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RF-4C “Phantom II”

rf 4 phantom


Aircraft Type: RF-4C Phantom II, McDonnell Douglas

Mission: All-weather Photographic Reconnaissance

Number Built: The U.S. Air Force accepted 2,874 Phantoms (all models), 505 of which were the RF-4C model type

Engines: Two General Electric J-79-GE-15s of 17,000 lbs. thrust each with afterburner

Dimensions: Wingspan: 38′ 5″, Length: 62′ 10″, Height: 16′ 6″

Armament: None, although some later models equipped with 4 sidewinder air-to-air missilesPerformance

Maximum Speed: 1,384 mph Cruising Speed: 575 mph Range: 1,632 miles (without aerial refueling) Service Ceiling: 55,200 ft.

Significance of Type

The RF-4 was an unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the USAF’s F-4C which carried a variety of film-based and side-looking radar [SLAR] sensors for the Air Force (RF-4C) and the Marine Corps (RF-4B).

In the early 1960s the USAF recognized the need for more tactical reconnaissance aircraft to reinforce the RF-101s then in service. The Air Force chose a modification of the F-4C fighter. The RF-4C development program began in 1962, and the first production aircraft made its initial flight on May 18, 1964. A total of 505 RF-4Cs were ordered by the Air Force.

The RF-4C can carry a variety of cameras in three different stations in its nose section. It can take photos at both high and low altitude, day or night. The RF-4C carries no offensive armament, although during the last few years of its service some were fitted with four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for defense.

The first unit to fly the RF-4C operationally was the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. In October 1965 that unit deployed to Southeast Asia to provide photographic reconnaissance of the growing conflict in South Vietnam. Since then RF-4Cs have been involved in reconnaissance missions around the world, including the Desert Shield/Storm operation in Iraq in 1990-1991.

SPECIFICATIONS: Span: 38 ft. 5 in. Length: 62 ft. 10 in. Height: 16 ft. 6 in. Armament: None. Some later equipped with 4 sidewinder missiles Engines: Two General Electric J-79-GE-15s of 17,000 lbs. thrust each with afterburner Crew: Two Cost: $2,260,000

PERFORMANCE: Maximum speed: 1,384 mph Cruising speed: 575 mph Range: 1,632 miles without aerial refueling Service ceiling: 55,200 ft.

About our RF-4C s/n 65-0903:

15 August 1966 – Manufactured by McDonnell Aircraft, St Louis, MO and accepted by the US Air Force.

August 1966 – To 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TAC), Mountain Home AFB, ID

October 1967 – To 18th Tactical Fighter Wing (PACAF), Kadena Air Base, Japan (Deployment to Itazuke AB Japan)

July 1968 – To 460th Tactical Recon Wing (PACAF), Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam

August 1971 – To 67th Tactical Recon Wing (TAC), Bergstrom Air Force Base, TX

March 1972 – To 155th Tactical Recon Group (Air National Guard), Lincoln, NE

September 1993 – Dropped from active inventory, delivered to Rickenbacker ANG Base, Ohio for static display

February 2007 – Transported to Strategic Air and Space Museum

“Recce Phantom, The Nebraska Air National Guard reclaims an RF-4C, preserving its own history”

Article by Dick Smith

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McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

Tactical reconnaissance aircraft [ 1965 ], the mcdonnell douglas rf-4 phantom ii was a tactical reconnaissance conversion of the existing f-4 phantom ii fighter line..

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Japan Says So Long to the F-4 Phantom II Fighter

After flying for more than 50 years, the country's last iconic jets are touching down for good.

Headshot of Kyle Mizokami

  • Japan has operated the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet since the late 1960s, with at least one plane still flying that's almost 50 years old.
  • The F-4 Phantom is being replaced by the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter , and Japan is developing a brand new fighter to fly in the mid-2030s.

Japan shed a little bit of history this week as the last of the country’s RF-4E/J Phantom II reconnaissance jets, part of a fleet that has served for more than 50 years, flew for the last time. The last six recon Phantoms flew for the last time on March 9, and the country will retire its entire Phantom fleet by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Tokyo is pursuing the development of a new fighter jet it will design with help from the U.S..

The six jets, part of the 501 Hikotai squadron, were RF-4 photoreconnaissance variants of the iconic fighter. The 501 Hikotai, based at Hyakuri Air Base north of Tokyo, was famous for adopting the American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as its mascot, painting the bird on the squadron’s vertical stabilizers. According to The Aviationist , which covered Monday’s event , the squadron featured jets in three different camouflage styles, including Vietnam, European, and over water (above). Hyakuri Air Base also tweeted a series of gorgeous photos on Twitter:

本日午後の #百里基地 。午前中の曇天が一転、輝く青空の下、 #偵察航空隊 #501SQ 最後の飛行訓練が行われました。 #RFー4 を導入し、百里で運用を開始してから約45年。そして部隊創設からは59年。偵空隊は年度末をもって廃止されます。感謝惜別万感。様々な思いが詰まった #ラストフライト となりました — 航空自衛隊百里基地 (@jasdf_hyakuri) March 9, 2020

The McDonnell Douglas corporation developed the F-4 Phantom II , a multi-role fighter jet, in the late 1950s. The large, twin-engine, two-seat aircraft was designed to handle both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, and served with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and the air forces of eleven other countries, including Japan. In many respects, it was a precursor to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter . The fighter is slowly fading from service worldwide , with only three countries still flying the “Phantastic Phantom”: Japan, South Korea, and Turkey.

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Japan purchased more than 150 F-4EJ fighters—12 delivered from the U.S. and 138 built under license in Japan and featuring the “J” suffix. The RF-4EJ was an unarmed version of the F-4EJ designed to fly reconnaissance missions against enemy forces on the ground. Only a handful of the original 152 jets are still in service, many replaced by the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet , introduced in the late 1990s. At least one jet of 1971 vintage is being used to “sniff” the atmosphere for radioactive evidence of North Korean nuclear weapons tests.

Japan currently flies these types of fighter jets: the F-15J Eagle, a Japanese version of the Boeing F-15 Eagle; the Mitsubishi F-2; the Lockheed Martin F-35A; and a small number of F-4EJ fighters. The F-4EJ fleet will retire by the end of the year, and Japan is buying 150 F-35s—including the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B version—to bolster its aging air fleet. The -B versions of the jet will be deployed on the country’s first postwar aircraft carriers , Izumo and Kaga , which are slated to receive modifications to allow them to operate fixed-wing aircraft.

Airplane, Aircraft, Vehicle, Air force, Military aircraft, Fighter aircraft, Lockheed martin f-35 lightning ii, Aviation, Jet aircraft, Stealth aircraft,

Japan recently announced it would develop a replacement for the F-2 fighter with assistance from U.S. defense contractors. The new fighter, known unofficially as the F-3, will enter service in the mid-2030s. Japan constructed and flew a technology demonstrator aircraft, the X-2, but ultimately decided developing a plane entirely on its own was too expensive a venture. Lockheed Martin offered a new version of the American F-22 Raptor that would incorporate technology from the F-35, but Japan is opting to develop a completely new airplane.

There are plenty of gorgeous videos of F-4 Phantom II flight operations on YouTube. Here’s one from 2017 of air base operations at Hyakuri, featuring both RF-4 and F-4 versions of the Phantom II.

This is an image

Source: The Aviationist

Headshot of Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News , and others. He lives in San Francisco.

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These Phantoms Flew ‘Unarmed and Unafraid’ Over Vietnam

rf 4 phantom

The RF-4C photo Phantom collected valuable intelligence over Vietnam’s battlefields and beyond, flying “alone, unarmed and unafraid”

For me, the McDonnell RF-4C was just one model of aging Phantoms I flew as a backseat flight test engineer during the 1980s at Edwards Air Force Base.   Although familiar with the legendary combat record of the F-4C, D and E, I knew little about the RF-4C’s mission beyond the tactical reconnaissance community’s mantra of “alone, unarmed and unafraid.”  

