The Navy Got Its Hands On Its First Operational F-4 Phantom Sixty Years Ago Today

The extraordinary career of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II began exactly 60 years ago when a first example was handed over to the U.S. Navy to begin training aviators on the “Bent Wing Wonder.” That delivery launched a monumental run for the classic Cold War-era fighter, in the hands of three U.S. services and a multitude of foreign operators. The curtain only finally came down on the Phantom’s U.S. military service in 2016, an event that The War Zone marked here.

It was Fighter Squadron 121 (VF-121), the “Pacemakers,” that had the honor of inducting the first Phantoms to see military service anywhere in the world. Back on December 30, 1960, VF-121 took charge of its first F4H, as the Phantom was then known, the fighter being delivered from the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, in St. Louis, Missouri, to the squadron’s home at Naval Air Station Miramar, California. It was not until September 1962 that the Phantom received its more familiar F-4 designation under the tri-service system of nomenclature.

VF-121 “Pacemakers” eventually traded its early-production Phantoms for the much-improved F-4J model, an example of which returns to Miramar in 1978., U.S. Navy

These very first Phantoms for VF-121 were the F4H-1F model, known as the F-4A from 1962 on, only 45 of which were manufactured. That’s a relative drop in the ocean compared to the 5,195 examples of the F-4 eventually built, not just in the United States but also in Japan, where the type has only just been withdrawn from frontline use. Meanwhile, in Greece, Iran, Turkey, and South Korea, the Phantom still soldiers on. 

As the first recipient of the big new all-weather fighter, the role of VF-121 “Pacemakers” was tasked to train up pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs) for the Phantom, as the West Coast Fleet Replacement Air Group (RAG), or schoolhouse for the type. Since the Phantom added a RIO the training effort was increased proportionately — a second crewmember had not featured in a U.S. Navy fighter cockpit since the subsonic F3D Skyknight around a decade earlier. The job of the RIO was to operate the sophisticated Phantom’s Westinghouse radar, part of a space-age avionics suite that also boasted a Raytheon missile fire-control system, advanced navigation kit, and an analog air-data computer. 

An idea of the caliber of the newly minted Phantom aviators coming out of VF-121 is provided by Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Lieutenant Richard F. “Dick” Gordon, both of whom went from training with the “Pacemakers” to taking part in the Apollo 12 moon mission.

Another McDonnell product, the F3H Demon was still flown by the VF-121 “Pacemakers” when its first Phantoms began to arrive., U.S. Navy

Over on the East Coast, the equivalent RAG was VF-101, the “Grim Reapers,” at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, a detachment of which had actually separated and moved to Miramar to become VF-121 in advance.

Aside from the two crewmembers, the Phantom was already a huge advance over the F3H Demon and F11F Tiger that the “Pacemakers” had operated until now. It was significantly bigger and more powerful — with twin engines, rather than a single one. Despite lacking the planned J79-GE-8 turbojets, even the interim GE-2 series engines in the F4H-1F each provided over 16,000 pounds of thrust with afterburning, capable of propelling it to speeds in excess of Mach 2.

In terms of armament, the Phantom was designed without a gun, relying instead on guided missiles, an oversight that would have to be addressed after the jet was thrown into the close-quarters combat of the Vietnam War. The same conflict saw the F-4 emerge as a true multirole platform, perhaps the first of its kind, carrying a greater quantity of more varied weapons than any of its contemporaries.

The early days of Phantom flying were hazardous, however. The first prototype F4H-1 crashed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in October 1959, during a workup sortie for an attempt on the world speed record, claiming the life of test pilot Gerald “Zeke” Huelsbeck.

F4H-1 Phantom II Bureau Number 142259 was the aircraft lost in the October 1959 crash that killed test pilot Gerald “Zeke” Huelsbeck., San Diego Air and Space Museum

Then, in May 1961, Commander J. L. Felsman was killed while conducting a high-speed low-level run in an early-production F4H-1. This crash, and another at Patuxent River, Maryland, both carried the hallmarks of pilot-induced oscillation, or PIO, when excessive pilot inputs on the flight controls led to the aircraft vibrating, effectively shaking itself apart.

Among the first at VF-121 to get their hands on the Navy’s new Phantom was Commander Wilbur Norton, who reflected on the jet’s teething troubles:

The Phantom itself was remarkably stable. Indeed, the stability of the design was a remarkable improvement over what we were flying then. But those who were ham-fisted would overcontrol the Phantom, or overcorrect if something went awry. The aircraft would then oscillate like mad. The best way to get out of this high-vibration problem is to remove your hands from the controls and just watch. At high altitude, you can recover easily. At low altitude, PIO is instant death.

Ultimately, the PIO reflected not any inherent failing in the basic design of the Phantom but had more to do with pilots learning to adapt to the intricacies of this extraordinarily high-powered machine. The training syllabus at the RAGs was adapted accordingly, emphasizing a light touch on the controls, even when throwing the jet around in simulated combat.

A camouflaged F-4G of VF-121 at Miramar in 1966. Only 12 of this Phantom model were converted from F-4Bs, with data link system, and other changes. , U.S. Navy

The early experience with the Phantom goes to show that even the creation of a thoroughbred is not without its difficulties, with airframes and lives lost in high-profile accidents. By February 1962, however, the F4H-1 was ready to go to sea for the first time in an operational capacity, when VF-102 went aboard the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). The most advanced aircraft carrier in the world — then on its shakedown cruise — made a suitable perch for the Phantom, which would soon establish itself as the pre-eminent naval fighter before going on to forge an equally successful career on land.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.