What was I like to fly an F-4 Phantom?

By: Jim Howard

I’m a former F-4C/E/G Electronic Warfare Officer, I can share my view from the backseat, aka ‘the pit’.

In my day navigators trained in the T-29 (I was on the last student flight) and the T-43, which was a modified Boeing 737–200. After my nav class the T-29 was replaced by the T-37.

Those of us selected to fly fighters were given ten hours in the back seats of the T-38. That was pure fun. You had great visibility, a good air conditioner, and this sports car of an airplane. It was something of a challenge for the pilots to land, given it’s tiny little wings, but our instructors had no issues with that. We flew little low levels, simulated conventional dive bombing, formation, and very basic fighter maneuvers. It was all fun.

After T-38s I was sent to the F-4E basic course at McDill AFB in Florida. My first ride in the F-4 was nothing like the T-38! The ‘pitter’ sits pretty low in the F-4, and the air conditioner doesn’t really work below 10,000 feet.

Just looking at it you knew this was no T-38 sports car. It was a big hulking War Machine.

Little or no consideration was given to ergonomics in either seat, especially the back seat. Everything was heavy metal, lots of knobs, buttons, and switches scattered everywhere. Big heavy brackets and protrusions of one kind or another.

From that first F-4 ride to my last, taxing out in a four ship of these monsters was a thrill. Something about the F-4 makes you really want to get into a fight with somebody. Even the geekiest Electronic Warfare Officer starts to feel like a real badass. The airplane just does that to everyone who flew it.

That first takeoff was an eyeopener. Imagine a Peterbilt Truck sitting a stoplight revving up a 50,000 horsepower turbo charged diesel engine. The light turns green and this huge machine is going down the runway like the proverbial ‘scalded ass ape’.

The thing most people who haven’t flown fighters realize, as I didn’t on that first ride, is just how physical flying a fighter can be. A typical F4 flight is about 60 to 80 minutes long. Durning that time you are almost always either pulling 4 to 6 gs, or zero g’s. You’re rarely straight and level for more than a couple of minutes. The Air Force crams a lot of training into that short flight, so you’ve got a lot to do in a workplace that is hot and uncomfortable even sitting still, let alone roaring along at 480 knots.

It’s a real workout. Nothing you see in the movies can capture the physicality of a flight in a fighter. I think it may be a little harder on the guy in back, because he’s not tight in the control loop. Especially not when he’s a new guy.

As the back seater gains experience he’s able to anticipate what his pilot is going to do before he does it, so he has less instances of his head being slammed into the radar scope or the side of the canopy. The F-4 is a fair but harsh teacher.

An F-4G Phantom II aircraft shows its undercarriage holding four different missiles: one each AGM-45, AGM-65, AGM-78, AND AGM-88.

The real secret of the F-4’s success was the wonderful J-79 engines. Unlike the TF-30s I flew in the F-111, the J-79 would not compressor stall unless something was really wrong with it. Throttle response was nearly instantaneous. Like every other part of Double Ugly, the engines did not need to be ‘babied’

OK, J-79s would on rare occasions explode. But what do you expect from a machine tuned for maximum performance?

Let me say a word about F-4 pilots. Unlike all subsequent USAF fighters (or even other old ones like the A-7 and F-111) the F-4 has a very simple flight control system, not that different than that of an F-86 or Mig-21. The F-4 requires a real stick and rudder pilot to get the most out of the airplane.

It was easy to mishandle in maneuvering flight, especially the ‘hard wing’ C and D models. And being the harsh teacher that she was, the F-4 punishes a clumsy hand on the stick mercilessly.

The F-4 of my day had an essentially manual bombing system. Bombing accuracy exactly corresponded to skill of the hands on the stick.

The longer I flew the F-4 the more respect for my nose gunners I gained. When I got into the F-4G Weasel I felt I’d really arrived as an EWO. The APR-38 ‘Weasel Attack System’ was a 21st Century avionics system wrapped in this 1960s airplane. It took away what little forward visibility I had, but it was worth to give me a system that gave me the upper hand over most surface-to-air missile systems.

It’s ability to locate the position of a radar in three dimensions within a few seconds was remarkable! I’m not sure there is any system short of possibly the F-22 or F-35 that can do that today. And they can’t really carry HARMs.

The F-4 was a terrific War Machine.

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