The F4H-1 was the initial production version of the Phantom for the United States Navy. Since the J79-GE-8s originally intended for the Phantom were still not available, the first 45 F4H-1s which had been ordered were powered by two 16,150 lb.s.t. J79-GE-2 or -2A engines. In order to distinguish these planes from later models powered by -8 engines, on May 1, 1961 they were redesignated F4H-1F, the F indicating the use of a special powerplant.
Initial carrier trials were carried out by F4H-1F BuNo 143391, which was first launched and recovered aboard the USS Independence (CVA-62) on February 15, 1960. These carrier trials were generally satisfactory, although there were some adjustments that had to be made to the carrier arrester hook. Board of Inspection and Survey trials began at NATC Patuxent River in July of 1960.
As early as 1960, the US Navy began to form the first Phantom-equipped Replacement Air Group (RAG), a squadron designed to train future pilots and backseat radar interception operators. The first RAG was VF-101, based initially at Key West, Florida then transferred to NAS Oceana in Virginia. The other early Phantom RAG was VF-121 based at NAS Miramar in California.
The F4H-1 was the first definitive production version of the Phantom, the earlier F4H-1F being considered developmental. To distinguish these aircraft from the earlier 47 aircraft, on May 1, 1961 the latter were redesignated F4H-1F, with the 48th and subsequent aircraft retaining the F4H-1 designation. In September 1962, the F4H-1F was redesignated F-4A, with the F4H-1 becoming F-4B. Most of the 45 F-4As built served in research and training roles, and very few ever reached squadron service as they were not considered fully operational. Aircraft from Block 3 onward served in the East Coat and West Cost RAGs to train crews and to perfect operational techniques. When serving with the VF-101 and VF-121 replacement squadrons, the F-4As were sometimes designated TF-4A to reflect the fact that they were not considered as being up to combat standards.
The first production F4H-1s for the Navy went to operational training units. VF-121, a training group based at Miramar, received its first F4H-1s (F-4B) in early 1961. VF-101, a training group based at NAS Oceana in Virginia, began to supplement its F4H-1Fs with F4H-1s later in 1961.
The first fully-operational Phantom squadrons were VF-74 (NAS Oceana, Atlantic Fleet) and VF-114 (NAS Miramar, Pacific Fleet), which were equipped with F4H-1s in mid-1961. In October of 1961, VF-74 became the first F4H-1 squadron to complete carrier qualifications.
The first operational cruise was made in August-October of 1962 by VF-102 aboard the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) during its first shakedown cruise. The first full-scale deployment of Phantoms was made by VF-74 when this squadron went to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) from August 1962 until March of 1963.
In October of 1962, Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba, and in that month the F-4Bs of VF-41 were transferred from NAS Oceana to NAS Key West in Florida. At the same time, Phantoms operating from the USS Enterprise and the USS Independence (CVA-62) participated in the imposition of the quarantine of Cuba. By the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August of 1964, 13 Navy fighter squadrons were equipped with F-4Bs. The first Phantom combat sorties were flown during Operation Pierce Arrow on August 5, 1964 from the USS Constellation (CVA-64). These were flown by F-4Bs from VF-142 and VF-143, which flew top cover to warplanes striking North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The first air-to-air kill of the war did not actually involve the North Vietnamese at all. It was in a battle on April 9, 1965, when F-4Bs from VF-96 operating off the USS Ranger (CVA-61) encountered some Chinese MiG-17s near Hainan Island. F-4B BuNo 151403 crewed by Lt(jg) Terence M. Murphy and and Ensign Ronald J. Fegan shot down a MiG-17, but was then lost in action almost immediately thereafter. What actually happened is sort of mysterious. 151403 may have indeed been shot down by another Chinese MiG-17, or it may have actually been an "own goal", hit by a Sparrow fired from another Phantom. The incident was not reported in the news media at the time, lest the People's Republic of China be antagonized.
