earmarked for spin testing.
The third F-4E (66-0286) was delivered to Nellis AFB in Nevada on October 2, 1967 for service testing.
At Block 31, a stall warning system was added.
It turned out that the elimination of the emergency ram-air turbine was a mistake, and some sort of emergency power source was needed in case of engine failure. Consequently, starting with Block 40 (68-0452), an auxiliary power unit was added underneath the stabilator.
Starting with Block 41 (68-0495 and beyond), the fuselage bladders were replaced by self-sealing fuel tanks. This reduced internal fuselage fuel capacity from 1364 to 1225 US gallons.
Starting with Block 42, the more advanced AN/APR-36/37 radar and homing warning system was fitted. This was a more comprehensive set than the troublesome APS-107, and was served by four flat, circular, spiral receiving antenna, one on each side of the extreme end of the rear fuselage facing aft and one at the front of each wingtip facing forward.
At block 48 (71-0224), the main wingbox was given thicker lower skins, with the steel reinforcing strap previously required being deleted. A Northrop-designed ASX-1 electro-optical (TISEO) target acquisition and tracking sensor was added in an attachment mounted on the inner left wing leading edge.
When Block 48 was upgraded to ARN-101 standards, the ASN-63 inertial navigation system, the ASQ-91 weapons release computer, and the ASN-46A analog navigation computer set were deleted. The ASG-26 lead computing optical gunsight was improved and made easier to use, with weapons control switches and displays made easier to read.
The most significant change at 71-0237 was the replacement of the blown leading-edge wing droops of earlier Phantoms by slats. This was done in the interest of obtaining enhanced combat maneuverability, which had been one of the Phantom's weak points. The outer leading edge slats were were driven by a hydraulic jack and terminated in a large "dogtooth" at the inboard end where the wing folding joint had once been. Immediately downstream of the dogtooth edge was a small wing fence. The inboard wing was also fitted with powered slats which terminated about three feet from the root. The inner 3 feet of the leading edge were fixed.
The first production F-4E to be fitted with slats was 71-0237, but the first to actually fly with slats was 71-0238 which made its maiden flight on February 11, 1972. The addition of these slats greatly enhanced the maneuvering performance, and the USAF decided to retrofit earlier F-4Es with these slats. The USAF ordered the first slat modification kits in April of 1972, and the first retrofitted F-4E (serial number 69-7524) flew on September 28, 1972. 304 earlier production block F-4Es were retrofitted with these slats, which included just about every surviving F-4E except for those serving with the Thunderbirds.
Beginning with Block 54, high-performance antenna and coaxial cables were added, and on Block 56, the AN/APR-36/37 system was replaced by the Itek AN/ALR-46 RHAWS with fast digital processing capability and a cockpit display plus automatic control of jamming assets. It had a programmable processor which could respond to new threats as they came along.
At about the same time, all F-4Es were wired to be able to take two electronic jammer pods (which were usually the Westinghouse ALQ-131) and were fitted with an AN/APX-80 IFF interrogator and were given the capability of carrying an optional removable KB-18A strike camera in the right front Sparrow slot. In the post-Vietnam era, the ECM pods introduced on F-4Es (Westinghouse ALQ-119, QRC-80-01, ALQ-131, and ALQ-184) could not be carried in the right front Sparrow well because of the longer nose gear door required by the gun fairing. F-4Es could only carry an ECM pod in the left front Sparrow well or on the inboard weapons pylons.
Some F-4Es of various blocks were fitted with under-fuselage housings for N-9 forward- and DBM-4C or KB-21B/C aft-looking combat documentation cameras, but these were very rarely actually fitted in practice.
Blocks 53 and beyond introduced the Mk III anti-skid brake system and a KB-25/A gunsight camera (which was eventually fitted to all F-4Es). Also introduced with this Block was the capability to launch the Maverick air-to-surface missile, which was made possible by the fitting of the Digital Scan Converter Group multifunction display. Earlier F-4Es up to 67-341 had Direct View Storage Tube radar scopes which were incompatible with systems such as the AGM-65 Maverick that required digital interfaces.. This Maverick capability was eventually retrofitted to all F-4Es from Blocks 36 and later).
Block 53 also introduced the J79-GE-17C or -17E with a low-smoke combustor. Earlier Phantoms had the annoying habit of leaving a trail of black smoke behind them, making them easier to spot by enemy gunners on the ground.
