Flying the F-4 Phantom II, British-style

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Life for British Phantom pilots was seldom boring. Whether it was training for near suicidal night attacks against the Soviet Navy, intercepting ‘Bear’s or performing low-level attacks. During the Cold War Chris Bolton flew the mighty F-4 for both the RAF and the Royal Navy. Hush-Kit met him to find out more. 

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Hush-Kit: It seems the F-4 wasn’t particularly agile for its generation – is that fair? 

“It could roll remarkably well, though it didn’t turn like the other aircraft. The other RAF fighter, the Lightning, could manoeuvre really well – it was just like a really powerful supersonic Hunter in handling characteristics (and noise levels in the cockpit for that matter). But the Lightning couldn’t stay up for very long. Everything is a compromise, with the Phantom it could stay up a very long time and carry eight missiles; the Lightning had two guns and two missiles, so take your choice. The Phantom had a very powerful radar and a bloke to operate it. The Lightning had a ‘one-armed paper hanger‘ working exceptionally hard for a very short time. The Lightning was great for short fast interceptions, the Phantom could stay longer unsupported and with more missiles. It was also better for long Combat Air Patrols – it depends how you want to fight. I had a quick ride in a two-seat Lightning, and compared to the Phantom it was quieter and it didn’t buffet so much. A very pleasing aeroplane in my very limited experience. And a beautiful beast, designed maybe eight or ten years earlier than the Phantom.”

And how would a Phantom perform in air combat against a Hunter? 

“A Hunter can well out-turn a Phantom. No Phantom would try and stay with you and turn behind you – but the Phantom could do the vertical bit because it had the power. Also, the Phantom had layout weapons that could be used beyond sight, like the head-on Sparrow or tail-on Sidewinder. You wouldn’t try to get into a gunfight with a Hunter.”

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How best to fight to fight a Lightning from a Phantom?

“You have to take advantage of the things that work for you and don’t work for him. He can out-turn you, he can out-climb you, but he ain’t going to be able to do it for very long. You can see him from a long distance, so you can get your shots off without him even seeing you. If that failed, it would be best to remain unseen. You wouldn’t voluntarily get into a turning gunfight with a Lightning, as you’re probably going to lose. Then whoever runs out of fuel first – and it’s probably him- has lost the fight. He’s got to bug out. As I said, take advantage of your own strengths and exploit the weaknesses of your opponent.”

 Which types have you flown?

“In training Jet Provosts and Gnats. Operationally Hunters and Phantoms.”

How long did you fly the Hunter?

“Just one flying tour, just under two years with 208 squadron, Bahrain. Occasionally I flew the Hunter with the Navy for combat training against the Phantom.”

In Phantoms, what did you fly against?

“In my first tour we did very little air combat training because it was a specialist night ground attack squadron based at Coningsby. 

Subsequently when I went to 892 squadron I was tasked with air defence of the fleet. So we would practice against each other and other aircraft, and we would intercept Russians. That would not get into the papers, especially if it was up North of the coast of Scotland. We practiced against land-based Phantoms – against shore-based Lightnings and RAF Phantoms out of Leuchars. Targets of opportunity in low-flying areas could be Jaguars, USAF aircraft, US Navy aircraft from carriers — such as other Phantoms. There was a lot of air combat practice.”

What was the most challenging dissimilar type?

“The most challenging was 1 versus 1 against another Phantom where it was pilot-v-pilot and the best man won. Unless he cheated, and it was 2 V 1 or 4 against one.

Bear in mind not all fighting was visual. Fighting could take place at night in cloud with no eyeballs, so it was dependent on the weapons systems – and a good Observer Navigator in the backseat with radar.”

 

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How good were the weapons systems on the Phantom? 

“Well they were sure better than eyeballs, but if you couldn’t see it you couldn’t do anything. With the radar you could pick something up (depending on the signature size), on a good day, at 30 miles. So you could set up your attack profile from a long distance with plenty of time. So, ideally in this scenario – with a big target – we’d start with a head-on shot and then move ’round the back for a Sidewinder, and then at very close, a guns kill (if you carried a gun, which the Navy didn’t).

 

At Coningsby we specialised in night ground attack and night sea attack. Self illuminated we used things called Lepus flares. These were about four or five feet long and about six inches in diameter. These we would toss and they would free-fall flight and after a finite time a parachute would come out, and the Lepus flare would illuminate (lots of magnesium I guess). So that would be over the target. You hoped that you tossed it in the right place. From there, subsequent aircraft would visually identify the target and select the appropriate weapon, slide underneath and have at. And we could do three or four runs at that at night over the sea.”

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A 892 Phantom armed with ten 1,000-Ib freefall bombs.

And what weapons would you use? 

“Depending on what height you were, how close you were, you would say ‘OK good’ I can make a free-fall 1,000-lb practice bomb on that. Or rocket attack if you were carrying those simulated weapons.”

