Cold War Era

Before the F-4C: the F-110A Spectre, the Century Series Fighter that Never Was

27 F-4Bs were “bought” from the Navy order for S 147.8 m on the understanding that the Navy would have them back once the USAF’s Phantom variant, the F-4C (originally F-110A Spectre under the pre-McNamara designations) began to roll off the line

The McDonnell two-place, twinjet, all-weather F-4 Phantom II, with top speeds more than twice that of sound, was one of the most versatile fighters ever built. It served in the first line of more Western air forces than any other jet. Just 31 months after its first flight, the F-4 was the U.S. Navy’s fastest, highest flying and longest range fighter. It first flew May 27, 1958, and entered service in 1961.

As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book Gray Ghosts, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms, a small number of the first F-4Bs to enter Navy service also eased Phantom’s introduction to the USAF. Faced with the incontrovertible fact that it was better than any of the Air Force’s own fighters Tactical Air Command (TAC) borrowed two F4H-1s (BuNos 149405 and 149406) in 1962 for a seventeen-week evaluation. They toured USAF bases, including Bentwaters in the UK (BuNo 149406) during 1962 to show the troops what their new fighter looked like. The F-4B had already made an impressive debut at the Paris Salon the previous year. Both were formally transferred to the Air Force and given new serials (149406 became JF-4B 62-12169).

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

A further 27 F-4Bs were “bought” from the Navy order for S 147.8 m on the understanding that the Navy would have them back once the USAF’s Phantom variant, the F-4C (originally F-110A Spectre under the pre-McNamara designations) began to roll off the line. There were inevitable changes to the design for the production F-4C, but they were comparatively minor. Structurally, the wing root of the F-4B was thickened to accept wider (11.5 inch) wheels with anti-skid brakes on the main gear in place of the 7.7 “skinny” F-4B tires. Anti-skid brakes didn’t appear on Navy Phantoms until F-4J BuNo 157242 and up. Ground attack capability was enhanced by the AJB-7 bombing system, and cartridge-starting J79-15 engines were used. A control column appeared in the back cockpit, as both crewmen were regarded as pilots. The in-flight refueling system was converted to the standard Air Force flying boom system.

Under the command of record-breaking test pilot Colonel Pete “Speedy” Everest, the “borrowed” F4H- 1s equipped the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing at MacDill AFB, Florida, from Jan. 1, 1963, training crews for the 12th TFW until “real” F-4Cs began to arrive in November. RIOs, known initially as Pilot Systems Operators (PSOs) in the Air Force and later as Weapons Systems Operators (WSOs) found the removable control column in the rear cockpit an uncertain advantage. Unlike the F-4C’s stick it had to be unplugged and stowed before the radar controls could be slid out for use. Interestingly, “front seaters” were required to do time in the back to study the radar interception task. This twin-stick approach enabled the backseater to take control of the aircraft, but with no access to controls for the landing gear or brakes. The F-4C also had rudimentary throttle controls, but the backseater still could not land the aircraft alone.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Col. Robin Olds’ F-4C Phantom II FP/63-7680, as it appeared during Operation Bolo, January 2, 1967 – note the missing chin pod, which was not yet retrofitted at the time of Operation Bolo.

The Air Force had some early adaptation problems with the F-4B’s Martin-Baker H5 ejection seats, which were more complex than anything they were used to. Two fatalities and a serious injury to MacDill personnel resulted from failure to appreciate that the “banana-link” mechanism located on top of the seat could initiate ejection if moved or compressed with the seat armed. In one case an F-4B’s seat which had been inadequately secured slid up the rail during a negative g maneuver, fired the canopy jettison device, departed the cockpit, and then slid back along the fuselage. Fortunately, the pilot’s parachute also deployed and he survived.

Unlike their Navy and Marines counterparts, the USAF F-4 crews were not on Alert during the Cuban crisis. However, Phantom crews from all three services were soon to find plenty of action, much further away in South East Asia.