At about the same time, the gun installation underwent a major design. From the beginning, the sheer power of the muzzle blast and the highly-explosive gun gases generated during firing had created severe problems for the design team. With the original gun muzzle design, the F-4E often experienced engine flameouts caused by ingestion of gun gases into the engine intakes. In addition, the shape of the muzzle often produced a loud whistle which could be heard on the ground long before the approaching aircraft actually appeared. These problems were eventually cured by adding a long blast diffuser to each of the six barrels, joined to the barrel by a stripper diffuser which ejected most of the gun gas sideways and also decelerated and cooled the blast. A ram inlet was fitted above the forward fuselage to blast fresh air through the gun compartments. This inlet opened during gun firing and remained open for 30 seconds after the gun stopped firing. In addition, a "derichment system" was added which was triggered by the gun-firing circuit and enabled either engine to dump gas-enriched air overboard before it could enter the engine compressor and cause stalls or flameouts. These modifications came to be known as the "Midas 4". These modifications were introduced from Block 48 onward and were retrofitted to earlier blocks. Externally, the modified Midas 4 update could be recognized by a distinct projection protruding out in front of the gun compartment which extended forward underneath the radome.
The AVQ-23A/B Pave Spike laser target designator and rangefinder system was fitted to several later F-4Es and was retrofitted to some earlier F-4Es blocks 36 to 45. Also retrofitted to Block 48 aircraft was the AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack infrared/laser target designator, as well as the previously-mentioned AN/ASX-1 electro-optical target identification system. 180 F-4Es were retrofitted with the Lear Siegler AN/ARN-101(V) digital navigational/attack system starting in the autumn of 1977. Aircraft carrying this system could be distinguished by the presence of a "doghouse" antenna and blade antennae on the fuselage spine.
The AVQ-26 Pave Tack pod was the first laser designation system designed to provide the capability of autonomous delivery of laser guided bombs at night. It was originally planned to equip 180 F-4Es with this system, but because of delays and development problems the actual number equipped was substantially lower. The pod was too large to be fully compatible with the F-4E, and it had to be carried on the centerline station, replacing the 600-gallon external fuel tank and taking up valuable bomb-carriage space.
The F-4E stayed in production for twelve years, and was built for more air forces and in larger numbers than any other Phantom variant. A total of 1387 F-4Es were built before production came to an end. 993 of these machines were intended for the USAF, with the remaining 394 being delivered new to foreign customers. 24 USAF F-4Es were taken from store and loaned to foreign customers, and 191 were passed on to foreign customers from USAF stocks. The last F-4E (an F-4E intended for Korea) left the production line at McDonnell on October 25, 1979. This brought domestic production of the Phantom to an end.
993 F-4Es were built for the USAF. Included in this total are 10 F-4E-63-MCs purchased by Germany for use in a joint US/German training program at George AFB in California, plus 58 "payback" F-4E-60-MC to 62-MCs acquired as replacements for aircraft that were hastily transferred by the USAF to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.
The USAF's Thunderbirds flight demonstration team re-equipped with the F-4E in June of 1969. The machines that it received were modified early production F-4Es, and were among the few not to be retrofitted with maneuvering slats. The planes were stripped of their guns and APQ-120 radar, which were replaced by storage bins and ballast. Gun vents were faired over and a strip navigation antenna was provided, along with glidescope and VHF. Four dummy Sparrow missile shapes were installed in the under-fuselage slots, these dummy missiles serving as oil and dye tanks. These F-4Es served with the Thunderbirds until 1974, when the energy crunch that took place as an aftermath of the Yom Kippur War caused them to be replaced by the more fuel efficient Northrop T-38 Talon two-seat trainer.
The first F-4Es reached the Southeast Asia theatre in November of 1968, equipping the 469th TFS at Korat in Thailand. Six more F-4E squadrons deployed to Vietnam and Thailand in 1972 in response to the North Vietnamese invasion of the South in the spring of 1972.
The F-4E was credited with 21 MiG kills during the war. 10 of these were brought down by Sparrows, five with gunfire, four with Sidewinders, one with a combination of Sidewinder and gunfire, and one while maneuvering (no weapons being fired). However, most combat missions flown in Vietnam by the F-4E were ground-attack missions.
Beginning in 1975, 116 F-4E-42-MC through -45-MCs were converted to F-4G Wild Weasel defense suppression aircraft. These will be discussed in a later article.
The F-4E began be supplanted in USAF frontline units by the newer F-15 Eagle starting in 1975 and by the F-16 starting in 1979. With the USAF in Europe, the last F-4Es were with the 52nd TFW at Spangdahlem in Germany which re-equipped with F-16s in 1988. The last two F-4E squadrons in the Pacific theatre were converted to F-16C/Ds in 1989. The TAC kept its F-4Es a bit longer, not relinquishing its machines until the early 1990s.