The photoreconnaissance version of the F-4 was critical to air power thinker John Boyd’s “OODA loop” for combat planning: observe, orient, decide, act and repeat. “You can’t even get started on the OODA loop if you can’t observe,” said retired RF-4C pilot Brig. Gen. Rudi Peksens, “and that’s where reconnaissance comes in.” Before satellites and remotely piloted aircraft, aircrews put their lives in danger to collect information.

Prior to the RF-4C, the McDonnell RF-101 Voodoo ruled the low-level reconnaissance skies, but that aircraft’s less sophisticated cameras limited it to daylight-only operations. Designed to overcome the RF-101’s shortcomings, the RF-4C was a major overhaul from earlier F-4 models. For prototypes, engineers lengthened the nose on two F-4Bs to accommodate advanced radar and camera systems: film, infrared and side-looking radar. The long-nose variant also became the basis for the later F-4E model. The first production RF-4C flew in May 1964, as the Vietnam War was beginning to ramp up. “The RF-4 was perfect for its time,” Peksens said. “[It] gave us supersonic speed, two engines and an airplane built mostly of steel that could take a licking and keep on ticking.”

The RF-4C’s nose was lengthened to house its camera bays and equipment. (U.S. Air Force)

Kirk Ransom, fresh from pilot training, arrived at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in September 1964 to train with the first cadre of RF-4C pilots. The U.S. Air Force initially funneled inexperienced pilots like Ransom into the rear cockpit as pilot systems operators, abbreviated PSO and pronounced “pay-so.” Training was not optimal: Poor rear-seat visibility disoriented many PSOs and made them airsick, and radar training took place on an ancient Boeing B-47 system, since early aircraft were delivered without full equipment. New airplanes arrived at Shaw almost every day, and Ransom picked up seven jets from the St. Louis factory, even signing for one because his higher-ranking instructor, an Australian exchange pilot, couldn’t. Ransom still marvels, “A second lieutenant signed for a $3.5 million airplane!”

After training, Ransom moved to the 16th Tac­tical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) at Shaw, the first operational RF-4C squadron. During an August 1965 inspection, a general told Ransom’s squadron “how bad we were.” On October 27, 16th TRS pilots ferried nine airplanes to South­east Asia. After seven air refuelings and a stop in Hawaii, the pilots landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon on October 31. “Two guys flew combat missions that day,” said Ransom. “No one knew what they were doing.”

Crews soon learned that tactics developed for a World War III scenario were woefully inadequate for the Johnson administration’s restrictive targeting practices and Southeast Asia’s mountainous terrain and dense anti-aircraft defenses. While cruising northbound at 34,000 feet, crews passed bright lights on mountains that indicated someone had forwarded their position via telephone to gunners lying in wait. The unarmed RF-4Cs were far from defenseless, however, as pilots quickly developed deceptive maneuvers to counter the gunners. Nearing the actual target, they descended to 3,500 feet, staying above .50-caliber machine gun range. About three miles from the target, the front seat pilot yanked into a 75-degree bank turn and then rolled out, held it for 15 seconds, then did another rapid turn and roll out, and then turned on the radar for one second to make the North Vietnamese think the aircraft was headed someplace else. Ransom recalled, “As soon as you made the [turn], the whole sky lit up with tracers,” but the maneuvering largely kept them from harm.

Recce crews also found that the RF-4C could outrun many threats. Designers expected the new airframe to have more drag than earlier models, but it turned out the RF-4C was fastest. However, crews often couldn’t take full advantage of that speediness during missions over North Vietnam—flying above 480 knots made navigation harder, increased fuel consumption and the increased turn radius made threat evasion maneuvers less effective. Woody Cox, an RF-4C pilot from the early 1970s, also noted, “The fighter escorts had difficulty keeping up with us at higher speeds due to the drag of their external munitions loads and increase in fuel consumption.”

Bruce Edwards, who flew RF-4Cs in Vietnam in 1967, sensed that the escorts didn’t always provide much protection anyway. “They wanted to get a MiG, so we were like trolling for them,” he said. “We usually never even saw them because they were up high trying to save fuel in case they got to jump a MiG.”  

For the most dangerous RF-4C mission, dubbed “Barrel,” crews flew through a section of North Vietnam called Route Pack 6A on their way to targets in Hanoi. For Barrel missions, the photo Phantoms carried three external fuel tanks: one 360-gallon tank on the centerline and a 270-gallon tank under each wing. After taking off from Udorn Air Base in Thailand, pilots bled down the centerline tank until it ran dry around the Plain of Jars in Laos, which Edwards said “must be chock full of centerline tanks because we punched them all off there.”

Captain Rudi Peksens points to shrapnel damage on his RF-4C in September 1970. (Courtesy Brig. Gen. Rudi Peksens)

To get the best pictures, crews usually flew daytime missions over the North between 11,000 and 14,000 feet altitude, making the aircraft vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles: From SAM launch to possible impact was about 10 seconds. For SAM defense, dispensers on the rear of the RF-4C ejected chaff to fool radar-guided missiles, and a radar-warning receiver flashed threats on cockpit displays, along with chirping in headsets. The warnings unnerved some pilots, including Edwards: “Your headset was just full of chirps, so many threats that you just turned it off and occasionally glanced at it to see if there were any strong strobes.” On one mission, he recalled, “I got a launch light [strobe]. I popped off two chaff clouds and about two seconds later there was a detonation behind me from a SAM with no launch light. Gave me a big overpressure, kind of pushed the airplane, a sudden jolt.” The overpressure apparently caused his right engine to stick in afterburner, but he shut it down and restarted it for a less eventful trip back to Thailand.

The RF-4C’s twin engines helped bring many crews home in one piece. Alan Chase, who flew the photo Phantom at Udorn in 1968-’69, remembered an engine failure over northern Laos, but said the return to base “was a non-event….If I’d been up there in a single-engine airplane I’d still be up there.”

Even when it couldn’t outrun everything, the RF-4C’s overall ruggedness saved lives. Ray Ross’ aircraft was hit by a SAM on November 17, 1965, during a mission he said was “suicide” to start with. A last-minute change in target put him 45 minutes behind schedule, enough time for North Vietnamese radars to cool down and restart from an earlier strike. “As soon as I turned in down the railroad [target], the sky lit up,” Ross recalled. “I had SAMs flying at me, I had anti-aircraft flying at me…the first SAM went above me and exploded, the second SAM was too low and it exploded and didn’t bother me and the third SAM was close enough that when it exploded [the shrapnel] started my airplane on fire.”  

Ross shut down his engines and glided eastward toward the Gulf of Tonkin, planning to bail out at 5,000 feet, probably over enemy territory. A few minutes later the fire light went out. “I have no idea why,” said Ross, “if the fire went out, or the wires burned through, or the bulb burned out,” but he managed to restart the engines and fly far enough over the water to spot an aircraft carrier, USS Intrepid . Both Ross and his backseater ejected and were picked up.

In addition to speed and dual engines, the guy in back, or GIB, provided yet another defense. Bruce Edwards appreciated the extra set of eyes. “Dur­ing daytime missions, the GIB was like a sensor selector,” he said. “He ran the INS [inertial navigation system] and let you keep your head out of the cockpit more.”

Although pilots initially manned the rear cockpit, it didn’t take long for the Air Force to realize that weapon system officer (WSO) training cost about one-third that of pilots, and WSOs supplanted PSOs. Even without formal pilot training, several WSOs managed to land RF-4Cs after their pilots were injured.

On September 16, 1969, during a mission over Laos, Gerry Dobberfuhl recounted: “Our cockpit exploded and I heard screaming from the front. We started diving and I managed to pull back on the stick and we just missed the ground and the mountain in front of us.” Since he had heard the Laotian communists—the Pathet Lao—were taking no prisoners, Dobberfuhl initially headed for North Vietnam, but realizing the aircraft was still flyable, turned back west toward Thailand. Crossing the river dividing Laos and Thailand, he pulled the throttles to idle and headed for Nakhon Phanom Air Base, just inside Thailand’s eastern border. The barely conscious pilot lowered the gear and flaps, but Dobberfuhl couldn’t tell if the tail hook was down. To see the runway, he kicked the rudder back and forth during final approach. “The last 300 feet was pure luck,” he said. “The greatest relief I ever felt in my life was when that tail hook grabbed the wire.” Both pilot and airplane lived to fly another day.  

