Top 10 Cold War Combat Carrier aircraft

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By Bing Chandler. Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a British Pacific Fleet roundel sticker he can now fix you up.

The Cold War is generally considered to have lasted from 1947 with the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, to support free peoples resisting subjugation, to 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union. Initially it didn’t appear a promising time for carrier aviation, nuclear bombs were the future of warfare and at that time the only aircraft that could carry them were strategic bombers. These would not fit on a ship, although the USN had some ‘interesting’ ideas involving P2V Neptunes and one-way missions. With the invasion of South Korea by the North in June of 1950 conventional forces experienced a sudden re-interest, Mutually Assured Destruction sort of working by preventing the two super-powers annihilating the planet. Carriers and their aircraft would go on to see action in most of the events in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

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This Top 10 concentrates on combat aircraft in a vague attempt to keep to an actual ten for once, hence the absence of aircraft like the S-3 Viking, Gannet, and Vigilante. In an attempt to address obvious criticism just outside the 10, and in no particular order, were the Corsair II – which only stayed in production a few years longer than the A-4 which it was supposed to replace; the Super Étendard – couldn’t do anything a Sea Harrier couldn’t and needed a catapult to get airborne; Grumman Panther – did get the first carrier jet-on-jet kill, but barely had the performance of a Sea Hawk despite getting the more powerful Tay derivative of the Nene jet engine.

10. Hawker Sea Fury

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Arriving just too late to see combat in WW2 the Sea Fury represents the final evolution of piston-engine fighters alongside the Bearcat and the Sea Hornet. All three of which have broadly similar performance and weaponry. Unlike the latter two however, the Sea Fury saw combat from the deck of a carrier.
Taking over from the Seafire FR47s onboard Triumph (not on this list because they were so damaged by carrier landings that the squadron AEO would only allow them to fly under wartime regulations, grounding them once the ship left Korean waters) the Sea Furies of HMS Thesus were the first to conduct patrols over the Korean Peninsula in 1950. These would be maintained by aircraft from Ocean, Glory and the RAN’s Sydney for the rest of the conflict.
Perhaps most famous for 802 NAS’ Sub-Lt ‘Smoo’ Ellis shooting down a MiG-15 on 9 Aug there was also at least one other probable MiG kill by Lt ‘Toby’ Davis also of 802 NAS the following day. As well as their air-to-air ability the Sea Fury could carry two 1000lb bombs or a collection of 60lb rockets. The former soon becoming the weapon of choice when it was realised the Fury’s bubble canopy gave the pilot an advantage in the dive-bombing role compared to the Firefly. These were used to great effect conducting close-air-support for Commonwealth troops and strikes on enemy and tactical positions. The pilots could also direct naval gunfire support, a task not without its problems such as asking a ship to correct its fire by nine miles, or the USS Missouri almost shooting the spotter down. [1]

 

Interview with Sea Fury pilot here.

After it was discovered that wing spars were being damaged catapulting them with bombs attached it was decided aircraft would be launched using RATOG. Between aircraft trickling off the front end of the ship after they failed to ignite and entering a vertical climb because the trim was set incorrectly it’s a wonder anyone ever got around to actually engaging the enemy! But they did with both Ocean and Glory achieving a record 123 sorties in a day between their Fury and Firefly squadrons, at least one Fury pilot conducting five sorties in a day.

The ten best piston-engined fighters here

As well as the Royal Navy the Sea Fury also operated from the carriers of the Australian, Canadian, and Dutch navies. Fast, well-armed, and with only a fair chance of flipping upside if the throttle is slammed open at low speed, the Sea Fury was the ultimate piston carrier fighter.
[1] Alan Leahy. Sea Fury From the Cockpit. Ringshall: Ad Hoc Publications, 2010. 68-69

9. Douglas A-1 Skyraider 

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 ” …the greatest workhorse the Navy ever had. It was loved and trusted by those who flew it. A pilot who trusts his plane is a bold pilot. And bold pilots really do the job. “   Adm. Tom Connolly