The following Air Force units operated the F-4E:
By the time of Desert Storm in January 1991, all F-4Es had been withdrawn from active duty USAF units, having been passed along to foreign customers or placed in storage. Nevertheless, a handful of Pave Tack capable F-4Es flew with the 7440th Composite Wing based at Incirlik AFB in Turkey, operating against targets in northwestern Iraq.
Two Air Force Reserve squadrons received F-4Es. These were the 457th TFS of the 201th TFW, which received F-4Es in 1987, and the 704th TFS of the 924th TFG, receiving F-4Es in 1989. Both of these squadrons traded in their F-4Es for F-16A/B fighters in 1991.
F-4Es began to reach the Air National Guard in 1985, the aircraft having been
former USAF planes which had been removed from active service. The following ANG
squadrons were equipped with F-4Es.
Service of the F-4E with the ANG was relatively brief, the type beginning to be supplanted by later equipment in 1990. The last F-4E left Guard service in 1991, when the 113th TFS of the Missouri ANG converted to F-16C/D fighters. This outfit was the last ANG squadron to operate F-4 fighters of any type, although a few RF-4C reconnaissance aircraft and F-4G SAM suppression aircraft remained flying with other ANG units.
394 F-4Es were built new for export customers (including 86 F-4Es for Israel which were funded by the United States under Foreign Military Sales contracts and given USAF serial numbers for contractual purposes). This made the F-4E the most widely exported version of the Phantom. The export F-4Es were "de-nuclearized"--that is, they were delivered without the capability of arming or delivering "special stores" (i.e., nuclear weapons). In addition, substantial numbers of ex-USAF F-4Es were transferred to foreign air forces following their withdrawal from front-line service.
The Turk Hava Kuvvetleri of Turkey ordered 40 F-4Es from McDonnell in fiscal year 1973 as part of its commitment to NATO. 32 more were ordered in fiscal year 1977. All of these aircraft were assigned USAF serial numbers for contractual purposes, although they never actually flew in USAF markings. As "payment" for its support during Desert Storm, Turkey received 40 F-4Es drown from the 110th TFS, the 141st TFS, the 457th TFS, and the 35th Fighter Wing. Some were delivered equipped with Pave Spike. Turkey remains a major user of the Phantom.
The Elliniki Polemiki Aeroporia (Royal Hellenic Air Force) of Greece ordered its first F-4Es in 1971. 46 of these were new builds ordered directly from McDonnell, but additional F-4Es were acquired from ex-USAF stocks. Like Turkey, Greece remains a major Phantom user.
The Republic of Korea Air Force ordered 37 F-4Es from McDonnell, receiving the first examples in 1978. The last of these, 78-0744, was the the 5068th and last Phantom to be built in the USA. The US offered 24 surplus F-4Es in 1988 and 30 in 1989, but probably only the latter batch was actually delivered. Some Korean F-4Es are equipped to carry the AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack laser designator pod. The ROK Air Force's Phantoms could be in action once again if the Korean situation heats up.
The Shah of Iran had ambitious plans of making his country the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf region. In pursuit of this aim, his government ordered 208 F-4Es from McDonnell. A total of 177 F-4Es were delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force before the Shah fled and the Islamic fundamentalist revolution took over the country. The new Islamic Republic of Iran immediately began to assume an anti-Western stance, and the US government placed an embargo on further arms deliveries to Iran on February 28, 1979, and the remaining 31 F-4Es on the contract were never delivered. The embargo caused a severe spare parts and maintenance problem, and when Iraq attacked Iran in September of 1980, only 40 percent of the Iranian Phantom fleet was operational. Losses during the first 9 months of the war were estimated to be 60 Phantoms, with many more being out of action due to cannibalization. Exactly how many F-4Es remain flying in Iran is uncertain.
Israel had always been interested in acquiring the Phantom for the IDF/AF, but its early overtures had always been rebuffed. However, an embargo imposed by France against arms deliveries to Israel and the increasing flow of Soviet-block arms to Israel's Arab neighbors led US authorities to change their minds. The sale of F-4Es to Israel was first approved in principle by President Lyndon Johnson on January 7, 1968. This approval led to much controversy, and proposed Phantom deliveries to Israel played a role in the political campaigns that took place in the USA during the spring and summer of 1968. In fact, Robert Kennedy's statement of support for the Phantom delivery to Israel may have played a role in his assassination. The IDF/AF finally received its first Phantoms in September of 1969. The Israeli Phantoms were almost immediately to see action, and played a major role in the "War of Attrition" with Egypt that took place between 1969 and 1971. The Phantom played a key role in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and losses to Egyptian and Syrian ground-based SAMs were quite heavy. The heavy rate of Phantom losses led to an emergency transfer in October of 1973 of between 36 and 40 USAF F-4Es to Israel in Operation Nickel Grass. Many of these planes were combat veterans from Vietnam and they were immediately sent to the front. A further 48 Phantoms were delivered to Israel between 1974 and 1976.
