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The F-4 Phantom is a fighter/bomber that transformed air combat and how many roles that a single jet airframe could do. It could do a mulitude of things that no one thought was possible in a single airframe. And contrary to what many say, it actually did most of those missions very well and broke new ground in fighter design. In the early 60's, specialized aircraft were developed with the idea that they were optimixed for one  single role, and the pilot trained for that one mission. In the USAF the F-100 was used for dogfighting, the F-105 was for tactical bombing, and the F-104 and F-106 were used for intercepting. The F-4 was so capable, it virtually replaced all of these aircraft. In the Navy the F-8 Crusaders were fleet defenders and the A-6's, and A-4's were bombers. The F-4 replaced the F-8's and could carry nearly as many bombs as the A-6 making it a very versitle airframe.

Today people often compare the Phantom with current designs and find that in certain areas the F-4 comes up lacking against it's modern counterparts. But the F-4 was doing many of the modern high tech missions back in the days when some electronics still used vaccum tubes. When it was designed over fourty years ago it was so advanced that the airframe has been successfully upgraded with new electronics and integrated with today's modern battlefield.  To help visualize the technilogical time gap between the F-4 and a fighter like the F-22, think of trying to use a World War One fighter in World War Two. The World War One fighter would not be very useful, but a Phantom is still a deadly foe, especially in the air to ground role. Even in air to air combat is a threat to foes... today F-4's using AMRAAMs cause much newer fighters to think twice before engaging.
The origional Phantom was one of the most, if not the most, complicated fighters ever built. The technology of the day required the two man crew to manually control the maze of on board systems that let the Phantom perform so many missions, and all without the use of today's modern microchips. The F-4 was a hands on machine that required a lot of skill if the crew was to use the machine's full potential. It is a tribute to McDonnel Douglas that an airframe in that era could push the limits of aircraft design in so many areas. Hopefully this study will give a glimps of what it took for a crew to fly this amazing aircraft.
The Phantom is a huge aircraft with large fuel  tanks running above the air intakes all the way to the drag chute located in the tail. Its empty weight is even more than that of a F-15C Eagle. It was designed as a high performance, ship based Naval intercepter to shoot down hoards of Soviet bombers by using AIM-7 Sparrow medium ranged missiles. It's flight control system was conventional, with a nose heavy attitude and hydraulic contol of the flight control surfaces. It's origional mission, combined with its size, made the basic F-4 not  particularly good at turning, although pilots say it respnded to stick inputs well. In the early seventies, the addition of stats on the wings did helped improve the F-4's relatively poor turn radious.

With enough airspeed (or energy) the F-4 can pull an 8 g turn, and in the right configureation it can hold it. However, in most useful configuations airspeed bleeds off quickly in such a manoeuver, and the pilot must keep a close watch not to go past the aircraft's  angle of attack limits. Mechanics have told me their F-4s have returned with the g meter pegged at 10 G's when the pilot over g'd the aircraft. The F-4 doesn't have the computerized flight control systems of newer fighters that limit the amout of g the pilot can put on the airframe.

While it is true that the F-4 is a heavy aircraft, it had one of the most powerful engines availible for a fighter in the 60's. The GE-J79 engines, which were first fitted to the F-104 Starfighter,  provided the F-4 with the power needed to fight in the verticle, and new concepts of manoeuvering in the verticle plane had to be developed. Flying against the smaller, more nimble Soviet aircraft, maneouver in the verticle became criticle to the Phantom whenever it was engaged  in a dogfight. The need to use the F-4  to it's full capacity lead the creation of both Top Gun and Red Flag.

The F-4 was a complicated, integrated weapon system, but unlike today's fighter's the main computer was located between the flight crew's ears. Very little was automated, though many thing were augumented.. As fuel was burned and ordinance was droped, the aircraft's center of gravity would change, and that in turn would change the aircraft's flight performance envelope, in turn changing how the pilot controlled the plane in a maneouver.  The crew also had to keep a close eye at all times on fuel consumption and the distance to get back to base, just three minutes of afterburner will burn 3.000lbs of fuel. If you were to take a fifty gallon drum with no lid and turned the drum over, that amount of fuel flow would not be enough to feed the Phantoms J-79 engines when they are in afterburner. 900 pounds of fuel will barely get the F-4 100 miles and that's only if you fly a cruise profile.

Because of it's design the F-4 has some unique flying charactoristics. Thanks to the aircraft's anhedral tailplane it has control problems when flying at high angles of attack. Once the airflow over the tailplane begins to rotate,  it will follow a yaw imput at high angle of attack. It persists uncontrollably in that motion thereby forcing the aircraft into a spin. This is called adverse-yaw, or "departure",  and was coined in the early days of the F-8 Crusader, which had even more severe problems with departure. With the F-4, once departure happenes, the controls no longer have the same effect as they did before the departure   At high angles of attack  the ailerons, normally used for roll control, become huge rudders, yawing the aircraft around and turning it sideways. The rudder must now be used for yaw control. To recover, the pilot pushes the stick forward to reduce the angle of attack. If it doesn't come out of departure, the pilot then pulls the drag chute. If that fails, and the aircraft is below 10.000 feet AGL, the pilot ejects. More than one pilot has had departure happen when flying below 10.000 feet and was forced to eject, both in peace time and in combat.  To roll the aircraft the pilot uses aileron below 12 degrees, aileron and rudder combined between 12 and 16 degrees, and rudder only above that point.

The F-4 accelerates best at an angle of attack of three to five degrees, cruises best at seven to 12 degrees, turns best but suffers heavy buffet between eighteen and twenty one degrees, and stalls at about twenty seven degrees. The addition of manoeuvreing stats to the wings of later model F-4's raised the angle of attack limit to over 30 degrees.

Flying the F-4 in peace time was really pretty easy and the F-4 was known to be pilot friendly aircraft for it's time. Fly the F-4 aggressively and it becames a different machine, The pilot must be skilled in the F-4 to fly the machine safely to it's edge. The links below continue the F-4 study in different chapters.

"The F-4 was a huge, powerfull, ugly, wonderful, modern aircraft. It fit it's role like the Devil in Hell. I love that airplane. It would carry more bombs that a B-17. It would go faster than grease lightning. It was a beast. In a dogfight it would slam you around. It would turn crisp and it was strong and reliable. Then it would fly you home docile and land like like a feather. It was a beautiflul airplane." Robin Olds, commander, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing.
Here is a link to an Air and Space story about Robin Olds
Chapter One, F-4 cockpit details.
Chapter Two, Fighting in the F-4.
The section Below contains some Q&A
This page is dedicated to understanding what an F-4 Phantom is like to fly. If you are or have been an F-4 crew member please feel free to email me with any information you think would be useful on this page.
Phlying the Phantom
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