A Flight in the Fabulous Phantom

The F-4 fighter-bomber plays a big role in the Vietnam air war. Even without an enemy at hand, its pilot is entering a “hostile environmentat anything over 50,000 feet. Life in the cockpit of this remarkable airplane, which can move some twenty-eight tons of its own weight and cargo at twice the speed of sound, is told by Captain Gerald G. O’Rourke, USN, whose career in naval aviation began when he entered Annapolis at age sixteen. In August, 1955, the ATLANTIC published hisVertigo Alley,”a pilot’s experiences in night flying with carriers at sea.


IN THE relatively short history of American military aircraft, each war has brought forth one or two aircraft designs of which legends are made. The Spad of World War I was such a bird. World War II made famous the Grumman F-6F Hellcat, the North American P-51 Mustang, and the Boeing B-17 and B-29. In the Korean War, the North American F-86 Sabre gained fame in dueling and conquering the Russian MIG-15’s over the Yalu River, while the Douglas AD Skyraider, operating both from carriers and land bases, proved itself the ultimate in a reciprocating-engine attack airplane. The odds-on candidate for legendary status in the present Vietnamese conflict is the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber which is being used in ever increasing numbers by the Navy and Marines, and the Air Force in Southeast Asia.

The technical specifications of the Phantom II are truly impressive but tell only part of the success story. It is a two-place, twin engine, carrieror land-based fighter capable of traveling twice the speed of sound. The plane can lug a formidable load of bombs, rockets, missiles, guns, napalm, or anything else that can be lashed onto a bomb rack. It weighs 15 tons by itself, and can carry aloft another 13 tons of fuel and armament.

To an aesthete, the F-4 is one of the world’s ugliest airplanes, yet to a pilot it is a bird of rare beauty. In its bulbous nose, it carries an excellent Westinghouse radar and a complex computer for Raytheon Sparrow III missiles, and Philco Sidewinder missiles. In a modified reconnaissance version, it serves as an outstanding aerial shutterbug. Another modification using different engines is in production for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and a host of other friendly nations have shown desires to equip their forces with Phantoms.

The Phantom is truly at its best when operating from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

A spectator’s first view of a Phantom night catapult shot is pretty impressive. The twin afterburners light up the flight deck, then go roaring off into a misty cloud of steam and quickly fade. A minor catapult bridle problem existed with the early F-4’s. The center-line external fuel tank was sometimes “holed” on the catapult shot. Fuel vented into the afterburner wake and lit off in a huge trailing spume of fire which made the F-4 look like a Saturn lift-off at Cape Kennedy. The flames were no hazard, but the view from the carrier deck was truly spectacular.

Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of the F-4, from a pilot’s point of view, is its acceleration. Whether from a standing start on a runway, a catapult blast from a carrier, or when “idling along” at Mach .85 at 30,000 feet, the kick felt and the sustained and steadily mounting push on the back when full afterburner is selected are best described as something between exhilaration and intoxication. Acceleration increases with speed, or “the faster you go, the faster you can go.” This gives the pilot a far different feel of the airplane at, say, Mach 1.6 than at Mach 1.1 or 1.2. Out here, in the “excess thrust valley,” the strongest pull on the stick brings only a rock-solid increase in “g” and the sensation that the airplane can take a lot more than the pilot. A somewhat similar feeling can be reached at low altitudes and relatively low speeds, on the order of 300 to 400 knots, but down here the air is thick and heavy, and pilot controls have to be safe and steady to prevent dangerous oscillations in the 500 to 700 knot region.

Speed and altitude are merely two different forms of the same thing — energy. Speed is kinetic energy, altitude potential energy. With any airplane, these can be traded back and forth to enhance tactics, but usually within restricted limits. With the Phantom, these restricting limits were pushed way out, thereby enlarging the performance envelope in which the plane can be flown and fought.

