Cold War Era

That time an F-4 Phantom II Outran an F/A-18 Hornet and Zoomed at 82,125 Feet per Minute

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,’ Travis Brannon former F-4 driver with the U.S. Navy.

A multi-mission aircraft designed to replace the F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair II, the F/A-18 Hornet became the front line naval strike fighter shortly after fleet introduction in the mid-1980s. Equally at home in air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, the aircraft is highly maneuverable and instrumented to optimize single pilot control of numerous weapons systems.

U.S. Navy strike-fighter squadrons VFA-25 and VFA-113 (assigned to CVW-14) deployed aboard USS Constellation from February to August 1985, marking the first deployment for the F/A-18.

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

Nevertheless, the iconic Phantom with top speeds more than twice that of sound was still faster than the then new Hornet as Travis Brannon, former F-4 driver with the U.S. Navy, recalls.

‘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

  • The Navy photo used for this piece seems to be from the first flight of the Hornet out of St. Louis. We had two KA-3s flying in case anyone needed some extra time in the air. I was one of the qualified A-3 pilots at Paxtuxent River during initial testing of the Hornet never heard the F-4 could out run a F-18. Conversely I do remember one of the F-4 chase pilots mentioning , the F-18 could out run both F-14 and F-4 but at around 1.1-1.2 the F-14 would leave everyone.

  • The f4 had a top end at 1475 knots the f 28 had a top end at 1180 knots do the math the phantom leaves the f18 in the dust.

  • What is the third aircraft is it a A-6 Intruder or what? I tried to trace down the tail wing number and didn't get anything from it

    • Hi Cristina the aircraft is a KA-3 Skywarrior tanker. Thanks for following us!

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