RF-4C crews often searched for vehicles and assessed battle damage on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran primarily along Laos’ eastern border. Most trail missions were at night, when many aircrew admitted they often didn’t live up to the “unafraid” part of their motto. WSO Ken Butler said his unit lost several RF-4Cs at night and “never knew what happened to them—the jungle just swallows them up.” For night missions, crews dropped photoflash cartridges to light up a target with 260 million (later one billion) candlepower for taking pictures. In the South, crews could use up to seven photoflashes, but Bruce Edwards said over the North they were limited to three, “because on the fourth flash, you were probably going to be occupying the same space as a bunch of AAA.” As a result, most night flights used less-detectable infrared cameras or side-looking radar to capture images.

The shadow from Rudi Peksens’ RF-4C is visible in a bomb damage assessment image he took over North Vietnam. (Courtesy Brig. Gen. Rudi Peksens)

After an RF-4C landed, the mission continued with technicians taking the film cassette to the Photographic Processing and Interpretation Facility (PPIF), a mobile 25-shelter self-contained system with its own generators, fuel and water bladders. Richard Pirrello, a mechanic at Udorn, said RF-4Cs shot one million feet of film each month in 1969 for PPIF processing. While the aircrew debriefed operations and maintenance personnel, photo lab technicians developed the film in a darkroom. The aircrew then arrived to help photo interpreters align film images with error-laden maps.

Al Crane, who ran a PPIF at Tan Son Nhut, recalled that ground units sometimes wanted to do their own interpretation, so film was flown to U.S. Army and allied Republic of Korea and Aus­tralian units. For units not operating near an airfield or helicopter landing zone, parachute-equipped canisters containing photos or duplicate negatives were dropped via a tube attached to the side of a “Blue Canoe” U-3 (militarized Cessna 310).

Although the RF-4C cut its teeth in Vietnam, the aircraft also had impor­tant Cold War missions. Every two weeks, a flight of photo Phantoms from Japan’s Kadena Air Base deployed to Osan Air Base in South Korea to fly Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO) missions along the DMZ. The aircraft carried a telephoto camera in a monstrous “Bench Box” pod that hung so low under the fuselage it could snag arresting cables at the end of the runway. WSO Ralph Delperdang said one week after he flew his first, relatively benign PARPRO mission in 1979, the South Korean president was assassinated and U.S. forces went into high alert. After that, he said, “Flying along the DMZ, the threat scope all lit up to the north.”

Delperdang also worked at Eglin AFB in Florida, overseeing upgrades to the RF-4C that sustained it into the 1990s: improved navigation equipment, the Pave Tack laser targeting system and a terrain-following system. Another post-Vietnam RF-4C upgrade was the Tactical Elec­tronic Reconnaissance (TEREC) system, a pod loaded with radar detection equipment for locating SAM sites. WSO Paul Thompson, who flew RF-4Cs during the late 1980s at Bergstrom AFB in Texas, said the TEREC-equipped aircraft had a reputation for poor stability and fatal accidents, since the pod moved the Phantom’s center of gravity dangerously close to the aft limit. “The nose would hunt in a circle, especially on a tanker,” Thompson recalled. “We got spurious inputs; the pilot wouldn’t command anything and there would be a little bit of a roll, and I’d say, ‘Hey, what are you doing up there?’ The pilot would say, ‘Nothing. I thought you [bumped the stick] with your knee.’” The aircraft were also aging rapidly; ground aborts became common and Thompson’s unit departed Bergstrom with 20 airplanes to ensure 12 of them stayed airborne long enough to reach Aviano Air Base in Italy.

The non-weapons status of the RF-4C came in handy at times during a Cold War crisis. Rudi Peksens said the aircraft “was useful not only for collecting intelligence but also for signaling to people who were watching. [During the Polish Solidarity crisis in 1980-’81] we sent RF-4s from Zweibrücken [Air Base, in Germany] up into the Baltic Sea so any nation watching could see that the U.S. Air Force was there and interested…using soft power, showing a presence, where a fighter or bomber might have been too strong a signal.”

An RF-4C of the 14th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron spools up its engines at Udorn Air Base in Thailand in October 1972. (U.S. Air Force)

In 1987 an RF-4C had the dubious distinction of being one of a handful of U.S. aircraft shot down by friendly airplanes during peacetime. WSO Randy Sprouse said he took off from Aviano for an exercise with the U.S. Navy, and an F-14 Tomcat began trailing the RF-4C as they refueled. After refueling, the RF-4C crew spotted the carrier USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean Sea and began descending to positively identify the ship. “At about 10,000 feet, we felt like a bus had hit us,” said Sprouse. “We thought maybe we had had a midair.” It wasn’t a midair: The trailing F-14 pilot had inadvertently launched an AIM-9 Side­winder air-to-air missile. Sprouse pulled the ejection handles and recalled, “On the way down, we [could] see the helicopter on the carrier starting to fire up to come pick us up.” Both Sprouse and the pilot survived, the pilot with serious injuries.

After Vietnam, the Air Force transferred many RF-4Cs to the Air National Guard and some units picked up new missions, including drug interdiction and disaster relief. Charles “Hap” Arnold said his Guard unit in Ontario, Calif., helped with $15-20 million each year in drug seizures, often by using infrared cameras and flying at 500 feet above the ground at daybreak to look for marijuana in the high desert of Antelope Valley.

A few Guard units tried to eliminate the RF-4C’s “unarmed” description by adding Sidewinders. But Woody Cox recalled: “The Sidewinder thing never got anywhere. Some people thought if you put missiles on the RF-4, the pilots would just want to chase MiGs.” Some aircraft were modified with launch rails and a unit from Reno deployed with Sidewinders during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but after aircrew from Bergstrom arrived who had not trained with the missiles, the weapons were removed.

So many RF-4Cs retired during the 1980s that there was a recce shortfall in Desert Storm. “It was before we had enough unmanned systems,” Peksens explained. “When I flew [combat missions] from Incirlik Air Base [in Turkey]…for the first week or so…we didn’t know if we were successful or not because we had no reconnaissance. We called back to Zweibrücken and pulled a detachment [of RF-4Cs] en route to the boneyard to help us with the first and last part of the OODA loop.”

No F-4 story is complete without mentioning maintenance nightmares. John Grieve, who flew the Phantom in the 1970s, described the worst nightmare: a circuit breaker box underneath the rear ejection seat. Resetting a circuit breaker in the box required removing the ejection seat, a job that could take a maintenance team all night.

All F-4 variants experienced frequent hydraulic system failures. Crew chief John Muhlig remembered a 1965 landing by aircraft serial no. 64-1004 after one such failure: “The pilot snagged the [arresting gear], but he was still at full throttle and the chain lifted him off the ground and punched a strut through a wing and crippled the other [after hitting the ground again]. It was a hangar queen for one and a half years.”

That tail number sounded familiar, and on checking my logbook I discovered I flew several hours in 64-1004 after it wound up at Edwards. The aircraft never recovered from its landing incident: In the 1980s, it still had a reputation as a hangar queen. RF-4C 64-1004 is now on display at the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards.  

Retired U.S. Air Force officer Eileen Bjorkman is a freelance writer and author of The Propeller Under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft . Her second book, Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin , will be published in 2020. Further reading: USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II , by Peter E. Davies; and Colors and Markings of the Recon Phantoms , by Bert Kinzey and Ray Leader.

This feature originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe,Click here !

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Special operations outlook 2019 digital edition is here, gulf war: rf-4c phantom ii in desert storm.