Another design that entered service too late for the war for which it was intended the Douglas Skyraider was a single seat piston-engined aircraft that shot down MiGs. There the similarity with the Sea Fury more or less ends as the A-1 was designed as a dive/torpedo bomber rather than a fighter. Intended to replace the Avenger and the Dauntless the XBT2D-1 Destroyer II first flew in March of 1945, by April the USN had placed an order for 548 and thankfully changed the name to the AD-1 Skyraider. Part of the success was due to Ed Heinemann’s design team’s emphasis on weight reduction and simplicity inspired by an information bulletin that showed for each 100lbs of weight saved take-off would be reduced by 8’, combat radius increased 22 miles, and rate of climb increased by 18’ per minute. In total the team saved 1800lbs enabling the Skyraider to carry 8000lbs of weaponry, in something of a worrying trend for the USN this included plans for one way trips with a nuclear weapon.
Thanks to its promise and relatively low-cost orders for the AD-1 were not cut back at the end of the Second World War and the first squadron was formed in December 1946. With the invasion of South Korea Skyraiders from Valley Forge were soon in action conducting ground attack and minelaying operations. The following year VA-195 and VC-35 onboard the Princeton were called upon to make an attack on the Hwacheon Dam. Despite little training in the use of torpedoes the necessary modifications were made to the aircraft to allow them to carry the weapons including disabling the airbrakes. On 1 May, in what to date was the last aerial torpedo attack on a surface target, eight Skyraiders attacked the dam successfully disabling the control gates and preventing Communist forces from controlling water levels.
Remaining in service until 1968 AD-1s were also active in Vietnam, where as well as attack, close air support, and rescue missions they shot down two MiG-17s. The Skyraider’s only other naval user was the Royal Navy who operated it in the AEW role.
Remarkably long lived for an aircraft that was designed at the dawn of the jet age the Skyraider is probably unique in being the only aircraft to have been developed into single, two, three, and four seat combat variants.

8. Hawker Sea Hawk 

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The Sea Hawk started as a private venture by Hawkers under the lead of Sydney Camm, also responsible for the Sea Fury. The initial concept being to replace the later’s Centaurus engine with a Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet. After what, it must be assumed, was a lot of development work the P.1040 emerged as a tapered wing jet with the intakes and bifurcated exhaust based in the wing roots. Despite a lack of interest (this is disputed by some) from the Admiralty and the Air Ministry Hawkers produced three prototypes, the first flying in September of 1947 (again there is some debate on the prototypes’ chronology). Following successful carrier trials, the Royal Navy ordered 151 with the first front line squadron, 806 NAS forming in 1953. Ironically after all that effort, Hawkers only built the first 35 Sea Hawk Mk1 before turning over their Kingston factory to producing its ultimate evolution the Hunter. Development and production were transferred to their subsidiary Armstrong Whitworth who went on to produce over 500 in 6 principle marks adding bombing and ground attack capabilities to the basic day fighter’s 4 x 20mm cannons.

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Arguably one of the most beautiful aircraft to take to the sky the Sea Hawk served with 13 front-line RN squadrons. In 1956 seven of these took part in the Suez conflict, with little air opposition they conducted bombing, strafing, and close air support missions. During one of these their strafing was accurate enough that the paratroopers they were supporting felt confident enough to advance while it was taking place. [2] Only two Sea Hawks were lost during the action, both pilots surviving, while a number of other aircraft recovered even with severe damage.

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By the end of 1960, the Sea Hawk had left front line service with the Royal Navy having also conducted operations in Aden from Bulwark in 1958. At the same time, it was entering service with what would be its final operator the Indian Navy. Operating from the Majestic class carrier INS Vikrant the Sea Hawks of 300 INAS, the White Tigers, took part in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War which led to East Pakistan gaining its independence, becoming Bangladesh. Despite catapult problems the 18 aircraft of 300 INAS ranged across Bangladesh attacking air bases, ammunition dumps, and troop positions. Battle damage was repaired on board and all the aircraft remained serviceable during the ten days of operations.[3] Although formally leaving service in 1978 a Sea Hawk met the first three Sea Harriers for the Indian Navy over the Arabian Sea in 1983.

