McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in UK service
The United Kingdom operated the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as one of its principal combat aircraft from the 1960s to the early 1990s. The UK was the first export customer for the Phantom, which was ordered to fill the gap left by a number of British aircraft projects that had been cancelled due to the state of the UK aerospace industry in the 1960s. The Phantom was procured to serve both in the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force in a number of different roles including air defence, close air support, low level strike and tactical reconnaissance.
The UK Phantoms were a special batch built separately and containing a significant amount of British technology as a means of easing the pressure on the domestic aerospace industry as a result of the major project cancellations. Two individual variants were eventually built for the United Kingdom; the F-4K variant was designed from the outset as an air defence interceptor to be operated by the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers, while the F-4M version was procured for the RAF to serve in the tactical strike and reconnaissance roles. In the mid-1980s, a third Phantom variant was obtained when a quantity of second-hand F-4J aircraft were purchased to augment the UK's air defences following the Falklands War.
The Phantom entered service with both the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF in 1969; in the RAF it was soon replaced in the strike role by other aircraft, and by the mid-1970s was transferred to become the UK's principal interceptor, a role in which it continued until the late 1980s.
- 1 Background
- 2 Variants
- 3 Variations
- 4 Aircraft replaced by and replacing the Phantom
- 5 Specifications (F-4M)
- 6 References
In the late 1950s, the United Kingdom began the process to replace their early second generation jet combat aircraft then in service with the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm. At the time, the British aerospace industry was still a major source of equipment, with designs from different companies in service in a number of different roles. However, the 1957 Defence White Paper brought about a significant change in the working practices, with a number of the major aerospace manufacturers forced into amalgamating into two large groups:
The intention was to rationalise the industry in order to cut costs, with the government also offering incentives to amalgamation through promises of contracts for new aircraft orders for the armed forces. At the time, the RAF were looking to replace the English Electric Canberra light bomber in the long range interdictor role, and the Hawker Hunter in the close air support role, while the Royal Navy sought an aircraft to assume the fleet air defence role from the de Havilland Sea Vixen. BAC, through its English Electric subsidiary, had begun developing a new high performance strike aircraft, the TSR-2, that was intended to undertake both long-range, low level strike missions with conventional and tactical nuclear weapons, as well as tactical reconnaissance. Hawker Siddeley were also developing a new aircraft, based on their P.1127 V/STOL demonstrator. The P.1154 was proposed as a supersonic version that could be marketed to both the RAF and Royal Navy to fulfil a number of roles; close air support, air superiority, fleet air defence.
During the early 1960s, aircraft development became increasingly expensive, with the result that major projects often became mired in political and economic concerns. The development of TSR-2 saw increasing cost overruns, combined with the presence of a potentially cheaper alternative then under development in the United States, the F-111. The P.1154 was subject to the inter-service rivalry between the Royal Navy and RAF, which led to two wildly differing specifications being submitted for the aircraft that were impossible to fit within a single airframe.
In 1964, the Royal Navy withdrew from the P.1154 project, and instead made moves to procure a new fleet air defence interceptor. It eventually selected the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, then in service with the US Navy as its primary air defence aircraft, intended to be operated from both existing and new build aircraft carriers. This left the P.1154 as a wholly RAF project.
Later in 1964, the 1964 General Election brought the Labour Party back into power. The new government undertook a defence review, which led to the 1966 Defence White Paper that cancelled a number of different projects, including both the P.1154 and TSR-2. As a consequence of this, the government was forced to order new aircraft to replace the Canberra and Hunter for the RAF, and eventually chose two types - to replace the Canberra in the long range role (which was intended for TSR-2), the F-111 was selected, with plans for a redesigned variant, while the roles undertaken by the Hunter (for which P.1154 was to be procured) would be undertaken by a further purchase of F-4 Phantoms.
As a means of guaranteeing employment in the British aerospace industry, agreement was reached that significant amounts of the structure of the UK's Phantoms would be built domestically. The F-4J variant, which was then the primary version in service with the US Navy, was taken as the basis for the UK aircraft, with major redesign. The most significant was the substitution of the GE J79 turbojet for the larger and more powerful Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan, which necessitated a redesign of the rear fuselage; these were to be built by BAC. The Westinghouse AN/AWG-10 radar carried by the F-4J was to be procured and built under licence by Ferranti as the AN/AWG-11 for Fleet Air Arm aircraft and AN/AWG-12 for those of the RAF. The overall changes to the aircraft led to the two variants being given their own separate series letters, with the FAA version being designated as the F-4K and the RAF version as the F-4M.