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Would you feel vulnerable as an attacking aircraft illuminated as you were by the flares? 

“Had it come to the real thing- yes you certainly would. The flares would light up your aircraft as you dive beneath them so you’d be visible to everyone. For example if you’re going to do a high-drag bomb run for a 1,000-pounder you probably want to go quite high at release which would leave you visible. Also you would be maneuvering the aircraft quite violently so disorientation would be a problem – a big problem. Hopefully you’re not just looking out to see the target, but also in to keep orientation.”

That sounds very demanding!

“Yes, it was. None us particularly enjoyed it. Our squadron was a specialist night attack, and I continued doing that until late 1973, then I went to the Navy on exchange for the first time. I was with 892 Squadron with Phantoms FG.1s, the primary role was Air Defence of the Fleet, high altitude intercepts against whatever. There was a secondary role of ground/ship attack using 1,000-Ib bombs or two inch rockets.”

Was your training with No.6 Squadron useful preparation for this? 

“In some ways it was. But with 6 Squadron you very seldom flew much above 1,000 feet (except for transiting or refuelling). Whereas with the Navy a lot of it was quite high. But we did keep the practice when we shore-based, for example when the ship was having the barnacles scraped. We practice shore-based at Leuchars and a couple of ranges up in Scotland where we could practice the full range of our weapons. Once or twice a month we would be firing rockets or dropping bombs, just to keep a hand in. At sea, being miles out, our target for practice ordnance was a ‘splash target’ towed by the ship 500 yards astern. At speeds 10+ knots the splash target gives off plume – and that was the aiming index. The marking of the drop accuracy would be done by the quadrant of a helicopter and observations from the ship. Everyone is watching it from the back-end, so making a dick of yourself is not very pleasing. Quite a lot of pressure, and with pressure comes pride.”

892 Naval Air Squadron at RAF Leuchars 1976 Ready to Embark to HMS Ark Royal.

“Well I’d seen quite a lot with the Americans flying it around East Anglia and Cambridge bases. It was a very impressive, very large fighter. A lot of people wanted to fly it— I didn’t think that much about it, it just came around. I was on Hunters in the late 60s, which was very satisfactory. On the completion of my time in the Hunter it was almost the completion of Hunter squadrons. Our choices (not always choices) were Harrier, Buccaneer or Phantom (Jaguar hadn’t quite come along). Canberras were even available. I was very pleased to be posted onto the Phantom. It was still pretty new when I got to Coningsby. It had an underserved bad reputation as it was a big beast with odd characteristics at low speed. But if you knew how to handle the aeroplane, which of course you didn’t when you started, it was just a large beast with a very high wing loading. I think it was about 85 pounds per square foot – so it wouldn’t turn like a Hunter. It had disadvantages, but it also had its advantages, as a pilot you had to learn to play it to its strengths.”

What were its quirks at low speeds? 

“With conventional aeroplanes you put left aileron on you’re going to roll left. At high angles of attack in the Phantom, put left aileron on and you’re quite likely to roll right. So instead of taking the conventional approach of rolling with the ailerons all the time, you use the rudders. The aircraft had a bit of that built-in called ‘Aileron Rudder Interconnect’. People frightened themselves doing tight turns at high angles of attack at low level, using ailerons, and finding themselves rolling into the ground. They learnt quickly from making one mistake like that. Unlike modern aircraft which have their adverse characteristics heavily compensated for by computers, in the old days it was all stick, rudder and eyeball and you took what you were dealt with on an aeroplane.

The Phantom had pretty unpleasant handling if it didn’t have its flight augmentation computers on.  There was some augmentation in the pitch, yaw and roll. Pitching with  the pitch augmentation turned off the F-4 the aircraft would continue to pitch where you wanted it to. Which could be quite exciting at higher speeds because you could easily exceed the G-limits, and possibly make yourself black-out. Admittedly roll and yaw were also considerations – if you rolled without the roll augmentation the aircraft would just continue rolling.”

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“When we were at sea, the Russians were always sending ‘Bear’s, normally the delta (Bear-D) variant around the North Cape to have a look just to check out our readiness, intelligence-gathering and this, that and the other. How long did it take us to pick them up? Where did we pick them up? Which squadron was it? Etc, etc. It was just testing us.”

Did you ever get close enough to make eye contact with the Russians? “Frequently. Once we’d picked them (it may have been an air defence unit or the ship’s radar, even the Gannet with its early warning radar), we’d latch on to them, go and take photographs of them (as they did of us). So we’d be in very close formation. No great drama everyone seemed to enjoy it. Yes, it was fairly routine.”

HK: Could you hear the ‘Bear’?

“Not in the Phantom. I’m not sure what the Lighting guys would say. The noise inside our own aeroplane was quite high from the engine and the airflow around the ‘frame. The Bear had for great big turboprop engines – I never heard it, never even thought about it until you asked the question!”

