Military Aviation

Phantom Vs Tomcat: RIO who Flew Both the F-4 and the F-14 tells which one was the better fighter

‘There was a lot to love about those two jets. But alas, technology moves on…,’ Thomas Foster, Former US Navy RIO (Radar Intercept Officer F-4/F-14).

In response to US 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.

Unique in that it carried no internal cannon, the F-4 relied on radar-guided missiles for offense and required a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to operate its advanced sensors and weapons systems.

While the F-4 was serving as the Navy premier air superiority aircraft advancements in Soviet long range patrol and bomber aircraft dictated a requirement for a fleet defense fighter that could engage high-altitude bombers from well beyond visual range. The iconic F-14 Tomcat was Grumman‘s answer.

Equipped with long range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles over 90 miles away. As its predecessor, the Tomcat needed a RIO to exploit these impressive capabilities.

The F-14 entered active service in 1974 and started to replace the F-4 in the same year.

But which was really the better fighter from a RIO’s point of view, the Phantom or the Tomcat?

‘As a RIO, I preferred the F-14 because it had so many bells and whistles,’ explained Thomas Foster, Former US Navy RIO (Radar Intercept Officer F-4/F-14), on Quora.

‘The F-4 was ’50s technology. The ultimate ’50s technology.

‘However, being in an F-4 squadron was a rush in itself. There was only one other aircraft that had that look and that was the F4U. So the Phantom II certainly passed the look test. While my APQ-72 radar couldn’t find that needle in a haystack (lockdown over high clutter environment) it was big and strong. I once had three Bears at 1000ft at 112 miles (I worked my tail off to find those ruskies. In an F-14 I would’ve pushed a button and then made my stick some coffee while the AWG-9 did the heavy lifting). And I was able to break out all three targets at that range. I never regretted my F-4 time and for RIOs felt that the Phantom II was a great way to learn the trade. One drawback was the seat was so low you felt you were IN the jet.’

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Foster continues;

‘The F-14 was late ’60s technology (except the radar. It too was a product of the ‘50s. Hard to believe but true) and what an advance a decade made!

‘The Tomcat weapons system had a good blend of automation and manual control. We would routinely hit the merge vs F-15s and F-16s because I could manually control the intercept while their systems were automatic. We routinely ran those intercepts in pulse search because we didn’t give our position away.

‘Aerodynamically the Tomcat was magic. It was the size of a B-17 but amazingly maneuverable. And size was the one fixed parameter we had to deal with. It’s hard to sneak up on vermin when you are an aluminum overcast. The jet was amazing in pitch, not so good in roll.

‘And the seats were so high I always felt I was ON the jet. Great visibility.’

Foster concludes;

‘Both jets were the best during their time. We considered both to be “Big Iron” on the CV. Both were intimidating. The F-4 looked like that Water Buffalo that was not happy you were on it’s continent. The F-14 looked sleek (except with the wings forward and the gear and flaps down…. a Golden Eagle drawing a bead on a lawn dart. Both could fly at amazing speeds (One quote I remember is a very unhappy Admiral asking one of our pilots why he was doing 550 kts in the break at Miramar? Answer: “I couldn’t get 600!”)

‘There was a lot to love about those two jets. But alas, technology moves on…’

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Photo credit: LCdr. David Baranek via and 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.

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