Also operational with the Royal Netherlands Navy until 1961 the Sea Hawk’s viceless handling, excellent visibility, and rugged construction make it one of the standout aircraft of the early cold war.
[2] Brian Cull. Wings Over Suez. London: Grub Street, 1996. 302
[3] Michael Doust. Sea Hawk From the Cockpit. Ringshall: Ad Hoc Publications, 2007. 60-61

7. Grumman F-14 Tomcat

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To some the F-14 is the ultimate naval fighter, and they might not be wrong. However, in terms of the Cold War it doesn’t quite make the top ranks. Entering service in 1972 with VF-124 the F-14A inherited the TF30 engines from the F-111. These were less than ideal for a fighter, rapid throttle movements, especially pulling the throttle to idle, could cause the engine to stall. Like in that film you’ll have seen, where due to the wide spacing of the engines a flat spin developed due to the asymmetric thrust. There were similar issues operating above 30,000’ which forced crews to operate lower than ideal reducing range and endurance.

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All these problems were solved, the range greatly increased, and take-off performance improved by the introduction of the F110 engine in the F-14B. These only started to enter service in 1987 though, four years before the end of the Cold War. By that point at least 24 Tomcats had been lost due to engine issues, around 28% of all losses. For variety one had also managed to shoot itself down with a Sparrow missile…

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Despite this the F-14A did manage to cover the withdrawal from Saigon on its maiden cruise, engaged two Libyan Su-22 in the 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident, and engaged two Libyan MiG-23s in the 1989 Gulf of Sidra incident. Which at least shows a degree of consistency on the part of the USN and the Libyan Air Force. They also covered the Invasion of Grenada and intercepted the Egypt Air 737 carrying the hijackers of the MS Achille Lauro, appearing alongside the aircraft at night while an EA-6B jammed radio communications. Oh and one shot down a USAF RF-4C during an exercise, which is taking inter-service rivalry a bit far.

The F-14A was the Cold War Tomcat, it wasn’t perfect, and the pilots flew the engines as much as they flew the aircraft, but it was still a capable fleet defender.

Interview with an Iranian Tomcat ace here

6. Douglas A-4 Skyhawk 

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Following on from the success of the Skyraider Ed Heinemann and his team produced a proposal for its successor. The USN specified an aircraft of no more than 30,000lbs to meet their range criteria for carrying a 2000-lb ‘special’ (in that way that a nuclear bomb is ‘special’) weapon. Laughing in the face of such limitations the Douglas design was half the weight while still meeting the requirements. The ‘special’ weapon leading to the characteristic stalky undercarriage. One of the weight saving measures was restricting the wingspan to 27’ enabling them to fit down carrier lifts without folding, removing the need for hydraulic actuators and allowing 2000 litres of fuel to be carried in each wing.

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With the first operational squadron forming in 1956 two years later the Skyhawk was in action over the Lebanon. This and subsequent action in South East Asia led to improvements to the A-4s conventional weapons capabilities which expanded to carry a wide range of unguided and guided weaponry. At the same time max payload increased from 5,500lbs in the A-4A to 9195lbs in the A-4M.

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Although the USN retired the A-4 from front line service in 1976 they were still operating from US carriers until October of 1999 in the training role. The Royal Australian Navy operated them from 1967 embarking on HMAS Melbourne until it was retired in the early ‘80s, the A-4G being wired for Sidewinders to provide an air defence capability. This was something the USN had also done for operations from its smaller ASW Carriers. The Comando de la Aviación Naval Argentina received 16 A-4Cs in 1971, later replaced with A-4Qs, to operate from the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, previously HNLMS Karel Doorman, previously HMS Venerable. However, due to issues with her catapult the majority of the Skyhawks missions were flown from shore, perhaps not surprising when using a third-hand carrier.

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The Skyhawk was a classic of Cold War naval aviation, proving its capability and perhaps uniquely for this list a new operator took it to sea almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Brazilian Navy taking delivery of 23 ex-Kuwaiti Air Force A-4KUs in 1998 and by 2001 these were operating from the carrier Minas Gerais.