By Robert F. Dorr - February 14, 2011

38th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron

RF-4C Phantom II crewmembers at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, during Operation Desert Storm. At left is Lt. Col. (later Col.) Lloyd “Pappy” Rowland, commander of the 38th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. Today, Rowland is deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Photo courtesy of Lloyd Rowland

The RF-4C Phantom II was the last manned, tactical reconnaissance aircraft in U. S. Air Force inventory. The 1991 Persian Gulf conflict was its last war. Still, the RF-4C was in on the action in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm from the beginning.

“The Phantom has a roomy cockpit but this was a real challenge to comfort.”

When the build-up began following Saddam Hussein’s Aug. 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait, six RF-4Cs equipped with a camera upgrade called the HIAC-1 LOROP (Long Range Oblique Photography) deployed to Shaikh Isa Air Base, Bahrain. LOROP was capable of high-resolution images of objects 100 miles away and was carried in a centerline pod.

Col. James F. "Jim" Brown

Col. (later Maj. Gen.) James F. “Jim” Brown led a marathon flight by RF-4C Phantom IIs in the early days of Operation Desert Shield. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

The Phantoms belonged to the 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) of the Alabama Air National Guard (ANG) at Birmingham and were led by Col. (later Maj. Gen.) James F. “Jim” Brown. Their journey to the war zone may have been the longest nonstop flight made by operational warplanes until that time, requiring 16 air-to-air refuelings and spanning 8,000 nautical miles in 15.5 hours. “The Phantom has a roomy cockpit but this was a real challenge to comfort,” Brown said later.

Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Stephen L. Vonderheide was one of the fliers from the 192nd TRS, Nevada ANG , who relieved Brown’s troops in November but kept their airplanes. “We spent a lot of time anticipating what kinds of targets we might be asked to look at,” said Vonderheide. “We were very much aware that the Iraqis had formidable air defenses.”

The RF-4C carried a pilot and a back-seat weapons systems officer (WSO). It was a robust and versatile aircraft that was in many respects a holdover from an earlier era. Two 17,000-pound thrust afterburning J79-GE-15 turbojet engines powered a typical RF-4C. At a combat weight of 51,000 pounds with three “bags” (external fuel tanks), the RF-4C the could cover the 540 miles from Shaikh Isa to Kuwait or the 573 miles from Incirlik, Turkey to Baghdad and loiter for two hours taking pictures. But its cameras and sensors were out of date even in 1991, and the RF-4C had no way to relay images. When Lt. Col. Lloyd “Pappy” Rowland arrived at Incirlik with a second wave of RF-4Cs from the 38th TRS at Zweibrücken, Germany, in January 1991, he found himself wishing for “a multi-function display with real-time capability and some up-to-date instruments in this antique airplane.” Also arriving late in theater were RF-4Cs from the 12th TRS at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas.

RF-4C Phantom II

RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance aircraft from the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Reno, Nev., prepare for a mission during Operation Desert Shield. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Bill Thompson

RF-4Cs began flying combat missions on the first night of Operation Desert Storm , Jan. 17, 1991. At first, they were limited to daylight operations, flying over Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in search of Republican Guard units . They flew over Baghdad looking for such targets as rocket fuel plants, chemical weapons plants, and command and communications centers.

RF-4Cs were repeatedly diverted from other photographic missions to go and look for Scud launchers hiding in western Iraq. “We burned a lot of gas … on the ‘Great Scud Hunt,'” Vonderheide said in a 1991 interview with the author. “Looking back, I guess you’d say our leaders were panicked about the Scuds but never understood how hard it was to find their launchers.”

The Bahrain-based RF-4Cs were in the war from the beginning. Those at Incirlik joined the fighting at the start of February.

Maj. Steve Vonderheide

Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Steve Vonderheide of the Nevada Air National Guard flew the RF-4C Phantom II in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Photo by Robert F. Dorr

“On one of my early missions we flew to Kirkuk,” said Capt. (later Col.) Ken “Razor” Rizer of the 38th TRS. “The photos showed that the Iraqis had taken their MiGs and distributed them in urban housing areas. We were the first to see and report that.”

“We flew repeated missions to a dam near Mosul,” continued Rizer. “There was a 57mm gunner on that dam. It was almost as though we developed a relationship with him. One day, when the flak was heavier than normal, he was shooting and we climbed above it.” No Iraqi MiG, missile or gun ever touched an RF-4C throughout the war. One RF-4C was lost in a postwar mishap on March 31, 1991; the crew ejected safely off the coast of Bahrain.

In support of RF-4C operations, numerous airmen and aircraft were used, among them C-21A Lear Jets, to move finished imagery around the theater. In the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia known as the “Black Hole,” coalition air commander Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Charles “Chuck” Horner scrutinized RF-4C images of Iraq’s forces every day and used the information to organize aerial strike “packages,” or formations.

RF-4C Phantom II

The RF-4C Phantom II was long in the tooth in 1991, but it proved to be an invaluable reconnaissance asset to battlefield commanders in Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force photo

Deployed RF-4Cs maintained a “mission capable rate” (MCR) of 85 percent on the eve of Desert Storm; the MCR declined to 78 percent during the conflict, still a respectable number for an aging, high-maintenance system. Off to a slow beginning – with six aircraft in theater only 42 sorties were flown in January – the RF-4C eventually logged about 1,800 sorties as numbers were increased and the war progressed. One airframe flew 172 sorties.

Following the end of Desert Storm, the RF-4Cs of the 38th TRS returned to Zweibrücken and those of the 12th TRS to Bergstrom. Soon afterward, RF-4Cs were retired from active-duty units. The last active-duty RF-4C flight was in 1994. The last RF-4Cs in inventory belonged to the Nevada ANG and were retired on Sept. 27, 1995. Not everyone agreed that putting the last manned tactical reconnaissance aircraft to pasture was a timely move. Lt. Gen. Michael Short, the air commander in Kosovo in 1999, said he would have used an aircraft with the capabilities of the RF-4C had one been available.

After commanding the Nevada Air Guard, Steve Vonderheide died at 61 in 2008 in a tragic accident caused by carbon monoxide poisoning in the boat he kept at Lake Tahoe. Former 38th TRS commander Lloyd Rowland is today deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) where his knowledge of reconnaissance, acquired in the cockpit of the RF-4C, is essential to his work.

By Robert F. Dorr

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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4:30 PM June 24, 2011

Great article. Thank you. I am proud to say I served with the 38th TRS during Desert Storm. I maintained the cameras on our jets. I was a team member of both RAM 88 and RAM 90; however, being at Incirlik was doing the job for real. I actually got a ride in 68-589, before we went back to Zweibrucken, with Lt. Col. John LaMontagne as pilot. Again, thank you for the article, your service, and remembering the great 38th TRS.

John L. Hatfield, TSgt, USAF (Ret.), M.Ed

9:11 PM June 28, 2011

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your words are very much appreciated, and thank you for your service.

9:09 PM November 11, 2011

Lloyd “Pappy” Rowland was the best squadron commander I ever had. The 38 TRS was like a family.

2:15 PM December 8, 2011

I was there with the Alabama Air National Guard , I was from Bergstrom AFB and went with the Guard as the external fuel tank build up team, ED WINEBARGER TSGT USAF RET

4:17 PM February 11, 2012

Just a few corrections on the article, though it is much appreciated. The LOROP cameras (we were equipped with the only 2 in our Birmingham RF-4’s) were not in a centerline pod. They were 66 inch focal length mounted in the nose and were developed in conjunction with Chicago Aerial. They shot 4 frames in a pan in the vertical, but were aimable from the rear cockpit with a joystick and sighting window. The 6 aircraft deployed from Birmingham included our 2 lorop birds as well as recently modded NWDS aircraft and the AIM-9 capable aircraft (the guard had modded their RF4s to carry the AIM9) NWDS was the new inertial nav which gave us nav accuracy sorely overdue in the RF4’s. The Birmingham unit (106TRS/117TRW) did not deploy to Shaikh Isa Air Base, Bahrain. We deployed to Al Daphra AB, UAE where the Shaw F-16’s were, as well as Italians and French. We lost two of our own (Barry Henderson and Steve Schramm) in a training accident in October. The initial Reno guys came, I believe in early December and were basically trained on the LOROP cameras and flew their initial missions with some of the Birmingham guys like Woody Cox, Wayne Fitts etc getting familiar with the theater and the operational missions we were flying at the time. Most of the Birmingham aircrews returned to the states and some stayed until just before Christmas. Reno brought a couple of their aircraft directly to Shaik Isa and set up camp and when the rest of the Birmingham guys left, the Reno guys at Al Daphra took the LOROP birds to Shaik Isa, and Al Daphra recce operations shut down with the departure of the Recce Rebels from Birmingham. Before the accident, Barry Henderson had drawn the shark motiff on the noses of the aircraft in chalk and when they were painted became the hit of the air refueling tracks. We spent a lot of time line abreast with tankers so people could get pics of our birds. The did look sierra hotel.

