Cold War Era

F-4 Pilot tells the story of when his Phantom II Outran an F/A-18 Hornet and Zoomed at 82,125 Feet per Minute

‘When the Hornet maxed out at Mach 1.6 (didn’t make its max), I was approaching Mach 2 and closing rapidly,’ Travis Brannon former F-4 Phantom II pilot with the US Navy.

Following the Vietnam War, the US Navy developed a multi-mission aircraft able to perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions to replace the F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair II. The YF-17 was selected as the lightweight craft due to being able to adapt to aircraft carrier operations. Teaming-up, McDonnell Douglas and Northrop developed the strike fighter, with the designation of F/A-18 and was named Hornet. The first aircraft were to the US Marines and US Navy, respectively. The first deployed Hornets were sent to USS Constellation (CV-64) in 1985.

The initial fleet reports were complimentary, indicating that the Hornet was extraordinarily reliable, a major change from its predecessor, the F-4.

But, as Travis Brannon, former F-4 pilot with the US Navy, recalls on Quora the iconic Phantom II with top speeds more than twice that of sound was still faster than the then new Hornet.

‘When the F/A-18 was being developed at Pax River, Maryland, every flight had a plane with them whose mission was “safety chase”, there in case there was an issue with the Hornet and support and/or SAR was needed.

‘I was assigned safety chase in an F-4 because the mission was to verify that the Hornet could go from Mach 0.9 to its max speed of Mach 1.8 in the amount of time McDonnell Douglas had promised.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F/A-18C Hornet VFA-34 Blue Blasters, NE400 / 165403 / 2017

‘We started at 50, 000 feet at Mach 0.9 and on signal, both of us went to full afterburner. The Hornet was able to initially out-accelerate me and pull ahead about a quarter of a mile. However, the Phantom was one of those planes where it seemed the faster it went, the faster it wanted to go, and the Hornet was not.

‘When the Hornet maxed out at Mach 1.6 (didn’t make its max), I was approaching Mach 2 and closing rapidly. Just as I was about even with him, the Hornet pilot, who was responsible for navigating, started a hard left turn without warning.

‘A fighter pilot, when faced with an overshoot, instinctively pulls his nose up to trade airspeed for altitude and decrease the amount of overshoot, so I did that as I started my turn to the left with him. At about 45 degrees nose-high, I realized that since I was nearly going Mach 2, my vertical speed was Mach 1.4- I looked at my altimeter and the big needle was actually spinning- I was climbing at 82,125 feet per minute!

‘I rolled inverted to stop my climb at 62,500 feet, but not before I noticed I could now see two horizons, both remarkably curved. One was the normal one we all see at the beach, blue-green ocean and robin-egg blue, but the second one was robin-egg blue below, and the most spectacular, dark, iridescent blue of space. So lucky to have seen it!’

Brannon concludes:

‘I would have had to shut the engines down at 75,000 feet to prevent them from overheating. That would have caused me to lose my cockpit pressure and since I was not in a pressure suit, I have blown up like a toad, instant pulmonary edema, and probably death.’

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Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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.

View Comments

  • He was very fortunate to survive this, having flown virtually to the Armstrong limit without a pressure suit. Wouldn't be surprised if he had headaches for a while. Interesting story too, because I remember reading that the Eurofighter was to be the first supersonic fighter. Apparently not!

  • For starts, the F-18A wasn't designed for high Mach operations. It gave up some Mach to get better maneoverability, hence the long leading edge off the wing root.

  • @hairyairey, how about the 1954 F100 super sabre at mach 1.4? That was about 50 years before the eurofighter.

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