Initially, there was an intention to procure up to 400 aircraft for the Royal Navy and the RAF, but the development cost associated with the changes specified by the United Kingdom to accommodate the Spey turbofans meant that the per unit price eventually ended up being three-times the price of an F-4J; because the government then had a policy of negotiating fixed-price contracts it meant that these costs could not be evened out by a large production run, which left the total order at 170.
F-4K Phantom FG.1
|F-4K Phantom FG.1|
|A Royal Navy Phantom FG.1 of 892 NAS aboard HMS Ark Royal in 1972|
|Role||Air defence interceptor|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||27 June 1966|
|Primary user||Royal Air Force
Fleet Air Arm
In 1964, a total of 140 new build Phantoms were ordered for the Fleet Air Arm to serve as the Royal Navy's primary fleet air defence aircraft, combined with a secondary strike capability. These were procured to replace the de Havilland Sea Vixen then in service in the role, with the intention that they operate from the decks of four brand new or modernised aircraft carriers. At the time, the Royal Navy's carrier force consisted primarily of five fleet or light fleet carriers of differing sizes and ages:
- HMS Victorious - commissioned 1941; rebuilt 1950-1957
- HMS Eagle - commissioned 1951
- HMS Centaur - commissioned 1953
- HMS Ark Royal - commissioned 1955
- HMS Hermes - commissioned 1959
Of these, only Eagle and Ark Royal were big enough to accommodate the Phantom, and so plans were put in place to rebuild the two ships to enable the operation of the aircraft. At the same time, plans were in place to construct two new aircraft carriers to a new design, termed as "CVA-01"; the requirements for the intended force of four carriers meant that up to five squadrons of Phantoms were planned to be purchased. However, in its 1966 Defence White Paper the Government decided to cancel CVA-01 (as well as cancelling TSR-2), which led to a reduction in the total procurement order for the Royal Navy's Phantoms, from 140 down to 48. The intention was to form a pair of operational squadrons, each of twelve aircraft, that would operate from the two remaining, heavily modernised fleet carriers.
The Royal Navy received its first F-4K Phantoms, which received the British designation FG.1, in April 1968. These were assigned to 700P Naval Air Squadron, which was to serve as Intensive Flying Trials Unit. Upon completion of the successful flight trials, 767 Naval Air Squadron was commissioned in January 1969 as the FAA's training squadron. This was followed at the end of March 1969 by 892 Naval Air Squadron, which commissioned as the Royal Navy's first operational Phantom unit, intended to embark in Ark Royal once her three-year refit had completed in 1970.
At the same time as the Fleet Air Arm was receiving its first aircraft, the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment had three FG.1s delivered to its 'C' Squadron for flight deck trials aboard Eagle. Two sets of trials were successfully carried out in March and June 1969; the first set was a set of approaches and touch and go landings, while the second set of trials involved full up catapult launch and arrested recovery. As a result of the reheat from the Spey turbofans, the ship's jet blast deflectors (JBD) were not used; instead a steel plate was fixed to the deck to absorb the heat of the engines building to launch, with fire hoses needed after each launch to prevent them melting.
Ark Royal had entered refit to accommodate the Phantom in 1967; this involved amongst other elements the installation of water-cooled JBDs and bridle catchers. Once this was complete, Eagle was then scheduled to undergo a similar modernization. However, in 1969, the planned refit of Eagle was cancelled. As a consequence, it was then decided to further reduce the FAA's Phantom fleet to just 28 aircraft. The remaining 20 aircraft were then allocated to the Royal Air Force.
In 1970, Ark Royal embarked 892 NAS as part of her air group for the first time. However, the first operational use of the Royal Navy's Phantoms had come in 1969, when 892 NAS had embarked for training with the US aircraft carrier USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean, and had undertaken air defence missions alongside the ship's own F-4Js. During Ark Royal's first three-year commission, 892 NAS, which had initially had RNAS Yeovilton as its home base, moved to RAF Leuchars where, during the periods when it was not embarked, undertook Quick Reaction Alert duties alongside 43 Squadron. The Phantom served in the Fleet Air Arm until 1978, when Ark Royal was finally withdrawn from service, leaving no ship left in the Royal Navy capable of operating the type. The final catapault launch from Ark Royal was a Phantom of 892 NAS on 27 November 1978 during the disembarkation of the air group following the ship's final deployment; the squadron's aircraft were delivered to RAF St Athan in Wales where they were then handed over to the RAF.
