USMC RF-4B crews explain how thanks to its Speed the Marine Corps recce Phantom II Became the Best Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft of the Vietnam War

USMC RF-4B crews explain how thanks to its Speed the Marine Corps recce Phantom II Became the Best Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft of the Vietnam War

By Dario Leone
Feb 8 2024
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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The USMC RF-4B Phantom II

The RF-4B was the US Marine Corps (USMC) photoreconnaissance version of the F-4B Phantom II.


The RF-4B was quite similar to the much more numerous RF-4C of the USAF. Like the RF-4C, the RF-4B was unarmed. The fighter’s radar-equipped nose was replaced with a special nose specifically designed for reconnaissance applications. This nose was 4 feet 8 7/8 inches longer than the nose of the armed F-4B. The AN/APQ-72 radar of the F-4B was replaced by the much smaller Texas Instruments AN/APQ-99 forward-looking J-band monopulse radar which was optimized for terrain avoidance and terrain-following modes, and could also be used for ground mapping.

According to China Lake Museum Foundation, there were three separate camera bays in the nose, designated Stations 1, 2, and 3. Station 1 could carry a single forward oblique or vertical KS-87 camera, Station 2 could carry a single KA-87 low-altitude camera, and Station 3 normally carried a single KA-55A or KA-91 high-altitude panoramic camera. The much larger KS-91 or KS-127A camera could also be carried. Unlike the cameras of the Air Force’s RF-4Cs, the RF-4B’s cameras were fitted on rotating mounts so that the pilot could aim them at targets off the flight path.

The rear cockpit was configured for a reconnaissance systems operator, with no flight controls being provided.

The film could be developed in flight and film cassettes could be ejected at low altitude so that ground commanders could get aerial intelligence as rapidly as possible.

VMFA-333 F-4 Phantom print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VMFA-333 Fighting Shamrocks, AJ201 / 155526 / 1972

USMC RF-4B Reconnaissance Aircraft during the Vietnam War

The first RF-4B flew on March 12, 1965, and deliveries of 46 examples took place between May 1965 and December 1970.

The RF-4B was first delivered to VMCJ-3 based at MCAS El Toro in May of 1965, and soon after to VMCJ-2 at MCAS Cherry Point and to VMCJ-1 at Iwakuni in Japan.

VMCJ-1 based at Iwakuni in Japan took nine RF-4Bs to Da Nang in October of 1966.

The RF-4B was an immediate success with its crews as Col Ed ‘Alligator’ Love, who assumed command of the squadron in May 1967, told Peter E Davies for his book US Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War;

`The pilots loved the RF-4B! The cockpit fitted like a glove, and all the controls and switches were where you expected them to be. You added throttle and there was an immediate burst of power. Responses from the other controls were equally as satisfying.’

‘Mosaic’ photo coverage of the DMZ

Alone, Unarmed, Unafraid and Supersonic: how thanks to its Speed the USCM RF-4B Became the Best Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft During the Vietnam War

VMCJ-1 (or `J-1′ to its members) also took on four Grumman EA-6A Intruder electronic warfare aircraft at the same time as the RF-4Bs. Intruder crews worked closely with the Phantom IIs in the search for NVA fire-control radars, particularly in the A Shau Valley. Once the EA-6As had plotted the source of radar emissions as exactly as they could, an RF-4B would be tasked to photograph the site for attack by strike aircraft.

One of the earliest uses of the RF-4B was to provide ‘mosaic’ photo coverage of the DMZ, which contained extensive North Vietnamese weaponry. Normally this was done by a single aircraft flying a series of parallel and highly predictable tracks, giving enemy gunners plenty of time to set their sights. VMCJ-1 RIO Marty Lachow devised a way of reducing risks and maximising coverage by simultaneously flying five parallel tracks;

`I set up a plan using five aircraft in V-formation. We each had a radar operator set up a radar position on the other aircraft, with Lt Col Fleming and myself in the lead. The formation took up position some 60 miles out to sea at 40,000 ft and headed in, descending, “balls out”. Fleming and I centred on the DMZ [descending to 500 ft]. Suffice it to say that one pass was successful, and in all probability both our “grunts” and the NVA troops on either side of the DMZ lost their hearing from the sonic booms of five Phantom Its overhead at just 200 ft.’

USMC RF-4B updates

On other occasions coverage had to be by single aircraft flying parallel tracks up to 20 times in the same area to provide wide coverage of bomb damage or suspected enemy troop movements. Generally, unlike F-4B/J tactics, the ‘one pass, haul ass’ rule applied to VMCJ-1, with no multiple passes permitted.

Alone, Unarmed, Unafraid and Supersonic: how thanks to its Speed the USCM RF-4B Became the Best Tactical Reconnaissance Aircraft During the Vietnam War

Updates to the RF-4B’s myriad systems progressed, with the first jet flying to NAS Atsugi in May 1967 for ‘Shoehorn Delta ECM installation, and the rest making the trip at ten-day intervals for the six-day modification process, or receiving the upgrade in the field. Conditions for the crews on base were less hi-tech, however, with officers paying $20 each for the installation of rudimentary air-conditioning devices in their stiflingly hot tented quarters. Monsoon conditions of high humidity, fog and heat caused J79 engine compressors to stall, melted the potting compound that insulated electrical connections and made fuel tanks leak.

USMC RF-4B missions during the Vietnam War

New tasks were introduced, including sorties with VMA(AW)-242 A-6A Intruders to photograph the results of their bombing. John Dailey flew some of those missions;

`When the A-6As arrived around November 1967, we wanted to see if they were hitting their targets. We planned to have an RF-4 fly wing on an A-6 during its bomb run. We got the pictures and we could see that the Intruders were not hitting the target. Everyone was naturally upset, and they wanted to keep doing it until they had a picture of an A-6 hitting its target. They’d drop bombs and break off, leaving us in the RF-4s to follow, and we were getting shot up pretty badly. On my third mission with an A-6 I got really blasted at Vinh, where VMA(AW)-242 was bombing a bridge.

`During the next mission brief I asked the A-6 crew, “What’s your climb-out speed?” “Ah, about 300”, they replied! I had three tanks on the RF-4 for a night rendezvous with a dissimilar aircraft. He was doing about 250 knots. We could fly at 550 knots with the three tanks, and often exceeded 600 knots in this configuration.’

US Marine Corps F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

This model is available AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: Robert Lawson, U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

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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