Israel received a total of approximately 220 F-4E Phantoms (the exact number is uncertain) between 1969 and 1976. Israeli F-4Es have been subjected to numerous field modifications to improve their operational capability. Among these were the fitting of a non-retractable refuelling probe, provision for carrying the Shafrir and Python air-to-air missiles and the Gabriel air-to-surface missile, the replacement of the 20-mm M61A1 cannon by a pair of 30-mm DEFA cannon, and the installation of a FLIR sensor.
A total of 116 air-to-air combat victories have been claimed by Israeli F-4Es in various conflicts, ranging from the 1969 War of Attrition to the 1982 incursion into Lebanon. There have been at least 55 combat losses that the IDF/AF has admitted to, in addition to normal peacetime attrition. By the time of the 1982 Lebanon incursion, the F-4E had been largely supplanted in the fighter role by F-15s and F-16s, and had been relegated to attack. However, some 120 Israeli Phantoms are still in service.
Following the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, Egypt has received some 36 ex-USAF F-4Es. Many Egyptian pilots who had flown MiG-21s transitioned to their erstwile opponent. The Egyptian pilots had a difficult time adapting to the Phantom, and Egypt had for a while seriously considered disposing of its Phantoms and selling them to Turkey. In the end, Egypt decided to keep its Phantoms.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) operated 24 F-4Es which were delivered as temporary substitutes for the General Dynamics F-111C, which had been ordered by Australia but had been delayed by a series of technical problems. The first examples arrived in Australia in September of 1970, and the last Australian F-4E was returned to the USA in June 1973, at which time deliveries of F-111Cs to the RAAF began to get under way.
Following the completion of its test program, the first YF-4E (62-12200) was selected for use as a fly-by-wire control system testbed. Known as the Precision Aircraft Control Technology (PACT) demonstrator, it made its first flight on April 29, 1972. It made its first all-FBW flight on January 22, 1973. It was later rebuilt for Control Configured Vehicle (CCV) research with large canard tailplanes mounted on the upper edges of the air intakes. It made its first flight in the new configuration on April 29, 1974. Lead ballast was added to the rear fuselage to move the center of gravity aft and to destabilize the aircraft in pitch. On December 5, 1978, it was donated to the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, where it is now on display.
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Engines: Two General Electric J79-GE-17 turbojets, 11,870 lb.s.t dry, 17,900 lb.s.t. with afterburner. Performance: Maximum speed 1430 mph at 36,000 feet (Mach 2.21), 914 mph at sea level (Mach 1.19). Cruising speed 585 mph. Landing speed 158 mph. Initial climb rate 61,400 feet per minute. Service ceiling 62,250 feet. Combat ceiling 59,600 feet. Combat range 595 miles, maximum range 1885 miles with maximum external fuel. Weights: 29,535 pounds empty, 40,562 pounds gross, 38,019 pounds combat weight, 61,651 pounds maximum takeoff weight. Dimensions: Wingspan 38 feet 5 inches, wing area 530 square feet, length 63 feet 0 inches, height 16 feet 6 inches. Fuel: Maximum internal fuel in the fuselage tanks was 1364 US gallons (up to block 40) or 1225 US gallons (block 41 and beyond). An additional 630 gallons of fuel could be carried in internal tanks inside the wings. Maximum external fuel load was 600 US gallons in a centerline tank that could be carried underneath the fuselage plus 370 US gallons in each of two tanks that could be carried underneath the outer underwing pylons, bringing total fuel load to 3334 US gallons (up to block 40) or 3195 US gallons (block 41 and beyond). Armament: Armament consisted of a single 20-mm M61A1 cannon with 639 rounds in an undernose gondola, plus four AIM-7 Sparrow semi-active radar homing air-to-air missiles in semi-recessed slots in the fuselage belly and two to four AIM-9 Sidewinder infra-red homing air-to-air missiles carried under the wings on the inboard pylons. A total offensive load of up to 16,000 pounds could be carried on the centerline and four underwing hardpoints.