The first American crew to shoot down a North Vietnamese fighter were Commander Thomas C. Page and Lieutenant Jon C. Smith Jr of VF-21 flying F-4B BuNo 151488 from USS Midway (CVA-41). For air-to-air combat, the F-4B relied on Sparrow semi-active radar homing or Sidewinder infrared-homing missiles, there being no internal cannon fitted. The AIM-7D/E Sparrow was carried in the ventral trays. In principle, the Sparrow gave the Phantom a beyond visual range capability at distances of up to 28 miles. However, such launches were very rarely permitted under the terms of the rather restrictive rules of engagement in Vietnam. When used at closer ranges, the Sparrow turned out to be virtually useless against fighter-sized targets, especially at low altitudes. The AIM-9B/D Sidewinder was usually the weapon of choice. The AIM-9D had a range of up to 12 miles, but it was generally effective only in close stern engagements in good weather and at high altitudes. In bad weather or at low altitudes, the results were less impressive, the Sidewinder often losing its lock on its target due to interference from rain or from clouds or having a tendency to lock onto the Sun or onto reflections in lakes or ponds. Ultimately, the Sidewinder scored more aerial victories in the Vietnam War than any other weapon.
As a result of combat experience in Vietnam, chaff dispensers were added above the rear fuselage sides. ECM capabilities were steadily improved, with the addition of Radar Homing and Warning Systems and Deception Systems such as the ALQ-51 and AN/ALQ-100.
Navy F-4Bs were operated until the late 1960s, when they began to be replaced in service by later versions of the Phantom such as the F-4J or F-4N. The last two active duty Navy squadron to operate the F-4B, VF-51 and VF-111, finally exchanged their planes for later-model F-4Ns in 1974. They continued to be flown by reserve units for a couple of years thereafter, after which they were consigned to storage. However, a few electronic warfare adaptations of the F-4B remained flying in service with VAQ-33 for several years thereafter in various training roles. The last such aircraft was finally retired in 1981.
Twelve F-4Bs were modified as F-4Gs (a Navy designation, not to be confused with the USAF F-4G, which was a Wild Weasel aircraft). The Navy F-4G was a version modified for the evaluation of the feasibility of automatic carrier landing operations. They were fitted with the AN/ASW-21 two-way data link communication system and approach power compensator. The first F-4G flew on March 20, 1953, and these twelve aircraft were flown by VF-213 from the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63). They operated in the Gulf of Tonkin from November 1965 until June of 1966. One was lost to North Vietnamese AAA, but the others were later brought back to F-4B standards.
Most F-4Bs were operated by the Navy and Marine Corps until they were struck off the rolls or transferred to storage at the Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. F-4B Phantoms first reached the Naval Air Reserve in 1969 when F-4Bs were assigned to VF-22L1 at NAS Los Alamitos, California. They remained with Reserve units until 1975. By 1975, the last F-4Bs were out of Navy service. Most of them were replaced by later-model Phantoms (primarily F-4J and F-4S) and were consigned to storage. However, conversions to F-4N managed to extend the effective life of some F-4B airframes well into the 1980s.
The F-4J was the final version of the Phantom to be placed in production for the US Navy and US Marine Corps. It was designed as the follow-on to the original Navy F-4B, correcting some of the deficiencies which had become apparent in service.
A total of 522 F-4Js were built for the Navy and Marine Corps between December 1966 and January 1972. The first F-4J deliveries began on October 1, 1966. VF-101 began re-equipping with the type in December of that year. They rapidly began to replace the earlier F-4B in most operational Navy squadrons.
F-4Js were used extensively in Vietnam during the later stages of Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from March 2, 1965 until October 31, 1968. They returned to Vietnam to participate in Operation Linebacker in 1972. The F-4J was the last US aircraft in operation in Southeast Asia, with Marine F-4Js of VMFA-232 finally leaving the base at Nam Phong in Thailand in August of 1973.
In an attempt to obtain a peaceful settlement to the Southeast Asia war, on October 1, 1968, the bombing of North Vietnam was halted and the Rolling Thunder campaign came to an end. Except for a few temporary exceptions (the so-called "limited-duration, protective-reaction strikes"), the aerial campaign against the North was put on hold.
On the night of March 29/30, 1972, twelve North Vietnamese divisions supported by armor invaded South Vietnam. On April 2, President Nixon ordered that limited bombing of North Vietnam be resumed under Operation Freedom Train. Six more F-4E squadrons were deployed from Elgin and Homestead AFB in Florida to air bases in Vietnam and Thailand in 1972 in response to the North Vietnamese invasion. In addition, F-4Ds from Holloman AFB in New Mexico were deployed to Takhli, Thailand.