Jets are air-breathing engines, generally good only in the troposphere surrounding the earth at a height of about 50,000 to 60,000 feet. The Phantom flies above 50,000 feet, as do several other modern airplanes, but it has to keep going at a pretty good clip to hold itself up there in the thin air. However, when a quick zoom is needed to hit a target way, way up there, in the regions where the U-2 and the new SR-71 fly, an energy swap can be used to get the Phantom far beyond its steady-state altitude limits. This is called “zoom climb,” and is a lot of fun, in a professional way.

First you crank up the bird to a really good speed — high up in the supersonic region, at the best altitude for that day, usually the point above which the temperature no longer decreases. Then you honk back and point the F-4 nose way up in the air. The sensation of power, as you steam up through 50,000 feet at a very high supersonic Mach number, is overwhelming. The legend of Daedalus and Icarus comes to mind. From there on, you just hang on, because you soon get up into the region of the atmosphere where ailerons and elevators hardly work at all, where jet engines can’t get enough air to burn the fuel properly, and where unpressurized radios and radars can short-circuit through the lessened air insulation. As the Phantom runs out of energy, power, and aerodynamic control, the plane goes over the top in whatever attitude and direction it wants to. It feels, sometimes, as though the plane is flying sideways or upside down, or is slowly rotating. It never quite goes end over end, but you have the sensation that it just might, given a bit of urging. The sky above is black, below is light, which adds to the mental confusion, since it gives a feeling that up is down. The Phantom just tumbles gently back down again. As it comes into the thicker air, the wings and tail come to life, straightening out like an arrow, and letting the Phantom fly again as a proper air-breather should.

WHENEVER a man ventures above 50,000 feet, he injects himself into a hostile environment. He can’t breathe even with pressurized oxygen. He has to have a complete environment, usually provided by both a pressurized cabin enclosure and a very expensive form-fitted full-pressure suit similar to those used by the astronauts. Full-pressure suits are just great when you need them, but they are a drag all the rest of the time. They have to be carefully handled, stowed, aired, and inspected. They use a fishbowl space helmet which closes out many of the normal cockpit noises to which a pilot becomes accustomed.

The suit can be a killer as well as a savior. It is a complex system, and is not forgiving of human mistakes. To the author’s knowledge, there have been two tragic incidents where mismanagement of the suit and its allied systems resulted in an uncontrolled airplane aloft with an anoxic pilot in the front cockpit and an alive, alert, and distraught flight officer in the rear. Without the rear-seat flight controls, the flight officer in both incidents had to make the terrible decision to eject and save himself, leaving the unconscious pilot to certain death. In one case, the tragedy became even greater when the ejected man drowned moments before rescue after some eighteen cold hours in a tiny life raft on storm-tossed seas.

There have been other near tragedies which are, in retrospect, awfully good happy-hour bar stories. One instructor pilot took a young flight officer out for his first F-4 ride. When they were 60 miles out over the Atlantic, a fire warning light flashed on, indicating serious troubles in one engine. The pilot immediately reported a Mayday, turned for home, and went vainly through all the proper procedures. The light still burned ever so bright. No other plane was close enough to check, and pilots rarely survive an in-flight explosion. The instructor, very reluctant to trust just a light, but equally reluctant to gamble long odds for the sake of a piece of hardware, ordered the young flight officer to eject, and prepared himself to follow. Bang! — out went both the flight officer and fire warning light! The flight officer was soon plucked from the seas by a helicopter, wet but unscratched, and a very sheepish instructor landed back at home base with a gaping hole where the rear cockpit had been. When asked what he thought of his first Phantom ride, the flight officer said that the takeoff was great, but recoveries would need getting used to.

In another tragicomedy, a new F-4 pilot, returning low over rugged mountains in bad weather, encountered pitot-tube icing. This caused the indicated airspeed to fall rapidly toward zero even though the airplane was still flying quite routinely at its normal airspeed. The flight officer, wary of the pilot’s proficiency in weather, and unfamiliar with the icing phenomenon, really thought that the airplane was stalling, and ejected himself after shouting frantically at the pilot. The pilot, in turn, asked himself the fleeting question, What did he know that I don’t?, and answered it by ejecting himself. While squatting together on a mountain a few minutes later, watching the flames of the demolished airplane on a nearby hillside, they figured out what had happened.

