Cold War Era

A special aircraft: between 1959 and 1962, the F-4 Phantom II set 16 world records (and five of them were not broken until the F-15 Eagle appeared)

Despite its imposing dimensions and a maximum takeoff weight over 60,000 pounds, the F-4 Phantom II was capable of reaching a top speed of Mach 2.23 and had an initial climb rate of over 41,000 feet per minute.

In response to US Navy requirements for a high-altitude interceptor to defend carriers with long-range air-to-air missiles against attacking aircraft, McDonnell Aircraft Company delivered the F4H-1 (later redesignated F-4) Phantom II. The aircraft’s maiden flight occurred in 1958 with deliveries to Navy and Marine Corps squadrons beginning in 1960.

Its performance and versatility eventually attracted the interest of not only the US Air Force (USAF), but also the air forces of ten foreign nations, making it one of the most widely-employed aircraft in the history of aviation.

Despite its imposing dimensions and a maximum takeoff weight over 60,000 pounds, the F-4 was capable of reaching a top speed of Mach 2.23 and had an initial climb rate of over 41,000 feet per minute.

As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, as had been done with the F-8 Crusader, the Navy decided to publicize its new fighter by setting new speed and altitude records.

McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260, taxiing at Edwards Air Force Base, Dec. 1959 during Project Top Flight. Top image: McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260, during Operation Skyburner, Nov. 22, 1961.

These record-setting flights began on Dec. 6, 1959, when the second YF4H-1 was flown in a zoom climb by Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., to a world record 98,557 feet in Operation Top Flight, beating the previous record of 94,658 feet set by a Soviet Sukhoi T-43-1. Commander Flint accelerated his aircraft to Mach 2.5 at 47,000 feet, then climbed at a 45-degree angle to 90,000 feet, where he shut down the engines and glided to the peak altitude. As the Phantom II fell through 70,000 feet altitude, he restarted the engines and resumed normal flight. On Sep. 5, 1960, an F4H-1 averaged 1,216.78 miles per hour over a 500-kilometer (311-mile) closed-circuit course. Twenty days later, on Sep. 25, another F4H-1 averaged 1,390.21 miles per hour over a 100-kilometer (62-mile) closed-circuit course.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Naval Aviation on May 24, 1961, three F4H-1F Phantom IIs set a transcontinental speed record, despite having to slow down for tanker refuelings. The fastest airplane of the trio, flown by Lieutenant Richard Gordon and RIO Lieutenant Bobbie Long, averaged 869.74 miles per hour and completed the trip in 2 hours 47 minutes, earning Gordon the 1961 Bendix trophy.

Operation Sageburner saw an attempt on the world sea level speed record, which required the airplane to fly a three-mile course at an altitude under 125 feet at the Salton Sea in southern California. During the first attempt on May 18, 1961, Commander J.J. Felsman was killed when his Phantom II disintegrated in mid-air after suffering pitch damper failure. On Aug. 28, a second Phantom II averaged 902.769 miles per hour over the course for a new world record. On Dec. 22, 1961, a Phantom II modified with water-methanol injection set an absolute world record speed of 1,606.342 miles per hour in Operation Skyburner. On Dec. 5, another Phantom II set a sustained flight altitude record of 66,443.8 feet.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VF-31 Tomcatters, AC106 / 157307 / Mig Kill – 1972

1962 saw Operation High Jump set a series of time-to-altitude records: 34.523 seconds to 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), 48.787 seconds to 6,000 meters (19,680 feet), 61.629 seconds to 9,000 meters (29,530 feet), 77.156 seconds to 12,000 meters (39,370 feet), 114.548 seconds to 15,000 meters (49,210 feet), 178.5 seconds to 20,000 meters (65,600 feet), 230.44 seconds to 25,000 meters (82,000 feet), and 371.43 seconds to 30,000 meters (98,400 feet). Although the feat was not officially recognized, the Phantom II in the final flight zoom-climbed to over 100,000 feet.

Over the three years between 1959 and 1962, the Phantom II set 16 world records. With the exception of Operation Skyburner, these records were all achieved in unmodified production aircraft. Five of the speed records were not broken until the F-15 Eagle appeared in 1975.

The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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