5. Grumman A-6 Intruder 

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Following the Buccaneer into frontline service by around 18 months the first operational Intruder squadron VA-75 formed in November of 1963. The requirements that led to the Intruder were similar if slightly less ambitious than the British bombers, a two-man crew, radius of action of 300nm for close air support and 1000nm for long range interdiction, with a speed of 500knots. [4] Unlike the Buccaneer the Intruder also had a STOL requirement for USMC use during amphibious assaults, this led to the engine exhaust being deflected by 23° although ultimately this only featured on the first seven examples. It was however used during the types first flight the exhausts remaining vectored downwards throughout. After initial trials showed that the fuselage mounted airbrakes caused excessive turbulence over the tail plane when deployed they were moved to the wingtips giving the aircraft a distinctive appearance in the approach configuration. In a novel move to increase lift almost the entire trailing edge was used as flap with roll control being achieved through use of spoilers on the upper wing surface.
By 1965 VA-75 – The Sunday Punchers, were at war, using the advanced all-weather systems in the A-6 to strike targets at night, previously the North Vietnamese forces ally. Unfortunately, the systems were a bit too advanced and initially the aircraft suffered a 35% reliability rate. Improvements came with new radars and updates to the attack system known as DIANE. At the same time the USN undertook an effort to update all its mapping of North Vietnam, some of which was several miles out, to make sure the targets were where the Intruders’ systems thought they were.

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The A-6 underwent a number of upgrades ultimately evolving into the A-6E with a sensor turret housing an infra-red camera and laser designator which were integrated with the avionics systems. After Vietnam, the Intruder took part in raids on Lebanon, Libya, Iranian shipping during the tanker wars, and as something of a swan song took part in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

Interview with A-6 Intruder aircrew here

After over three decades of service the A-6 was retired with no true replacement, diminishing the striking power of the USN’s carriers.
[4] Robert F Dorr. Grumman A-6 Intruder. Over Wallop: Osprey, 1987. pp 9

5. Blackburn Buccaneer 

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Britain’s aircraft manufactures have never had much success making carrier aircraft, or land ones if you look at the Supermarine Swift and Gloster Javelin. It’s something of a surprise then that a company that had previously produced such crimes against aviation as the Blackburn Blackburn and the Firebrand somehow pulled it out of the bag with the Buccaneer.

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Demonstrating that the Admiralty could do asymmetric warfare if they put their minds to it the Buccaneer specification was drawn up in response to the emergence of the Soviet Navy’s Sverdlov cruisers. This called for an aircraft able to carry a variety of stores, including a 2,500kg Red Beard tactical nuclear bomb, the abortive Green Cheese anti-ship missile [5], or 4000lbs of conventional bombs, at speeds of at least 550kts at sea level, with a minimum radius of action of 400NM at low level. [6] For 1954 these were ambitious criteria, so much so that Percival Aircraft after asking to tender read the full requirements document and changed its mind. Fitting it into the limited dimensions of a British carrier called for novel solutions. While some aircraft had used high-pressure air from the engines blown over the flaps to improve take-off and landing performance the Buccaneer took the concept to the next level. Bleed air from the engines was ducted over the wings from just aft of the leading edge, the flaps, and the tail plane. This increased the coefficient of lift and the angle of attack at the stall allowing smaller wings and tail plane. In turn this gave a smoother ride at low level where a larger tail plane would have made the aircraft overly sensitive. For comparison with a 25% bigger wing at a weight of 33,000lb the Sea Vixen had an approach speed of 125kts to the Buccaneers 124kts. [Ref]
In something of a Blackburn tradition, the initial Buccaneer S1 was under-powered, on launching from a carrier the acceleration was around 1kt per second. Unusually plans to rectify this were in hand as the S1 entered service and the S2 fitted with the Spey was operational only three years later. This improved the acceleration after take-off to 7kt per second and let later Buccaneers leave the carrier with a full load of fuel rather than having to take some from a passing Scimitar.

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The Buccaneer is also notable for being the first aircraft to have a head-up display, providing steering cues to the weapons release point as well as an indication of the distance to go and the air speed.