Perhaps the friendliest characteristic of the F-4 is its forgiving nature. A pilot can’t afford to be sloppy, but he can make a mistake now and again which the Phantom covers up for him. Field landings, for example, can be made across a wide band of speeds and attitudes without great penalty. Carrier landings have very critical limits, but many F-4’s have survived some bone-rattling “plantings” on a carrier without complaint. The tremendous power which is almost instantly available provides a ready method of extracting a pilot from a bad situation. Then, too, twin engines and two heads are generally better than one and one in tough emergencies.

In spite of the Phantom’s excellent flying qualities, there are situations which demand the utmost in pilot skill. One of these, the “rotation off the cat,” is a truly fearsome experience. The Phantom’s wings are highly swept. To fly at very slow speeds, they have to be rotated to a very nose-high attitude. This is no problem in landing, where this rotation is a slow, easily controlled evolution, nor does it create any hazardous field takeoffs, where, again, the transition is relatively slow. But when the plane is heavily loaded, and coming off a 250 foot carrier catapult shot in which it is accelerated from 0 to 120 knots of relative speed in four seconds, the rotation has to be quick, positive, and precise. Too little back stick means a settling problem, and the sea is only 60 feet below. Too much puts the wings into a condition near stall.

In daylight or on nice clear nights, the pilot gets both peripheral visual clues and gyro horizon indications to aid him in establishing just the right amount of nose-up attitude. But on a good black night, with no visual horizon of any sort, the gyro horizon becomes almost the only clue. The force of the catapult stroke practically flattens the eyeballs so that even seeing this instrument, much less interpreting its finer details, is a momentary problem. The pilot error, when it is made, is generally on the side of over-rotation, throwing the plane into a very steep, dangerous, climbing attitude at low speed and low altitude.

To correct, as he must, the pilot rams the stick forward, which pitches the nose downward, and puts negative “g” on the crew. If you haven’t experienced negative “g” while trying to fly instruments in a tight situation on a black night, you just haven’t lived. It’s the most excruciating feeling imaginable. Nothing else can compare with it. You lift off the seat a bit, your feet get light on the rudders, your arm has to reach farther for the stick, and that just doesn’t feel right. Anything loose in the cockpit, like old pencils or small nuts or dirt, comes flying up in your face or rattling off the canopy; if your helmet isn’t tight, it tends to rotate down on your forehead, giving you a feeling of impending blindness, and your middle ears, by which you instinctively measure up and down and left and right, are filling your brain cells with wholly erroneous distractions. Then, too, there is an element of sheer terror since you and your flight officer may well be only a few seconds from a watery grave. Over it all, however, is the anger you feel at yourself for having erred in the first place. Needless to say, over-rotation off the cat is not a continuing problem. No pilot does it more than once.

THE mastery of the Phantom is a truly dual achievement. Without a pilot, the Phantom is strictly no-go, but without a flight officer, the F-4 is largely just another piece of aerial transportation. The flight officer handles the navigation, the communications, and in many cases, the intraflight coordination, while also providing significant assistance in the weapons delivery phase itself. In the interceptor role, it is the flight officer who does the radar searching and homes in on the target. Although the Phantom’s weapons system is a highly automatic one, alternate procedures are incorporated into almost every phase of its operations which permit manual control by the flight officer for most of the normally automatic functions. In practical terms, this permits the flight officer to substitute his own judgment and his own proficiency whenever he feels that the automatic features are either not up to snuff or are being decoyed by countermeasures. This great advantage is realizable only with an intelligent, capable, motivated, and well-trained flight officer.

In developing this type of talent, the Navy and the Air Force have proceeded along slightly different paths, in consideration of the differing primacy of missions in their operations. The Navy uses volunteer college graduates who meet all the basic officer requirements, plus special aeronautic qualifications. After appropriate training, they become designated Naval Flight Officers. The USAF uses rated pilots, who receive additional radar systems training subsequent to flight training. Interservice debate has been fairly heated on the merits of each system, but the fact is that the Navy’s primary F–4 mission is that of interceptor, where the fulltime radar expert pays off. The Air Force tends to equate the air superiority and attack missions, and feels, quite properly, that a second pilot with radar training is a better bet for these tasks.