On May 8, 1972, President Nixon announced that Haiphong Harbor was being mined and that most bombing restrictions against North Vietnam would be removed. The Freedom Train limited bombing campaign was replaced by Operation Linebacker, an all-out campaign to halt the invasion and bring North Vietnam to the conference table. Far fewer restrictions were in place than those imposed during Rolling Thunder
The Linebacker raids culminated in the "Christmas" B-52 raids on Hanoi during late December of 1972. A truce agreement was finally signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, ending American involvement in the Southeast Asia conflict. The 197th and last MiG kill of the Vietnam conflict took place on January 12, 1973, when a Phantom flying off the USS Midway (CV-41) shot down a MiG-17.
By the time fighting ended in 1973, Navy F-4 crews had shot down 40 enemy aircraft. There were two Navy aces, the team of Lt. Randall H. Cunningham (pilot) and Lt (jg) William P. Driscoll (weapon system operator) of VF-96. A total of 71 Navy F-4s were lost in combat, 5 to enemy aircraft, 13 to surface to air missiles, and 53 to AAA and small-arms fire. An additional 54 were lost in various operational accidents.
A few F-4Js were modified for use by VAQ-33 in the "electronic aggressor" role with electronic countermeasures pods and jammers carried underneath their wings. When so modified, they were redesignated EF-4J.
By 1970, the Navy was beginning to be concerned about the condition of its fleet of F-4Bs, many of which were over ten years old and showing signs of old age and fatigue. In that year, a program named *Bee Line* was initiated in which F-4Bs were refurbished and modernized. Ultimately, 228 Navy F-4Bs went through the Bee Line program. These refurbished planes were redesignated F-4N.
The first F-4N flew on June 4, 1972. The first F-4Ns joined the fleet in February of 1973, the aircraft being too late to participate in the Vietnam conflict. The F-4N had a relative short life as an active-duty fighter with Navy carrier-based units, being replaced by the Grumman F-14A Tomcat during the mid-to late 1970s. However, VF-154 flew F-14Ns off the USS Coral Sea until the end of 1983, when they finally traded in their Phantoms for Tomcats. The F-4N soldiered on for a few years longer with Naval and Marine Corps reserve units until being replaced by either the F-4S (a conversion of the F-4J) or by the F/A-18 Hornet during the early 1980s. The last Navy F-4N was retired from the Dallas-based VF-201 reserve unit in February of 1984.
As they left service, many F-4Ns were modified as remotely-controlled drones under the designation QF-4N. The first QF-4N conversion was performed in 1983.
F-4S was the designation applied to 265 (some sources say 248) F-4Js which were upgraded in the mid 1970s. This program was analogous to the Bee Line project which had upgraded Navy F-4Bs to F-4N standards. The major goal of the upgrade was to prolong the life of the F-4J so that it could remain in service until replaced by the F-14 Tomcat in Navy service. The first Navy squadron to receive the F-4S was VF-21, based at NAS Miramar in California, which began to receive its planes in December 1979.
By the end of American involvement in the Southeast Asia War, the Phantom was already beginning to be supplemented by the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in deployable squadrons aboard the larger carriers. All throughout the remainder of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the Navy progressively replaced its F-4Ss with later equipment in most deployable squadrons. The exceptions were six squadrons which were assigned to the older and smaller USS Midway (CVA-41), Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42), and Coral Sea (CVA-43), which were re-equipped with F-4Ns and F-4Ss and soldiered on with these planes for a few more years. However, by 1986, all of the Phantoms serving with the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets were gone, the last carrier launch of an F-4S having taken place on March 24, 1986 when F-4Ss from VF-151 and VF-161 were launched from the USS Midway for the last time. No Phantoms served aboard Navy aircraft carriers after that time.
After 1986, F-4Ss served exclusively with shore-based Naval reserve units. However, this service was rather brief. The last Naval reserve F-4S was retired by VF-202 at NAS Dallas on May 14, 1987 (BuNol 155560), becoming the Navy's last tactical Phantom II. After that date, the only Phantoms remaining in Navy service were those QF-4 drones assigned to the Naval Air Weapons Center at NAS China Lake and to the Pacific Missile Test Center at NAS Point Mugu in California.