HK: Do you think you had adequate training? In terms of flight hours etc?

“It was getting tighter and tighter, I came out in ’78. In the mid 60s I was instructing and could expect 50 or 60 hours a month; when I was on Hunters I’d probably get 30/35 hours a month. On Phantoms it was down to about 25-30 hours when I started, and probably 20 when I finished. These were economy measures. The cost of running the aeroplane in 1975/76 was £7000 an hour which is peanuts. People would hire it at the  weekend these days, but back then it was big bucks. Economies were made all around the place. Fuel was tight. We didn’t have good simulators, but today we do. You can practice a lot of things in a modern simulator but back then we had to physically practice the manoeuvres. We could learn from talking to the experienced and inexperienced (‘God, I never would have made that mistake’ sort of thing) people, and swapping stories at the bar. You pick up a lot however you can.”

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Did you notice any difference in quality between Navy and Air Force pilots?

“Yes I did. It’s not a popular thing to say, but generally the Navy where of a higher standard on the fixed-wing side. Because they only had fast jets- there wasn’t much in the way of slow fixed-wings. They were either fast jet pilots or rotary wings, the limitations were finer, less restrictive. They had a different attitude to accidents and flying generally.  There wouldn’t be an instant court-marshal or a change of rules to not allow what went wrong – it was more realistic in many ways. It wasn’t hugely different, but I noticed it. I went from an Air Force squadron to a Navy squadron and back to an RAF conversion unit to a Navy squadron. So I was able to make comparisons in two directions, twice.”

Which culture did you enjoy more? 

“I think the Navy one. I don’t go to Air Force reunions. I do go to a Navy reunion every year.”

 Do you remember your first carrier landing? 

“Who can forget their first carrier landing? It wasn’t quality but it was fun and exciting. The briefing is extensive. The practice ashore is also extensive. At the end of every shore-based flight we’d do one or two ‘rollers’ using the projector landing site that was on the side of the runway. This simulated very well the site that was onboard the ship. We were shown films before our first deck landings, these illustrated what happened if you made errors of judgement like being lined up too long, or too far right, too slow. Some of these were illustrated with the crashes that resulted from these errors.  So that’s at the forefront of one’s mind. The first flight, I was catapulted off the Ark Royal. I thought ‘That’s very nice and exhilarating, but in an hour and 20 minutes I’ll be coming back on!’ So I didn’t really concentrate much on what went after going off the front end and coming on the back end for the first three times. My first time there were two rollers with the hook up. That went pretty well, with no one being too frightened. Then the  hook down. The third was a ‘hook on’, I caught the first of the four wires and came to a very graceful arrest at the end of that. Folded the wings, hook up, taxied into what’s called ‘Fly 1’, that’s the front end. Then took the slack for not making a good approach and landing from the landing Safety Officer (NSO).  So you take that. Of course I had a big audience watching the first landing of this Air Force guy. I remember it well. I think the guy in the back seat remembers it well.”

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Was a close relationship with your Observer required to perform the mission?

“Yes it was . In the air defence and interception role it is a team effort. His job was to get the pilot in a position to aim the weapons and carry out the intercept. It was also a team effort in conjunction with the air defence unit. So it was a close relationship, but it was quite a close relationship as a squadron, not big. 12 aeroplanes, 14 crews (so a total 28 aircrew).”

What advice would you give to a new Phantom pilot?

“A bit late now! He should have been here 40 years ago! The first thing is try and know your aeroplane, not just from the lectures (‘chalk and talk’) but by talking to others. Like any new aeroplane, learn as much as you can before you get in it.

There were two models of Phantoms for the British forces: the FG.1, the Navy version, and the FGR. 2, the Air Force version. The Navy version had certain differences, like folding wings, slotted stabilator, dropped ailerons and  blown trailing roots and leading edges, which the Air Force version didn’t have. They both had Rolls-Royce Spey engines. The early Navy engines had a faster wind-up time simply because in the event of missing the wires when hitting the deck, you wanted to have as much as power available, as soon as possible, so they had what was known as ‘rapid reheat’. The Air Force ones didn’t, so took longer to wind-up- it wasn’t critical – as they had longer runways.”

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How did the British Phantoms compare to the American examples? Did you fly with them?

“Yes we did. I never flew on an American one. The British eventually got F-4Js, which were ex-US Navy Phantoms, which formed a squadron at Wattisham. The difference was the engines , the Americans had J79s which were smaller with less thrust, the British had Spey, which were bigger engines with more thrust – but they took up more space, so the cross section of the aircraft actually increased. Someone once compared it to spaying a dog: once you do it, it gets fat at the arse end and slows down. So the Navy Phantoms weren’t as fast the Americans, but this macho thing of flying at twice the speed of sound? I once did it and it took a long time to get there and it wasn’t really worth it, other than being able to say I’d done it.”