The following video gives you a glimpse into TAC Evaluation of the F-110A.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

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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  • CORRECTION: Please correct your last paragraph: "... the MacDill F-4 crews were on Alert during the Cuban crisis, though their effectiveness in action would have been limited by the fact that they had not begun weapons training at the time.

    The two wings at MacDill AFB did NOT have F-4C aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both 12th and 15 Tactical Figher Wings still operated the F-84F. The 4453 CCTS formed on 1 January 1963 and they did not receiveds their first USN F-4B until February, the first USAF unit to operate the Phantom. The first 12 TFW Phantom did not arrive until November 1963.

  • The last paragraph is INCORRECT: Both 12 & 15 TFW operated F-84Fs durng the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    On 14 October, a SAC U-2 flying a scheduled mission brought back photo evidence of Soviet missiles in western Cuba. Further missions on the 17th confirmed the presence of intermediate range ballistic missiles. The Joint Chiefs of Staff under General Curtis LeMay proposed an immediate air strike. But a special presidential committee recommended a quarantine of Soviet vessels heading toward Cuba.

    It appears the Pentagon decided to perform a "dress rehearsal" to prepare for military action. On Wednesday the 17th, MacDill AFB experienced an influx of arriving aircraft (Composite Air Strike Force) including F-100s, RF-101 and RB-66 aircraft. As the steady arrival increased, base F-84 activities decreased accordingly. The 836 AD issued a statement claiming the sudden arrivals involved a three-day routine mobility exercise. By Friday, the visiting fleet of aircraft departed MacDill. And that evening, 306th BW began an exodus of B-47s and men to SAC bases while placing remaining Stratojets on alert status. SAC maintained this posture until Sunday 21st when all remaining B-47s with maintenance crews and administrative staff--including commanding officer--had vacated permanently and deployed to Hunter AFB, GA. The 306th had been scheduled for deactivation between January and April 1963.

    On 21 October, the mission at MacDill AFB changed from training to a combat readiness in support of TOP SECRET Operational Plan 312 as the Cuban Missile Crisis materialized. On Monday morning the 22nd, the skies over the Bay area again filled with TAC aircraft as F-100s, RF-101s, and RB-66s, now including KB-50 tankers, arrive at 5 to 10 minute intervals. They lined-up on the northern end of the base parking ramp, occupying the same area vacated by the B-47s. The base information office announced the influx as another "routine mobility exercise." But that evening President Kennedy gave a televised speech informing Americans that missiles had been discovered in Cuba and he ordered a Navy quarantine around Cuba, and demanded the Soviets remove the missiles.

    Meanwhile, KC-97s landed and disembarked large numbers of personnel and equipment for the visiting units. The military reserved several Tampa area hotels in advance for billets. One downtown hotel quartered 200 men with round-the-clock transportation to the base. Several buildings on base had all office equipment removed and converted to dormitories with bunks, allowing transfer in of additional military personnel. Convoys of police-escorted moving vans transporting photo intelligence equipment that arrived on base.

    The 836 AD assembled 106 armed F-84Fs from 12 & 15 TFW and also supported the assigned combat units: 27 TFW arrived with 60 F-100Ds; 722 Air Refueling Squadron with 20 KB-50Js tankers; and 363 TRW provided 33 RF-101s, 24 RB-66Bs, and 7 RB-66Cs for 64 reconnaissance aircraft. The US president ordered continuous surveillance of Cuba and its military installation. MacDill-based RF-101 and RB-66 aircraft performed medium- and low-altitude photography twice-daily and at night, while SAC U-2s supplemented high-altitude coverage.

    Many MacDill F-84Fs were powered by an earlier lower-thrust engine model. And when fully armed with ordnance and wing tanks, the heavy aircraft "hogged" the full 11,000- foot runway on takeoff.

    By 27 October, the Soviets agreed to remove all missiles from Cuba, while the US withdrew Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles from Turkey and promised not to attack Cuba, .

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