“The F-4s got off to a horrid start when running into F-8s. Their reputation was dog-s**t,” Jerry B. “Devil” Houston, former F-8 driver
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, many of the Phantom’s early cruises were as paired squadrons with F-8 units, which were regarded as “day fighter” (or in the F-8 pilots’ estimation, “fighter”) units, compared to the F-4’s “all-weather interceptor” role. The rivalry between the two communities was intensified as the F-4 began to outnumber the Crusader and F-8 drivers started to move over to the Phantom. Jerry B. “Devil” Houston, who flew Crusaders with VF-11 before making the transition, summed up the situation:
“The F-8 stole your heart from the get-go with its beauty and, for its time, power (God, an afterburner!), but it quickly earned an ensign-killer reputation, rightly or wrongly. In the long run that reputation contributed greatly to fighter pilot development in the Navy: only the top ten per cent of pilot graduates were even considered for the F-8 pipeline—the créme de la créme. And as luck would have it a damn solid base of mid-level stick-and-throttle talent groomed the hungry youngsters into frothing-at-the-mouth tacticians. Without experiencing it, anyone would be hard-pressed to understand the aura that surrounded that early F-8 Crusader community. An ensign in F-8s took no crap from a Lieutenant Commander who flew anything else. Period.
“Among that small, but growing privileged group, anyone in the first few squadrons knew damn near exactly where they stood in the overall tactics ladder. Killing, capability meant everything: King of the Mountain, in spades. Gunnery, tactics, gunnery, tactics, just enough intercept training to get you into the sky with another victim. F-8s didn’t bomb then—hell, the plane didn’t even have hardpoints on the wings. In other words, everything funneled the best pilots and the best airplanes through a narrow training spout, and out popped the world’s best fighter pilots. They all ate, breathed, thought, and dreamed about fighting airplanes. All the time.
“The F-4, on the other hand, was an ugly, two-seated, gas-hog monster that hit the Fleet with a bunch of F3H Demon interceptor pilots. Consequently, the F-4s got off to a horrid start when running into F-8s. Their reputation was dog-s**t, and the ex-Demon drivers didn’t have a clue about changing it. So they practiced intercepts, avoided tactics, and groomed follow-on clods in their own image. All the while that lovely top ten per cent advantage kept aircrew infusing the Crusader community with superior talent, which rapidly molded into long-clawed killers. The rich got richer—and even richer. Better people, better training, frightful competition. Crusader pilots didn’t have to brag; they owned the sky. So it remained, until finally an F-8 jock got into an F-4, screaming and dragging his heels all the way. The rest is history.”
The influx of F-8 pilots and tactics as their squadrons original transitioned to the Phantom certainly accelerated the development of F-4 ACM training. As late as 1971, when Jerry Houston’s VF-51 moved from the F-8J to the F-4B, he thought of the unit as a “double- barreled Crusader squadron with an extra set of eyeballs in each plane.” However, the awareness of the need for ACM began much earlier than that, and certainly pre-dated the initiatives of the later 1960s which gave rise to the Top Gun ACM training project.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com