Originally designed to be a fleet defense fighter, the F-4 Phantom II soared into the history books as one of the most popular multi-purpose jets in U.S. history. This feared fighter also became one of the best-known icons of the Cold War.
Douglas Aircraft ran internal studies on fighter designs in 1952 and concluded that since there was no new aircraft competition on the horizon, the U.S. Navy had the biggest need for a new and unique type of attack fighter. In 1953 Douglas ran to the drawing board and began redesigning its F3H Demon naval fighter, hoping to improve upon its capabilities and performance. After coming up with several variations based on engine design and fittings, making it a truly modular aircraft. The Navy was impressed but not quite sold upon this modular fighter. As Douglas was tweaking their design to seal the deal, the Navy returned with new requirements. Since they already had several types of fighters the Navy felt it needed an all-weather fleet defense interceptor. Being able to carry up to 18,650 pounds of weapons on nine external hardpoints made the F-4 a very valuable weapon. Thus the F-4 Phantom II was born. The F-4 first took to the skies on May 27, 1958.
The reason it was named the F-4 Phantom II comes from the fact that the first “Phantom” was another Douglas jet fighter, the FH-1 Phantom. Other names such as the F4H “Satan” and “Mithras” were proposed, but it was eventually settled upon the F-4 Phantom II.
Proving that it could be an asset to the U.S. Navy, the F-4 quickly became the favorite of the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps and was a major part of both of their air wings. All three of the military services used the F-4 as their prime air superiority fighter in the Vietnam War. Near the end of the war it also became important in the ground attack and reconnaissance. While it was the powerhouse in the sky throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was slowly replaced by more modern aircraft. Even though the F-4 was replaced by the F-15 Eagle & F-16 Fighting Falcon in the Air Force, as well as the F-14 Tomcat & F-18 Hornet in the Navy and Marines, it remained in service in reconnaissance and “Wild Weasel” roles up until 1996.
Shortly after the F-4 was introduced, it set 15 world records. Among the 15 records the F-4 set an absolute speed record of 1,606.342 mph and an absolute altitude record of 98,557 ft. This was extremely impressive considering that these records were set in 1959-1962. Mach speeds were almost unheard of at the time. Five of the F-4’s speed records weren’t broken until 1975 when the F-15 Eagle was introduced. The F-4 Phantom II was also the only aircraft to ever be used by both U.S. Flight Demonstration teams. Both the USAF Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels used the F-4 for several seasons.
The ability to perform as a mach 2 class fighter that had a long range as well as a bomber-sized payload made the F-4 one of the most important aircraft in military history. The F-4 Phantom II showed the importance of a multi-purpose fighter in the skies of war.