A Naval Flight Officer must develop tremendous confidence in his assigned pilot, since his life is fully entrusted to that pilot in many flight operations. In actual practice, most pilots and flight officers select their own partners, and crew integrity is maintained to the fullest possible limit. These choices are made on the basis of mutual respect, which is also the soundest foundation for lasting friendship. For an older squadron commander, the most rewarding part of his job comes in overseeing the formation of these relationships. Most of the pilots and flight officers are young men, in their early twenties, with precious little experience of responsibility behind them. When a young officer is assigned to a squadron, and a $3 million airplane and another man’s life are entrusted to his care, he matures at an astounding rate. Real professionalism develops apace with true friendships.

When the Vietnamese air war broke out in earnest in early 1965, the Phantom was ready, both from the carriers in the Tonkin Gulf, and shortly thereafter from the USMG airstrip at Danang, and from USAF bases ashore.

Initially, it was anticipated that there would be extensive aerial confrontation of the F-4 with the Soviet MIG’s. A professional argument had raged for several years over the F-4’s capability in a “typical” aerial dogfight. An airplane built for Mach 2 can’t turn corners like a Piper Cub. A high-speed carrier-based jet has to be compromised to come aboard the carrier at a reasonably safe speed. There was great fear that the Russian MIG’s would prove too maneuverable for the much larger Phantom.

The F-4 is the epitome of a missile shooter, coming into battle without any guns at all and relying completely upon its missile armament to effect kills. Arguments for gunfighters invariably are based on maneuverability, simplicity, dependability, and the fact that a dogfight is a real melee in which a friend is hard to discern from a foe without getting in close where guns are effective and missiles are not. The counterarguments say that if you want to fight in the enemy’s backyard, you have to have range, which means fuel, which means a larger, less maneuverable airplane. If you can’t have superior maneuverability, get a better weapon — that is, a missile. The real pertinence of the debate is that Russian MIG’s are all basically gunfighters and U.S. F-4’s are missile shooters.

In actual practice in Vietnam, there have been a number of events which support either argument. F-4 radars have been successful in “seeing the enemy before he spots you,” but many F-4’s have been set on from the stern by MIG’s under good ground radar control. MIG’s have been downed by gunfire in spite of their theoretical superiority in that kind of fight. Both the F-4 and the F-8 have generally been able to convert the fight to their terms, regardless of its inception. In a truly bizarre event, two MIG’s were downed by gunfire from navy propeller-driven A-l Skyraiders. Clouding any arguments are the widely accepted superiority of American pilots, whose training and skill far exceed those of the enemy, and the basic advantages which accrue to the enemy when fighting over his own backyard.

Phantoms have been employed in a wide variety of combat roles. They escort reconnaissance flights, carry bombs and rockets on regular attack missions, and stand guard on the carriers and airfields as alert defensive units. They dash in ahead of other attack aircraft to suppress anti-aircraft fire with rockets, bombs, and pod-mounted cannons. They escort the large but vulnerable aircraft used in the mounting war of electrons. At night they carry flares as well as ordnance. Their excellent radar and navigational equipment give them greater accuracy in finding and destroying enemy rolling stock. In bad weather, they can use their equipment to bomb through overcasts, albeit with reduced accuracy. Their speed, acceleration, and maneuverability have been major factors in the battle with the SAM missile, and their two-man crews have provided the manpower and talent to cope with newer tactics and weapons of both defense and offense.

Yet beyond all this, the truly important fact is clear, that in this unusual war, air superiority has been maintained by U.S. forces for more than two years. These two years have seen a fantastic increase of enemy defensive AAA guns, and the advent of ground-to-air SAM missiles, and missilefiring MIG-21 fighters. The United States has not really mounted a battle specifically against the SAM, yet the air over North Vietnam belongs to the United States, not to the enemy. The credit must go in large part to the “Phabulous Phantom” and to the aircrews who fly this wondrous machine.