12:37 PM March 13, 2012

Great article. I had just left Zweibrucken 26TRW a couple of months before all this went down. Lt.Cols Rowland and Mechsner were perhaps the best combination leadership I had ever served under. I missed the fireworks but was there in spirit. The Zwei boys and girls were the best unit to have served in during my career.

8:39 PM March 13, 2012

Thanks for your comments. That article has definitely stirred some memories from people who served in the unit as well as those who worked around the RF-4C.

3:37 PM March 28, 2012

Lloyd Rowland will soon be retiring as NGA’s Deputy Director. It would be nice if this article could be made into something “presentation worthy”. I do believe he would appreciate that.

4:04 AM March 31, 2012

I served as a Crewchief, Phase Dock Chief and Quality Assurance (QA) while in the 26 TRW at Zweibrucken, GE. I think a bit of history I found interesting is that while we were deployed in Aviano at the start of the Gulf War we were developing and planning with the Depot/SPO to install 2 sidewinder missiles on the right wing inboard pylon on all our deployed RF-4C s. Had the war lasted longer, all of our Zwei jets would have been flying with AIM-9 sidewinders. As I recall, one of the RF-4C guard units were flying with sidewinders that we were coordinating with but can’t remember which unit it was? Either way, looking back it was a great time!

9:21 AM April 2, 2012

Major Munoz,

The all of the guard units were flying (equipped to fly) with the AIM-9’s, so it could have been any of them. I would bet that it was either Reno or Birmingham (117TRW) that you were working with. The AIM-9 mod was something that had been on the drawing board for years and the guard guys initially came up with the mod (if I recall correctly) and it came in at about 16K per aircraft. The regular AF didn’t want to go forward with the mod, but the guard continued to push it and went ahead with it on our aircraft. The RF-4 FWIC was instrumental in its push. I was at the FWIC in 86 and one of the FWIC’s aircraft was equipped with an old iron sight which I believe came out of an old F4-D, and that became part of the mod as well. I was the Weapons and Tactics Officer in Bham and I can’t recall when we got our first aircraft modded and our training missiles, but I do remember developing the training program for our aircrews and getting everyone qualified on the missile in Bham. I left Al Dhafra in late December 90. At that time we didn’t have any l’real’ AIM-9s allocated to us, even though we could carry them. I may be wrong here, but I think Horner wouldn’t let the Reno guys carry them either (out of Sheik Isa). I believe his reasoning was that he didn’t want the Recce guys looking to shoot some Iraqi down and not getting home with the film. My thoughts were that there was no better way to defend yourself than to hose the poor smuck trying to shoot my butt down. Maybe one of the Reno guys will read this and weigh in on wether they ever got approval to carry them live.

11:51 PM April 24, 2012

Great article, thank you for sharing. I was at Zwei from 87 -90 and remember just about everyone there. I too left just before the games were played. Happy to be retired and living in the mountains of Colorado.

12:27 AM May 8, 2012

Great article, spent seven years processing film off the RF-4C, great aircraft. I enjoyed working in the PPIF of the 38 TRS at Zwei (1973-76). Missed the Gulf War but did make the end of Vietnam War (1970 – 71). Sad to see QFR-4C phantoms being used for target practice.

2:11 PM July 19, 2012

I had the greatest times in the 152nd great people Wayne Adams was someone to look up to for me . Role model.

4:13 PM September 5, 2012

Wow! Just now finding this1 Zwie was awsome. I think about it often. “TEX” Hartzell

11:15 AM February 2, 2013

I now live in Penrose Colorado and was browsing Facebook checking out the photos posted by the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum and saw a few F4 photos. That brought back memories and a few Google searches led me to this article. My instructor and friend when I first started flying GA not military was Barry Henderson and I was probably his first student not counting his brother Lamar. We owned a plane together for a short period and worked together in the chemical weapons area. I was working at Rocky Mountain arsenal when Barry died in Desert Storm and made it back to Alabama for the services. It’s poor excuse especially since I considered Barry a good friend but I never followed up on the details of the events. If any of the guys that were there can contact me that would be appreciated. I can be reached at [email protected] .

9:36 PM April 12, 2013

Like John Hatfield, I was deployed with the 26th AGS at “The Lik”. John and his wife Gena, and I were all Photo Pukes, and he, my first QA. His depth, wisdom, and humor were instrumental to me being there with the finest, most memorable AF unit I ever had the honor of serving with in my 20 years. We did amazing things there, and concluded the USAFE RF-4C role honorably, along with our brothers and sisters in TAC and ANG.


8:41 PM April 26, 2013

Wow. This sure brings back memories! I started out on RF’s at Bergstrom in ’81, served at “Sunny Zwei” from ’84 till base closure in ’91. I loved being a “Recce/Photo Puke”, Avionic Sensor System Specialist, for the first years of my career and I loved working on the RF-4C – a great bird! The sensors on this aircraft, while dated, gave intel that saved countless American lives and (sad for them) brought a lot of pain to our enemies. A photo puke’s moto: “We kill ’em with film!” – the Recce version: “Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid”. Cheers to great warriors and a fantastic warbird.

2:28 AM May 23, 2013

the f-4 is a very slêek aircraft, it is much faster than the f-15 with the lơok on the side, compare to the f-15, if you lơok on the side the plane doesn’t have a complete tail. because of that lơok the f-4 can fly in formation with many other aircraft, like the p51 mustang

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  • McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

The McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II stands as an iconic aircraft that played a pivotal role in reconnaissance and combat during its operational years. With its distinctive history, innovative design, and remarkable military service, the RF-4 Phantom II left an indelible mark on the aviation world. This article provides a comprehensive exploration of the aircraft’s development history, design features, performance metrics, and its remarkable contributions to military conflicts. By analyzing its combat record and comparing its capabilities to rival aircraft, we can appreciate the significance of the RF-4 Phantom II in shaping modern aerial warfare.

The RF-4 Phantom II emerged in an era marked by intense geopolitical tensions and rapid technological advancements. As the Cold War unfolded, the need for a versatile reconnaissance and combat aircraft became increasingly evident. The RF-4 Phantom II was conceived to address these evolving demands, aiming to combine cutting-edge technology with superior performance to fulfill a range of military and strategic objectives.

McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

History of Development

The epoch in which the RF-4 Phantom II was developed was characterized by the standoff between superpowers, with each seeking to assert dominance through advanced military capabilities. The aircraft’s development was a collaborative effort between McDonnell Aircraft and the U.S. Navy, driven by the necessity for an aircraft that could effectively perform reconnaissance missions in addition to combat roles.

Design of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

The RF-4 Phantom II featured a sleek and aerodynamic design, optimized for both high-speed reconnaissance and combat missions. Its two-seat configuration allowed for a pilot and a weapons systems officer, facilitating effective coordination during complex operations. The aircraft’s dimensions include a wingspan of approximately 38 feet and a length of around 58 feet, translating to approximately 11.6 meters and 17.7 meters respectively in the metric system.