Having a relatively peaceful time in RN service its major actions were helping enforce the Beira patrol in support of sanctions against Rhodesia, bombing the stricken tanker Torrey Canyon off Lands’ End in an attempt to burn off the crude oil, and launching from Ark Royal in mid-Atlantic to conduct a show of force over Belize to deter a Guatemalan invasion. Which is the kind of thing someone should write a book about.
[5] This was ultimately cancelled in favour of just lobbing tactical nuclear bombs in the general direction of enemy shipping before Martel was invented and some sanity restored.
[6] Tony Butler. British Secret Projects – Jet Bombers since 1949. Hinckley: Midland Publishing. Chapter 5
[Ref] Flight International 14 Jan 1971. 55-59

3. Chance-Vought F-8 Crusader

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Attempting to prove anything the British could do the Americans could do better Vought produced two terrible jet powered fighters, the F6U Pirate and the F7U Cutlass. For professionals such as Supermarine this would have been considered a good warm up before producing something truly average like the Scimitar, Vought however fumbled the ball and produced the outstanding F8U Crusader instead.
Although powered by a Pratt & Whitney J57 like the F-100 Super Sabre the Crusader could fly further, faster, and higher while carrying more. To assist in getting the supersonic fighter onboard Vought used a variable incidence wing this allowed the pilot to maintain sight of the ship while flying slow enough to safely land. These were later modified to incorporate boundary layer control over the flaps, initially to allow the French Navy to land the Crusader on its smaller carriers by reducing the landing speed by 15kts.

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The Crusader was active during the Vietnam War where it scored 19 air-to-air victories for 3 losses, the best ratio of any US aircraft. Armed with 4 x 20mm cannon it has frequently been called the last of the gunfighters, however it was upgraded through its life to carry an increasing range of stores allowing it to be used for ground attack missions as well as air defence. To provide the Essex Class carriers with an all-weather fighter from the F-8C onwards a new Magnavox radar was introduced with a larger dish. This allowed it to operate the AIM-9C, the only version of the Sidewinder to be radar guided giving it a head-on capability the IR version wouldn’t get until the AIM-9L in 1977. [Ref] However, being closely tied to the Crusader’s radar the 9C gave up the Sidewinders ability to be hung on nearly anything and didn’t equip any other type.
Entering service in 1957 the Crusader served with the USN as a fighter for 20 years and remarkably was only retired by the Aéronavale in 1999 after 35 years of service.
[Ref] Ron Westrum. Sidewinder, Creative Missile Development at China Lake. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. Chapter 14

2. BAe Sea Harrier 

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Books could, and have, been written on the inter-service shenanigans that led to the Royal Navy acquiring the Sea Harrier. Suffice to say with the writing clearly on the wall for its conventional carriers the emergence of the Harrier in the late ‘60s offered a potential solution to the task of maintaining air cover over the fleet without relying on shore based aircraft. The FRS1 essentially added a radar and a navigation system that could be aligned at sea to the basic Harrier GR3 airframe. It also removed as much magnesium as possible from the structure due to its tendency to fizzle in the presence of water.
Intended to ‘Hack the Shad’ by taking out Bear reconnaissance aircraft of Soviet Naval Aviation forces the Sea Harrier was initially armed with 30-mm cannons and 2 x Sidewinders. Alternatively, dumb bombs or rocket pods could be carried. Justifying the S in FRS1 it could also carry a WE177 nuclear bomb, while a Vinten F.95 camera took care of the R. First flight was in mid-1978 and in a move that would shock the F-35 development team one training and two operational squadrons, 899, 800, and 801 respectively, were formed at Yeovilton by February 1981.

