The McDonnell RF-4C ruled the tactical reconnaissance skies for the U.S. Air Force from 1964 through the early 1990s. The aircraft’s main job was the first step of John Boyd’s famous OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, act, repeat. After all, you can’t even get started without observing. And before remotely piloted vehicles came on the scene, the best way to get near-instantaneous information over a specific target was to send in manned tactical reconnaissance aircraft.
Designed to overcome shortcomings of the RF-101, rather than just hang a bunch of cameras on an existing F-4 models, engineers went back to the drawing board and lengthened the existing F-4 nose to fit in sophisticated sensors: film and infrared cameras, along with an advanced side-looking radar. The longer-nosed variant also became the basis for the F-4E model.
The YRF-4C prototype first flew on August 9, 1963 and the first production aircraft flew May 18, 1964, followed shortly after by deliveries to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. Although a weapon systems operator (WSO) later flew in the rear cockpit, the USAF initially used two pilots, funneling an inexperienced pilot into the rear cockpit as a Pilot Systems Operator, abbreviated as PSO and pronounced ‘pay-so.’ After initial training, pilots moved to the first operational squadron to fly the RF-4C, the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS), also at Shaw. On October 27, 1965, 16th TRS pilots ferried nine aircraft to Vietnam, landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon on October 31. RF-4Cs later arrived at Udorn Royal Thai AFB in Thailand.
A typical reconnaissance mission in Vietnam might include taking pictures of trucks destroyed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Enemy gunners on the ground often waited for the RF-4C crews as they neared a target and crews quickly developed deceptive manoeuvres to counter the gunners. Pilots climbed to a high altitude after takeoff, but nearing a target, they descended to 3,500 feet to both give them good photo coverage and keep them above 50-caliber machine gun range. About three miles from the target, the front-seat pilot yanked into a 75-degree bank turn and then rolled out, held it for 15 seconds, then did another rapid turn and roll out, and then turned on the radar for one second to make the North Vietnamese think the aircraft was headed someplace else. The whole sky still filled with bullets, but the maneuvering largely kept aircraft from harm.
Recce crews also discovered that the RF-4C was surprisingly speedy and could outrun many threats. Designers had expected the new airframe to have more drag than the earlier models, but the opposite was true. However, crews often couldn’t take full advantage of that speed over North Vietnam—cruising faster than 480 knots made navigation harder, increased fuel consumption, and the increased turn radius made threat evasion maneuver less effective. In addition, the RF-4C’s fighter escorts, often heavily laden with external munitions, couldn’t keep up at the higher speeds.
For defenses against surface-to-air missiles, the RF-4C had chaff dispensers on the rear of the aircraft to fool the radar guided missiles and a radar warning receiver in the cockpit that alerted pilots to a lock-on and launch via chirping in headsets and cockpit displays. Pilots could often outmaneuver the missiles, and with two engines, even a damaged aircraft could sometimes limp home or make it out over the Gulf of Tonkin where an ejection was more likely to result in a rescue. Not everyone was so lucky, though. On August 12, 1967, an RF-4C from the 11th TRS flying from Udorn was hit by a SAM, forcing the crew to eject (see USAF photo 4 below). Captains Edward Atterbury and Thomas Parrot were captured; Atterbury later died after an escape attempt and Parrott was released in 1973 after the war ended.
The RF-4C had important Cold War missions as well, including Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO) flights along the DMZ between North and South Korea. To peer into North Korea, crews used a telephoto camera mounted in a monstrous “Bench Box” pod hung so low under the fuselage that pilots had to be careful not to snag arresting cables at the end of the runway.
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Additional upgrades sustained the RF-4C into the 1990s: improved navigation equipment, the Pave Tack laser targeting system, a terrain following system, and the Tactical Electronic Reconnaissance (TEREC) system, a pod loaded with radar detection equipment for locating SAM sites. The TEREC system, although highly capable, moved the aircraft’s center of gravity aft, which may have contributed to several mishaps in the 1980s. Pilots and WSOs quickly became wary of the system.
By the 1980s, the aircraft were ageing rapidly and becoming difficult to maintain, including the RF-4Cs that I flew in at Edwards AFB, California as a flight test engineer. We had quite a few Tactical Air Command (TAC) “hand-me-down” RF-4Cs; the cameras in three of them had been removed to make room for flight test instrumentation to support USAF Test Pilot School training flights and other test activities, such as safety and photo chase. One aircraft even had my name stenciled under the rear canopy. TAC pushed many other RF-4Cs into Air National Guard units as well, where they picked up new missions that included drug interdiction and disaster relief.
As unmanned reconnaissance aircraft began to debut, the RF-4Cs began heading for the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, but the aircraft had a brief renaissance in 1991 during Desert Storm, after commanders realized they didn’t yet have enough unmanned aircraft to do the first part of the OODA loop. RF-4Cs stationed at Zweibrucken Air Base, Germany, about to head to the boneyard, were diverted to the Gulf instead.
The RF-4Cs that I flew at Edwards have scattered and I don’t know where all of them are. Two are on display in Quartzsite, Arizona. Another Edwards RF-4C, referred to as ‘Balls Four,’ suffered a hydraulic failure in 1965 while assigned to a TAC unit; the resulting hard landing punched one strut through a wing and damaged the other strut. The aircraft apparently never fully recovered from its landing incident and wound up at Eglin AFB, Florida as a test support aircraft and then later moved to Edwards, where it had a reputation as a hangar queen. RF-4C is now on display at Edwards and will eventually be moved into the Air Force Flight Test Museum when its new building is constructed.
For more information on the RF-4C and some great pilot and WSO stories, please see my full article that first appeared in Aviation History last year.
Eileen Bjorkman is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former flight test engineer who writes about aviation history. Her second book, Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind, will be released on September 1, 2020.
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