One of the key advantages of the RF-4 Phantom II was its versatility. It could carry a diverse range of sensors for reconnaissance missions, allowing it to gather crucial intelligence from the battlefield. The aircraft’s drawback, however, was its vulnerability to modern anti-aircraft systems due to its relatively slower speed compared to contemporary fighter jets.

Performance of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

The RF-4 Phantom II was powered by twin engines, typically the J79 series, known for their reliability and performance. These engines provided the aircraft with a maximum speed of around Mach 2.2, enabling it to cover substantial distances rapidly. The aircraft’s service ceiling exceeded 56,000 feet (around 17,000 meters), granting it the capability to operate at high altitudes for reconnaissance purposes. Its range extended over 1,600 miles (approximately 2,575 kilometers), making it well-suited for long-range missions.

When compared to its contemporaries, the RF-4 Phantom II boasted impressive capabilities. Its speed and altitude performance allowed it to outmaneuver and outpace many opposing aircraft. However, it’s important to note that as technology progressed, the aircraft faced increasing challenges in maintaining its competitive edge.

McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

Military Use and Combat of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

The RF-4 Phantom II found extensive use in various military conflicts, showcasing its adaptability and combat prowess. Equipped with an array of sensors and cameras, the aircraft excelled in reconnaissance missions, providing vital information to military commanders. Additionally, it was armed with a variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry, enhancing its combat effectiveness.

During the Vietnam War, the RF-4 Phantom II was deployed to gather intelligence through reconnaissance missions. Its high-speed capabilities allowed it to evade enemy defenses, capturing critical imagery of enemy installations and troop movements. The aircraft’s combat record was notable, with instances of successful missile launches against enemy aircraft.

During the Vietnam War, the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II played a crucial role in gathering vital intelligence through its reconnaissance missions. As a high-speed and agile aircraft, it possessed the capability to penetrate deep into enemy territory, evading hostile defenses and capturing valuable imagery of enemy activities, installations, and troop movements. This reconnaissance capability proved to be of immense strategic importance in shaping military decisions and operations during the conflict.

The RF-4 Phantom II’s high-speed capabilities were a key factor in its success as a reconnaissance platform. Its ability to fly at speeds exceeding Mach 2 allowed it to swiftly traverse large distances, reducing the time it took to gather critical intelligence. This speed advantage not only minimized the risk of interception by enemy aircraft but also made it challenging for ground-based anti-aircraft systems to accurately target the aircraft. The aircraft’s advanced sensors and cameras enabled it to capture detailed imagery, providing commanders with accurate and up-to-date information about enemy positions and movements.

Furthermore, the RF-4 Phantom II’s combat capabilities were not limited to reconnaissance alone. Equipped with air-to-air weaponry, it was capable of engaging enemy aircraft if the need arose. The aircraft’s combat record included instances where it successfully launched missiles against enemy aircraft. This dual-role capability allowed the RF-4 Phantom II to defend itself and its reconnaissance mission against potential threats, enhancing its survivability in hostile environments.

The aircraft’s ability to gather real-time intelligence played a significant role in shaping the overall strategy of U.S. and allied forces during the Vietnam War. The imagery captured by the RF-4 Phantom II helped commanders identify targets, assess the effectiveness of airstrikes, and gain insights into enemy tactics. This intelligence was instrumental in planning missions, adjusting strategies, and adapting to changing battlefield conditions.

In addition to its reconnaissance missions, the RF-4 Phantom II was occasionally involved in air-to-air combat engagements. While the aircraft faced challenges from agile enemy fighters like the Soviet MiG-21, its speed and altitude capabilities allowed it to engage on its own terms. Instances of successful missile launches against enemy aircraft demonstrated the aircraft’s combat effectiveness and its ability to hold its own in aerial encounters.

The RF-4 Phantom II’s contributions during the Vietnam War highlighted its adaptability and versatility in a dynamic and challenging operational environment. Its success in reconnaissance and limited combat scenarios showcased the importance of having a platform that could swiftly gather intelligence and defend itself when necessary. Beyond its individual accomplishments, the aircraft’s role in shaping the overall outcome of the conflict cannot be understated.

Competing aircraft, such as the Soviet MiG-21, posed challenges for the RF-4 Phantom II in aerial combat due to their agility and advanced weaponry. However, the RF-4 Phantom II’s ability to operate at higher altitudes and utilize its long-range sensors played a strategic role in mitigating these challenges.

The RF-4 Phantom II was not only employed by the United States but also exported to various allied nations. Its service continued for several decades, and it participated in conflicts beyond the Vietnam War, such as the Gulf War.

The McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II remains a testament to ingenuity and adaptability in aviation history. Its development and deployment during a tumultuous epoch showcased its significance in meeting evolving military demands. The aircraft’s design, performance, and combat record established it as a formidable asset in reconnaissance and combat operations. While the RF-4 Phantom II eventually faced challenges from advancing technology, its enduring legacy serves as a reminder of its crucial role in shaping aerial warfare tactics and capabilities.

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From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce Phantoms

  • Aviation History
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From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel’s recce Phantoms

rf 4 phantom

The F-4X would have featured an increase in engine thrust by 150% to allow dash speeds of Mach 3.2, cruise at Mach 2.4, and flight up to 78,000ft (23,775m) altitude

Acquired by Israel in 1969 the  McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II  quickly became the backbone of the  Israeli Air Force (IAF) thanks to its range, payload and bombing accuracy.

Along with the F-4Es the IAF ordered also several RF-4s. These aircraft were a welcome addition to the service reconnaissance assets. Their speed and range combined with their superior camera systems, allowed more complex missions to be flown with less risk to man and machine than had been possible with the Mirages and Vautours. As explained by Bill Norton in his book Air War On The Edge: A History of the Israel Air Force and its aircraft since 1947 , the IAF was only the second customer for the RF-4 and these were the first to be equipped to operate with AIM-9 missiles for self-defense , employing wing pylons with twin launchers, while also retaining the bombing systems. As is common with RF-4s, the IAF recce Phantoms were equipped with the aft fuselage ejector units for photo-flash cartridges to be used during night missions. The reconnaissance aircraft were distributed among most of the F-4 squadrons.

From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce Phantoms

According Norton, “during the War of Attrition recce aircraft were important assets in keeping track of the Egyptian missile boxes and locating targets for follow-up strikes. Photo reconnaissance was especially critical immediately following the War of Attrition. The cease-fire terms required that Egypt freeze its missile batteries in place, and not continue to move SAM boxes closer to the Canal. These terms were very important to Israel, and very hazardous recon flights were made to verify compliance and then monitor movement when the cease-fire terms were clearly violated. Flights into the area were made at 600kts and at such a low altitude that the major hazard was from bird strikes and hitting fishing boat masts.”

Although the IAF had ordered RF-4Es, the aircraft did not begin to arrive until February 1971 and flew their first mission on Mar. 9. To help the service accomplish this essential task, two IAF F-4Es (coded 17 and 19) were modified locally in a two-month crash program to fit a camera in the nose. By removing the gun and installing environmental and electrical modifications, either a Zeiss RMK 15/23 medium-altitude mapping camera or Fairchild KA-52 low-altitude panoramic camera could be carried. These two machines began operational missions at 69 Squadron on Mar. 24, 1970 before transitioning to 201 by September. This IAF effort may have been the source of rumors that the U.S. loaned Israel two RF-4Cs between August 1970 and March 1971 under Operation Night Light (or Peace Night Lite) for which Israel reportedly paid $143,000. They were operated by 69 Squadron during their short stay.

As Norton says “it has been suggested that Israel had a much earlier exposure to the RF-4. One source asserts that the crews and aircraft of the USAF 38th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron were deployed from Spain to Israel – probably Hatzerim – to provide their services during the Six Day War. The RF-4Cs were supposedly given IAF markings and operated in the area until Jun. 12. While the American administration had certainly begun to lean towards the Israeli side in the Middle East conflict by 1967, this kind of material assistance during wartime was very unlikely. The IAF could certainly have used the help, freeing up their recon planes for strike missions. Another book records an even more unlikely event in 1962 when what may have been Israeli pilots collected a number of USN F-4Bs at Wheelus AB in Libya and flew them to an undisclosed location in the east. There has also been an extraordinary claim made that the U.S. Navy provided carrier landing training in the Red Sea to some 100 IAF F-4 aircrew in 1971.”

