In response to 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 (later redesignated F-4) Phantom II.
The aircraft’s maiden flight occurred on May 27, 1958. In 1959, the Phantom II began carrier suitability trials with the first complete launch-recovery cycle performed on Feb. 15, 1960, from USS Independence (CVA-62).
As explained by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, as a result of these tests, the canopy line was raised some ten inches to increase pilot visibility during carrier landings, and the airplane was so modified as the F4H-2 after 45 Phantom IIs essentially similar to the prototypes were produced as the F4H-1 (F-4A). The F4H-2 (later F-4B) also changed the radar to the Westinghouse AN/APQ-72, an AN/APG-50 with a larger radar antenna that necessitated the bulbous nose.
A total of 649 F-4Bs were built with deliveries beginning in 1961. VF-121 Pacemakers became the first operational squadron at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar. The Phantom would go on to a total production run of more than 5,000 in all versions, being used by the US Air Force as well as numerous foreign air forces, with the last not taken off first-line operations until the end of the century.
Shortly after the initial deliveries, a series of unexplained in-flight engine emergencies resulted in the loss over the course of a month of three aircraft due to engine failure, with fires on relight attempts forcing crews to eject. The aircraft crashed at sea, taking the secret of the problem to the bottom of the Pacific off the California coast with them. The Navy was faced with having to ground its newest fighter, with program cancelation looming if the problem could not be discovered and fixed. All that was known was that the airplanes had been involved in air combat maneuvering just before their loss.
VF-121 commanding officer Commander E. Royce Williams, Jr., the Navy pilot who had shot down four of seven Soviet MiG-15s while flying an F9F Panther in an air battle off Vladivostok on Nov. 18, 1952, was the next pilot to experience the emergency. While engaging in combat maneuvers, both engines suddenly shut down. When Williams attempted to get an air start, one engine caught fire while the other refused to start. With the burning engine producing only idle power, Williams was able to stay in the air by lighting off the afterburner of the flaming J79! Determined to try to bring the plane back to Miramar, he ordered his radar intercept officer (RIO) to eject, but the order was refused. Williams was able to land the burning Phantom on the main Miramar runway, shutting down as soon as the wheels touched ground. Firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before the airplane exploded.
Post-accident analysis revealed a design anomaly in the curvature of the intake duct, which at higher angles of attack than had been achieved in initial tests resulted in air starvation to the engines. McDonnell was able to fix the problem and the Phantom program was saved.
The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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