The McDonnell Douglas Phantom II: what was wrong with it?
Nobody’s perfect, and every design is a compromise. Here are some of the weak spots of the greatest aircraft. Let’s start with the F-4 Phantom II.
The F-4 had a lot of good qualities. In fact it would be fairer to say that it has a lot of good qualities, as it remains in service in a handful of air forces around the world (with Iran, Turkey, Greece and South Korea*). That it remain is frontline service an astonishing 62 years after it took its first flight says something about the performance and durability of this remarkable aeroplane. For its time it was very fast, had a large weapon-load of advanced weapons, a big modern radar, was massively powerful, long-ranged and had a very tough airframe. But we all know what was good about it, so let’s have a look at some of its more troublesome features.
The Phantom had some dangerous handling quirks, one of them being the ‘adverse yaw demon’. At high angles of attack, the aircraft could suddenly lose control and enter a spin.
We interviewed Phantom pilot Chris Bolton (full interview here) who noted:
“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.”
Two heads better than one?
McDonnell had to lobby hard to get the Phantom II a crew of two. This went in opposition to the culture of the single-seat fighter – but it was believed necessary to handle the labour-intensive radar. Some F-4 pilots cursed the addition of the ‘guy in the back’, maintaining that this feature was responsible for the type’s poor rearward vision, a dangerous flaw for an aircraft intended for air combat. The official manual requested that the pilot fly smoothly and avoid hard manoeuvring as it would impede the backseater’s ability to read his radar. The designers had also not considered the irrational human element: the egotistical pilot who preferred his backseater not to talk too much; the general culture of the single-seat fighter; the ‘guy in the back’ who had not learnt his trade with sufficient diligence as he was too busy eyeing up a front seat of his own.
An absent gun
Early Phantoms had no internal gun. This decision was taken for the sake of aerodynamic cleanness, a weight saving and the belief that the gun was obsolete. If the missiles had performed as advertised, this would have been fine, but they didn’t (or rather it was very difficult to use them as recommended) in actual air combat. A gun would have been of great benefit to US Phantoms in the earlier stages off the Vietnam War. This shortcoming was rectified in the F-4E (and the SUU series external 20-mm gunpods were used on F-4C/Ds). The US Navy never had gun armed Phantoms in the Vietnam War, apart from a brief stint with the dire GAU-4 pod.
One F-4 pilot described the AIM-9B Sidewinder infra-red guided missile as “totally hopeless in the air combat environment.” Advertised as having a hit rate of 65 percent, in mid 1966 this was actually 28%. If used within its restrictive recommended parameters it was effective, but it proved hard to respect this fussiness in the heat of battle, leading to the Air Force replacing them with the much hyped AIM-4D Falcon. The AIM-9 was designed to be used against non-manoeuvring targets — when it was conceptualised its engagement range was a novelty — and was intended to hit an enemy at arm’s-length.
The Falcon had a small warhead which would only detonate if the target was actually touched, in the case of fast agile targets like the MiG-21 this proved ineffective. Operating the AIM-4D was even more complicated than the AIM-9B and in terms of parameters, it was even fussier than the AIM-9B. It was a miserable failure. Robin Olds went as far as declaring the Falcon “no good” and ordering it be removed from the arsenal of his Wing’s Phantoms.
Much has been said about the lacklustre performance of this radar-guided missile in the Vietnam War, indeed it was so poor that its reputation has cast a shadow over medium-range missiles to this day. Whereas the Sidewinder was pretty decent if used correctly, early AIM-7 variants had very little chance of destroying a target even when the weapon was well maintained and carefully employed.
The Phantom was far larger than the enemy fighter aircraft it was facing in every war it found itself in. This made it easy to see from a great distance, a bad quality in a fighter aircraft.
The cockpit was a mess of switches and dials. Poor ergonomics and man machine interface left the crews struggling in air combat. Combat modes involved intricate ‘switchology’ that crews found hard to keep on top of in the stress of actual war. One of the most important switches on the missile control panel, that selected missile type, was particularly badly placed. The switch was very hard to find and reach by touch alone, something of the utmost importance in a dogfight. An improvised solution was found, with some pilots sticking a length of plastic tubing onto the switch. In a period of poorly designed American fighter cockpits, the F-4 was probably the worst.
Cost & maintenance
The Phantom II was far more expensive and labour intensive to build and maintain than the soviet MiG-21 (though perhaps it would be fairer to compare it to the Su-15 or MiG-23 of which reliable figures are hard to come by). It used a great deal of fuel and required a great deal of maintenance. Egyptian crews who had previously operated soviet types were particularly disappointed with how much time it took to look after the Phantom, an important consideration during wartime. To be completely fair to the Phantom, it did not have a direct analogue in any country, though the British did have a large twin-engined fighter, the English Electric Lightning, which was similarly demanding and even more thirsty.
The Phantom had a very large turn radius, which would have been a huge disadvantage if did not also have better acceleration and power loadings than most rivals, enabling it to offset its turn radius with turn rate. Critically, the F-4 also had a lower G rating than the MiGs it faced. The F-4 required extensive training and tactics to offsets its relative lack of agility and manoeuvrability compared to the MiGs it encountered in the Vietnam War. Making the most of the ‘vertical’ (and the F-4’s superior acceleration) was one way a careful pilot could counter smaller more spritely opponents with higher G ratings. The MiG-17, which was far technologically inferior to the F-4, was a fearsome dogfight opponent, and according to Olds could “Give an F-4 pilot the tussle of his life.”
‘Lose sight and lose the fight’, is an old fighter adage stressing the importance of maintaining situational awareness of where your enemy is. As mentioned above, the Phantom was far larger than its opponents. To further degrade its visual camouflage, it had two very smoky engines, making it visible from many miles away.
The excellent Tiger Check by Steven A. Fino was very useful in assembling this article.
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*Even a unit survives in Japan, though not for long.
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The English Electric Lightning wasnt a 2 seater except for the training only model.
Didnt USAF insist on putting 2 pilots in its F-4s and with dual controls even if the back seaters main job was operating the radar?,
or was that only for the nuclear armed fighter-bomber version
That was my understanding, ie that the USAF put two pilots in rather than having a dedicated back-seater branch like most other users. So less a flaw of the Phantom than one user’s doctrine.
There were only two gun pods in the SUU-series of ordnance. The SUU-16/A carried an M61A1 20mm cannon powered by a pop-out ram air turbine. The SUU-23/A cleaned this up by using the GAU-4/A development of the M61, which used a battery to spin up the barrels, and was powered by tapping gas from four of the six barrels. The SUU-series (Stores Release and Suspension Units) are primarily dispensers for submunitions.
The US Navy gun pod in question was was the Mk 4 pod, made by Hughes and loaded with a Mk 11 twin-barrel 20mm cannon, also by Hughes. The cannon wasn’t very reliable, and aside from VAL-4’s OV-10 Broncos, the Navy barely used the Mk 4.
Despite all its shortcomings, the F-4Es in the Israeli air force shot down about 100 a/c, Mostly Mig-17 and Mig-21, many with missiles.