Interview with Sea Harrier war hero Sharkey Ward here

In April 1982 both front line squadrons would be deployed to the South Atlantic as part of the British Task Force to retake the Falklands Islands from Argentina. In total 28 sea harriers would be deployed, the final 8 with the reformed 809 NAS which joined the carriers in the South Atlantic allowing some of the pilots to tick off their first air-to-air refuelling and deck landing sorties. There were further trials involved in deploying the aircraft with development radars being used to get sufficient operational Sea Harriers. Despite this, and predictions that the complete force would be wiped out in a matter of days, the Sea Harrier became the first fighter to achieve 20 air-to-air kills for no losses. All without using vectored thrust in forward flight, or VIFF, despite the insistence of multiple internet pundits. [Ref]

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Post war the aircraft received a number of upgrades, including the ability to carry four Sidewinders and integration of the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile which had been interrupted by the conflict. Further upgrades would lead to the F/A.2 with AMRAAM capability, but these didn’t enter service until 1993. The Cold War Sea Harrier would however remain in service with the Indian Navy’s 300 INAS until 2016 operating from another Falklands veteran the ex-HMS Hermes, INS Viraat.
Although smaller, slower, and less well armed than the aircraft it replaced the Sea Harrier showed the world that there was an alternative to the American route of ever larger super-carriers in conditions where even they would have trouble operating.
[Ref] This is the sort of thing that will feature in a Top 10 of FAA Myths just as soon as I finish it.

  1. McDonnell Douglas Phantom II

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In July 1959 the Royal Navy formed its first Sea Vixen squadron, an all-weather two-seat twin-engined carrier fighter that could just about break the sound barrier downhill. Rather un-sportingly 18 months later the USN formed its first F-4 Phantom squadron which could go twice as fast, carrying twice as many air-to-air missiles, while also hauling a selection of air-to-ground weaponry. It’s as if the Admiralty and British industry had had a total lack of imagination, although requiring the Sea Vixen to be able to conduct a free (catapult-less) take-off from the deck suggests they may have been smoking something.

Interview with F-4 pilot here

 

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First flying in 1958, the same year as the Buccaneer, the Phantom used boundary layer control almost as much as the British aircraft*. Both aircraft also featured ailerons that drooped compensating for relatively small flaps in the take-off and landing configuration.
Originally designed as an all-weather fleet defence interceptor the Phantom was seemingly capable of almost any role, being able to carry 16,000lbs of pretty much anything in the US or NATO inventory. In the case of the RF-4B it also carried out photoreconnaissance for the USMC from afloat and ashore. It was one of the first carrier aircraft to have an automatic landing capability, first trialled on 12 converted F-4Bs. They had been fitted with a system allowing them to be controlled by AWACs or surface ships to conduct interceptions, resulting in a change of designation to F-4G (a decade before the USAF F-4G). By using a retractable radar reflector in front of the nose gear the aircraft carrier could use the system to control the aircraft on approach to the deck. Although the interception capability never saw widespread use the deck landing capability was retrofitted to standard F-4Bs.

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Like the Intruder the Phantom saw its combat debut in Vietnam where it operated in the fighter and bomber roles. Unlike the Intruder it would also see service with the Royal Navy in a modified form, the J79 turbojets being replaced with Spey turbofans. Famously despite increasing the available thrust this reduced the top speed by around 0.2 Mach due to the drag from the larger intakes. They did however make the UK’s Phantoms the fastest accelerating up to around 400knots. They were also briefly considered for the USN as the F-4L for operations off the smaller Essex class carriers. However, a lack of commonality with the other US models and the potential threat to the Nimitz-class programme ended the idea.

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The Phantom remained in frontline service with the USN until 18 October 1986 when the type made its last carrier landing almost exactly 25 years after the first front-line squadron became carrier qualified. This period was the peak of the Cold War and throughout the F-4 proved a carrier aircraft could equal the best of any Air Force, if only because most of them ended up buying it.

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*The only difference being an unblown tailplane. The resulting increased size being needed so full elevator authority would be available while operating at high Mach when the shift in centre-of-pressure increases the aircraft’s stability. 

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6 comments

    • Bing Chandler

      I’ll concede the submarine threat was a major factor in the withdrawal of the carrier, although it was suffering a number of technical defects at the time as well according to ‘A Carrier at Risk’ by Mariano Sciaroni.

      • F

        Additionally unusually low winds for the South Atlantic on the intended strike days meant the aircraft could not be launched with a credible weapons package.

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