How fast could the Phantoms go in full dry thrust?

“Subsonic. It was not capable of going supersonic without reheat other than in a dive. Whereas a Lightning could make low supersonic speeds in full military power.”

How often did you fire live weapons?

“Missiles? I fired Sidewinder once, and Sparrows twice. I shutdown a Jindavik in Cardigan Bay with Sparrow missile when I was on6 Squadron in the early 1970s. And I a hit fast patrol boat target in the Caribbean using a Sparrow missile as an air to-surface weapon. It worked out quite well. There’s a range just off Puerto Rico called the Vieques.

In the Vietnam War they discovered – I think with a Phantom with an early Sparrow, hit the New Zealand (HK note: it was actually HMAS Hobart, so Australian) frigate Hobart which came as a big surprise to everyone. It didn’t explode the warhead- it just punched straight through, which proved it could work.”

Did you have faith in the missiles?

“Yes. Especially the late Sidewinder that came in after my time. The 9L it’s called-  has a far better ability to pick up a low heat target than the earlier ones.”

What was the Hunter like to fly?

“Very docile. A quite delightful aeroplane. For its day, it could have won beauty contests. Quite a good turner with a fairly low wing loading. Something like 60Ibs per square foot, which meant it could turn much better than a Phantom, at 85, or a Harrier at 95lbs per square foot. It was viceless.”

 Opinions on future Royal Navy airpower

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It seems counterintuitive to have such a large aircraft that can only carry STOVL aircraft

“Yes, it does seem counterintuitive and may show how much sway the RAF had in the design of the thing. I believe the Air Force had too much input on that, which is why it doesn’t have catapults and arresting gear. It can operate the F-35B (which has to lug around all the weight of its lift fan) but it can’t operate conventional aircraft which are dependent on wires. Nor would it be able to get them off again if they could land, as it has no catapult. This was very short-sighted. However, the die is cast. Though I now hear that the RAF wants to get some F-35As that don’t carry all this lifting fan around.

Another problem with the F-35B – the weight of fan it carries is a weight of weapons it doesn’t carry in internal carriage, so it is a limited aircraft. It is severely limited in conditions of high temperature, like for instance if it was in the tropics or the Caribbean etc it would have a severe limit on the weight it can take back on board. Vertical landing might not be possible, short landing probably would be, but the conditions would have to be favourable – there’s not a lot off slack in the system, However I don’t know enough about the subject to speak authoritatively. “

Why would that be to the Air Force’s advantage?

“It was planned as an air force carrier. Perhaps the best view on this comes from Sharkey Ward who’s well known in aviation circles. He’s written papers on this which I haven’t studied at great length. The air force may well regret it, but if they want weapon carrying aircraft, they haven’t got it. They have the F-35B – shore based- with less weapons carriage capability, because of the weight of the fan that it is carrying. The inability to host conventional aircraft is a big limitation.”

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Do you think we need new carriers?

“Well you just have to think – on the declining years of our nation would you like to be able to protect the Falklands again? If the Guatemalans decide they want to invade Belize again, would you like to be able to stop that happening? Well you could if you had a carrier, or to be precise if you’d three. You could then guarantee one at sea, possibly two, and one in refit or mini refit: then you would always have a carrier. So then the Prime Minister, when the shit hits the fan, would say ‘Where’s our carrier?’ It’s British Sovereign territory so no one can touch it. You can do what you want legally. It’s our’s, at sea”

I’ll take that as a yes.

“Yes, it is. The air force could not have retaken the Falklands simply using the tanker force. The tankers they used to get Vulcan down there from Ascension Island. One free-fall 1,000Ib bomb on the runway- that’s technology for you!”

Is there one aircraft you would like to fly that you haven’t flown?

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I’ve always quite liked the look of the F/A-18, the Hornet. It’s a carrier aircraft, very capable- you’d get three for the price of one F-35B. The F/A-18 might have been one of the answers. It doesn’t have all the stealth business there, but stealth’s only as good as your paint-job and your polish etc etc. And you have limits on how you can use it.

 

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One comment

  1. duker

    Some comments about the UK carriers at the time. Both Eagle and Ark Royal were ‘big enough’ at around 54,000t compared to say the Midway class at 45,000t ( maybe more after modernisation) which operated phantoms too. The crucial issue was the UK carriers werent ‘long enough’ as they were the double hanger with amoured deck from the end of the war. This meant the greater height above waterline of the flight deck meant a wider shorter ship for stability reasons. That meant they were nearly 150ft shorter than their US equivalents.
    The extra power of the Speys was required for the shorter decks as mentioned. but as well the UK Phantoms had more blown flaps than the USN version, ( I think it was the full wing width plus part of the wing leading edge) which used up quite a bit of compressed air flow.

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