Cold War Era

F-8 Crusader Vs F-4 Phantom II: US Naval Aviators recall the rivalry between the “Last of the Gunfighters” and the first “All-Weather Interceptor”

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.

One of the most capable fighters of the post-World War II era, the F-8 Crusader was a sleek design that featured a gaping jet intake beneath the fuselage and a variable-incidence wing that could be raised to enable the aircraft to land and takeoff at slow speeds while maintaining excellent visibility for the pilot. In an era in which fighter pilots relied increasingly on missiles, the Crusader retained 20mm cannon, prompting its pilots to call it the “Last of the Gunfighters.”

The F-4 Phantom II instead was developed in response to Navy requirements for a high-altitude interceptor to defend carriers with long-range air-to-air missiles against attacking aircraft. In response to these requirements, McDonnell Aircraft Company delivered the F4H (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, but also the air forces of ten foreign nations, making it one of the most widely-employed aircraft in the history of aviation.

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.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-8C Crusader VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG200 / 145559 / 1962

“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.

Gray Ghosts, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms is published by Schiffer 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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