From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce Phantoms

It was not long before the SAM batteries were observed being moved forward. However, no one in the U.N., the U.S., or many even in Israel welcomed this news because of the possible consequences of renewed hostilities. The U.S. especially did not want anything to interfere with the scheduled Geneva peace talks. No immediate action was taken. The RF-4Es proved their worth the next summer when two, one flown by Aviem Sella , sped over southern Syria for 20min to obtain the first clear photos of mobile SA-6 batteries. Months of planning and training had gone into the mission that, because it was performed on a holiday and without top cover or ECM , went completely undisturbed by Syrians. The hazards of such missions were clear, as in October 1971 when an RF-4 returned with an SA-7 embedded in one engine. In April 1973 the IAF began high-altitude recce missions with their RF-4s, requiring the crew to wear pressure suits.

According Norton, so important was the photo intelligence generated by the IAF’s high-speed RF-4Es that the IAF sought a means of retaining this invaluable source of intelligence in the face of increasing threats to overflights of target sites. The IAF became interested in Americans’ 1,228lb (557kg) CAI KA-90 HIAC-1 ultra-long focal length (66in or 168cm) Long Range Oblique Photography (LOROP). This remarkable camera could resolve a 10in (25cm) object at 20nm range, allowing the Israelis to monitor activities near their borders without actually crossing the frontier. The Israelis made overtures to obtain one or more of the American RB-57Fs modified to carry the system. But, the U.S. rebuffed these queries.

A podded 1,500lb (680kg) version of the camera, designated the G-139, was eventually developed by General Dynamics (GD). The camera was in an enormous pod, 22ft (6.7m) long, that could accommodate 4,000lb (1,814kg) of equipment, including the associated environmental control system. In 1971 the U.S. Congress authorized export of the G-139 to Israel, and they arrived in October. The G-139 was employed on the centreline of the RF-4s and on two specially modified F-4Es. It is known to have been operated by at least 119 Squadron. How long the podded camera served is unclear.

From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce Phantoms

The IAF found the system very effective but the drag of the large pod degraded the Phantom’s performance to an operationally prohibitive extent. This is said to have limited maximum altitude to 50,000ft (15,240m) and maximum speed to just under Mach 1.5. Greater altitudes would permit more valuable images, but the degraded performance also placed the expensive and unique asset in grave jeopardy should an enemy attempt an intercept, and extended exposure to static anti-aircraft defenses.

Norton explains: “To answer the limitations imposed by the G-139, GD began work to boost the performance of the F-4 engines with a series of airframe modification under a program named Peace Jack. In 1971 the Israelis were invited to participate in the American effort. The Peace Jack airframe was initially to have included a radically revised inlet design and special low drag external ‘saddle’ tanks. The latter, including pumps, were to provide fluid for an engine pre-compressor cooling (PCC) water injection system to cool the intake air and increase overall engine mass flow. The two 2,500lb-capacity (1,134kg) tanks were to be mounted atop the jet, between the inlet ducts and the spine of the fuselage. These changes would, in theory, have increased engine thrust by 150% to allow dash speeds of Mach 3.2, cruise at Mach 2.4, and flight up to 78,000ft (23,775m) altitude. The conceptual aircraft was tentatively identified as the F-4X, but no actual airframe ever bore this designation.

“By 1974 a reduced size and weight LOROP camera had been designed that could be enclosed in a revised F-4 nose cavity lengthened by 12in (30.5cm) for 70ft 3 (2m 3 ) of volume. The nose included two windows on the bottom quadrant and two on either side. The entire camera could be rotated to view from any one of these windows. A separate environmental control system in the nose maintained the camera within an optimal temperature range. The design was termed the RF-4X but, again, no actual aircraft was identified with this designation. The IAF provided F-4E 69-7576 in December 1974 to General Dynamics at Fort Worth, Texas, which, over the next five months, served as the basis for a mock-up of the envisioned modifications. The combination was calculated to have allowed a Mach 2.7 cruise speed.”

From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce Phantoms

Up to this point, the Israelis had been financial partners in the Peace Jack effort with the USAF, but the latter eventually withdrew. The program faced at least an additional year of development, but the Israelis urgently needed an operationally HIAC capability. Alone the IAF could only afford to fund the camera installation, and the program proceeded with this goal – the saddle tanks and PCC being dropped. This design was designated the F-4E(S), with the S representing ‘Special’. The IAF had a separate KS-87 vertically mounted camera added aft of the HIAC. A number of other optical sensors could also be installed in the voluminous nose and the Air Force had no doubt developed additional packages throughout the years. A sight used to ensure that a photo target was within the oblique field of view of the cameras, was mounted on one or both of the canopy sills. Two other IAF F-4Es (69-7567 and -7570) joined 69-7576 in Fort Worth to undergo modification. First flight of the F-4E(S) was on Dec. 20, 1975 and the first of three modified aircraft was delivered on Jul. 30, 1976, the rest shortly afterwards to 199 Squadron.

While in Texas the noses of the aircraft were painted as if they still had black radome in an effort to conceal the modification. According Norton the (S) aircraft were maintained under the strictest security after returning to Israel until 1998. The type may have taken on more of an electronic warfare role late in the 1980s and ’90s, and is known to have had Elta jammers installed (the EL/L-8230 internal unit having been mentioned).

From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce Phantoms

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin, Israeli Air Force and  Bukvoed via Wikipedia 

Dario Leone

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rf 4 phantom

McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

  • 1 History of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II
  • 2.2 Production
  • 2.4 Dimensions
  • 2.6 Performance
  • 2.7 Performance
  • 2.9 Changes

History of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

One of the most successful fighter designs of all time was the McDonnell Douglas "Phantom II", a two-seat, twin-engine, multirole fighter. Nearly 5,200 aircraft of this type were produced from 1958 to 1981, and during the long Cold War (1947-1991), the aircraft served with many U.S. allies, including Australia, West Germany, Israel, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Over time, this superb airframe was modified to cover other roles on the battlefield, including radar hunting "wild weasels," remote-controlled targeting drones, and tactical reconnaissance.

The F-4 family is known to operate concurrently with three of the four major U.S. armed forces - the United States Air Force (USAF), the United States Navy (USN) and the United States Marine Corps (USMC). its worth.

In the tactical reconnaissance mission, the aircraft was named "RF-4", inheriting all the good characteristics of the F-4 fighter.

The RF-4B (F4H-1P), manufactured by the F-4B fighter brand, is a tactical reconnaissance aircraft developed for the United States Marine Corps. Changes to the base design include a lengthened fuselage and a four-foot increase in the length of the front section. A more compact AN/APQ-99 series radar was installed, in addition, the aircraft was equipped with three camera bays to accommodate a variety of cameras. It also carries the ALQ-126 series electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite and the AN/AAD-4 infrared (IR) reconnaissance system.

The brand's maiden flight took place on March 12, 1965, and 46 of the brand were built.

The RF-4C is an all-weather reconnaissance model developed for the United States Air Force (USAF) using two YRF-110A (YRF-4C) prototypes to justify the design. These initially carried the AN/APQ-99 radar, then moved to the AN/APQ-172 series. With wider support for available camera adjustments, the HIAC-1 LOROP (Remote Oblique Photography) pod can be carried along the centerline (ventral) of its torso.

This mount point also supports a nuclear bomb if necessary. The brand's total production was 503 units.

The RF-4C participated in the 1991 Gulf War, and its modified nose was repurposed for the F-4E fighter model, which featured the M61 Vulcan internal cannon as part of the Phantom II's standard fixed armament. The RF-4C(H) is a proposed offshoot of the C-Type Scout Bird, designed to carry infrared gear for the "night fighter" role.

The design was supposed to emerge from the conversion of an existing RF-4C model, but the project did not move forward.

The RF-4E is an unarmed export version for US allies. The total output is 149 marks. The RF-4EJ is a local Japanese aviation service model with a nose-mounted M61 Vulcan cannon. 15 aircraft were converted to standard.

The last variant of the RF-4 became the RF-4/TM "Isik" operated by the Turkish Air Force, which has been thoroughly modernized to keep up with battlefield demands and new threats.

The RF-4M is another proposed RF model form based on the F-4M, intended for sale to the Royal Air Force (RAF). The project did not continue. The RF-4X will be based on the advanced F-4X high-performance reconnaissance aircraft developed for Israel.

The project did not proceed due to budget constraints associated with the new McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter.

McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II Specification

- Reconnaissance (RECCE)

58.07 ft (17.7 m)

38.42 ft (11.71 m)

58,004 lb (26,310 kg)


1,400 mph (2,253 km/h; 1,217 knots)

59,596 ft (18,165 m; 11.29 mi)

1,749 miles (2,815 km; 1,520 nautical miles)

40,000 ft/min (12,192 m/min)

1 x 20mm M61 Vulcan built-in automatic cannon (some models).

AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile.

AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range air-to-air missile.

RF-4 "Phantom II" - name of the basic series.

RF-4B - USMC Operating Model; AN/APQ-99 Radar Adaptation; Extended Nose Section; Three Camera Mounts; ALQ-126 ECM Kit; Complete 46 Examples.

YRF-4C (YRF-110A) - RF-4C development prototype.

RF-4C - USAF combat model; uses AN/APQ-99 and AN/APQ-172 radar accessories; centerline HIAC-1 LOROP pod; maintains nuclear capability; completes 503 examples.

RF-4C(H) - Proposed model for night hunters, with infrared setup.

RF-4E - Export model for unarmed reconnaissance; 149 examples completed.

RF-4EJ - Native Japanese model; nose-mounted M61 Vulcan; 15 conversions.

RF-4E/TM "Isik" - Turkish Air Force model.

RF-4M - Proposed RAF export model; fitted interior.

RF-4X - Proposed Israeli Air Force model evolved from the proposed (discontinued) F-4X high-performance reconnaissance model.

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The Phantom is an Bow and Arrow system. The real life counterpart is the Hoyt Spyder Turbo, It uses Arrows.


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  1. McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II > National Museum of the US Air

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  2. McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom II

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  3. Aviation photographs of McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom II : ABPic

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  4. McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II > National Museum of the United

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  5. McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II

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  6. McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom II

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  5. RF-4C reconnaisance Phantom with camera nose Walk Around

  6. Takeoff! RF-4 Phantom II JASDF Hyakuri Airbase 3rd mission


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  2. McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II

    McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II In the early 1960s, the USAF recognized the need for more tactical reconnaissance aircraft to reinforce the RF-101s then in service. The USAF chose a modification of the F-4C fighter. The RF-4C development program began in 1962, and the first production aircraft made its initial flight on May 18, 1964.

  3. RF-4C "Phantom II"

    Specifications Aircraft Type: RF-4C Phantom II, McDonnell Douglas Mission: All-weather Photographic Reconnaissance Number Built: The U.S. Air Force accepted 2,874 Phantoms (all models), 505 of which were the RF-4C model type Crew: 2 Engines: Two General Electric J-79-GE-15s of 17,000 lbs. thrust each with afterburner

  4. List of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II variants

    The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II variants were numerous versions and designations of the F-4 and are described below. Production numbers for major versions asterisk indicates converted from other version Variants An XF4H-1 1959. F-4Bs from VF-213, 1967. XF4H-1 Two prototypes for the United States Navy, first flown 1958. F4H-1F (F-4A)

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  9. F-4N Phantom II

    Under the designation RF-4, the Phantom II also served in the photo reconnaissance role. McDonnell Douglas built 5,195 Phantom IIs during a production run that lasted from 1958 to 1979, making it second only to the MiG-21 in numbers produced. The only aircraft flown concurrently by the Navy and Air Force flight demonstration teams, the last F ...

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    F-4E. On display at the Givat Olga neighborhood of Hadera (IDF serial #702 / Construction Number 4289) [13] Twenty-one aircraft, including three RF-4E are on display at the Israeli Air Force Museum at Hatzerim Airbase in the Negev desert. [14] [15] F-4E Phantom II, IDF serial #327, Construction Number 3203, United States Air Force s/n 67-0346.

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    Hyakuri Air Base. Some of Japan's oldest jets, the RF-4EJ Phantom IIs, flew for the last time yesterday, days before their official retirement. Japan has operated the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet ...

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    The RF-4C photo Phantom collected valuable intelligence over Vietnam's battlefields and beyond, flying "alone, unarmed and unafraid" For me, the McDonnell RF-4C was just one model of aging Phantoms I flew as a backseat flight test engineer during the 1980s at Edwards Air Force Base.

  13. Gulf War: RF-4C Phantom II in Desert Storm

    RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance aircraft from the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Reno, Nev., prepare for a mission during Operation Desert Shield. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Bill Thompson RF-4Cs began flying combat missions on the first night of Operation Desert Storm, Jan. 17, 1991.

  14. McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

    The RF-4 was an unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the USAF's F-4C which carried a variety of film-based and side-looking radar (SLAR) sensors fo...

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    The McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II stands as an iconic aircraft that played a pivotal role in reconnaissance and combat during its operational years. With its distinctive history, innovative design, and remarkable military service, the RF-4 Phantom II left an indelible mark on the aviation world.

  16. McDonnell Douglas RF-4B Phantom II

    The McDonnell Douglas RF-4B was the photo reconnaissance version of the versatile F-4 Phantom II. It first flew on March 12, 1965 with the first delivery going to Marine Composite Utility Squadron Three (VMCJ-3), based at MCAS El Toro, in May of 1965. ... The RF-4B Phantom II on display was initially accepted on 15 October 1965 and delivered to ...

  17. McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II non-U.S. operators

    F-4 Phantom II non-U.S. operators are the non-U.S. nations with air forces that operate or used to operate the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.The Phantom II entered service with the U.S. military in 1960 and served until 1996. During this time it was the primary interceptor, air superiority fighter and fighter bomber with the U.S. Navy, Marines and Air Force.

  18. From the ultrafast F-4X to the F-4E(S): the Odyssey of Israel's recce

    Acquired by Israel in 1969 the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II quickly became the backbone of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) thanks to its range, payload and bombing accuracy. Along with the F-4Es the IAF ordered also several RF-4s. These aircraft were a welcome addition to the service reconnaissance assets.

  19. McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II

    History of the McDonnell Douglas RF-4 Phantom II. One of the most successful fighter designs of all time was the McDonnell Douglas "Phantom II", a two-seat, twin-engine, multirole fighter. Nearly 5,200 aircraft of this type were produced from 1958 to 1981, and during the long Cold War (1947-1991), the aircraft served with many U.S. allies ...

  20. 2012 Turkish F-4 Phantom shootdown

    2012 Turkish F-4 Phantom shootdown. / 35.8335; 35.5099. On 22 June 2012, a Turkish McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom II reconnaissance jet was intercepted and shot down by the Syrian Army in international airspace, after having violated Syrian airspace.

  21. Rf 4 phantom hi-res stock photography and images

    RM A5JYN5 - McDonnell Douglas F-4 RF-4E Phantom Tail Fin, Greek Hellenic Air Force, RM E0Y60N - Nov. 28, 1968 - US Air Force Captain wins 19 medals in six months; Captain Robert C. Rankin, 27, United States Air Force, was yesterday presented with 19 medals at R.A.F. Alconbury, Huntingdon, yesterday, for sill and valour during a six months ...

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  23. RF-4

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