Royal Air Force
Following the cancellation of the planned refit of HMS Eagle to allow her to operate the Phantom, a total of 20 airframes that had originally be ordered for the Fleet Air Arm were diverted to the Royal Air Force to serve in the air defence role. At the time, the RAF's primary interceptor was the English Electric Lightning, which suffered badly both in terms of range, loiter time and weapons fit, all of which hampered its effectiveness, especially in long interceptions of Soviet Air Forces and Soviet Naval Aviation bombers and reconnaissance aircraft over the North Sea and North Atlantic. So, it was decided to form a new Phantom squadron at RAF Leuchars, the UK's most northerly air defence base, to take advantage of the improvements that the Phantom provided over the Lightning - it could carry more fuel, and could thus fly further for longer; it was fitted with a more powerful radar; and it had a much larger weapons capacity (up to 8 missiles, compared to 2 for the Lightning). On 1 September 1969, 43 Squadron was formed at Leuchars, operating as part of the UK's northern QRA zone alongside the Lightnings of 11 Squadron and, from 1972, more Phantoms from 892 Naval Air Squadron.
Following the withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal in 1978, the Phantoms of the Fleet Air Arm were turned over to the RAF and used to form a second squadron at Leuchars. At the time, 111 Squadron was stationed there operating the FGR.2 version of the Phantom, having been there since 1975. In 1979, the squadron converted to the ex-Navy aircraft, dispersing its existing airframes to other Phantom units. Both 43 and 111 Squadrons retained the FG.1 until 1989 and the subsequent entry into service of the new Tornado F.3.
- Royal Navy
- Royal Air Force
Phantom FG.1 of 43 Squadron approaching an air to air refuelling tanker
F-4M Phantom FGR.2
|F-4M Phantom FGR.2|
|A Royal Air Force Phantom FGR.2 of 23 Squadron at RAF Finningley in 1977|
|Role||Air defence interceptor
Low level strike
Close air support
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||17 February 1967|
|Primary user||Royal Air Force|
Close Air Support
Following the cancellation of both TSR-2 and P.1154, the RAF were still left with a requirement to replace both the Canberra and Hunter in the long-range strike, close air support and reconnaissance roles. This resulted in the procurement of two aircraft, the General Dynamics F-111K and the F-4M Phantom. While the F-111K was cancelled within a year of being ordered, the order for over 100 Phantoms went ahead alongside the Phantom order for the Royal Navy. The RAF Phantom, given the designation FGR.2, was broadly similar to the naval version, with some minor variations in terms of engines, avionics and structure, which related to its use as a land-based, rather than carrier-based aircraft.
The first RAF Phantom unit was 228 Operational Conversion Unit, which was stood up in August 1968. The Phantom entered operational service in May 1969, when 6 Squadron was formed at RAF Coningsby in the tactical strike role. 54 Squadron was formed in September the same year, while 41 Squadron came in 1972 as a tactical reconnaissance unit. A further four squadrons were formed in RAF Germany on the Phantom in these roles, with 2, 14, 17 and 31 Squadrons all formed at RAF Brüggen in 1970 and 1971. After Initial Work-up No II(AC) squadron moved to and operated from RAF Laarbruch in the tactical reconnaissance role. The aircraft were fitted with a recce pod containing 4 optical cameras, an Infra Red Linescan and a sideways looking radar.
During the 1970s, the RAF was in the process of developing a new aircraft for the tactical strike and reconnaissance missions, which eventually became the SEPECAT Jaguar. This was introduced into service in 1974, and led to a re-think in the use of the Phantom as, at the same time, the limitations of the Lightning as an interceptor were becoming more apparent. The addition of the Jaguar, combined with the use of the Blackburn Buccaneer, which had been purchased to assume some of the strike roles intended for the F-111K, meant that it was possible to begin transferring Phantoms to undertake air defence.
In October 1974, 111 Squadron converted from the Lightning to the Phantom FGR.2, becoming the first unit to operate the type in the air defence role (notwithstanding 43 Squadron, which had used the FG.1 version since 1969). As more Jaguars were delivered, enabling the strike squadrons in the UK and Germany to convert, more Phantoms were released enabling existing Lightning squadrons to be converted; 19 Squadron and 92 Squadron, the forward deployed air defence units in Germany, converted in 1976 and 1977 respectively, at the same time moving from RAF Gütersloh, which was the closest RAF base to the East German border, to RAF Wildenrath, taking advantage of the Phantom's superior range over the Lightning. Three further UK based squadrons, 23, 29 and 56, were also converted between 1974 and 1976. 111 Squadron, which had been the first unit to use the FGR.2 as an interceptor, converted to the FG.1 version in 1979 following the transfer of the Royal Navy's remaining airframes to the RAF. The Phantom subsequently served as the RAF's primary interceptor for over a decade until the introduction into service of the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1987.
In August 1982, following the Falklands War, 29 Squadron detached a number of its aircraft to RAF Stanley to provide air defence for the Falkland Islands. Late the following year, 23 Squadron took up the role, remaining stationed there until October 1988, when they were replaced by 1435 Flight. To make up for the loss of an entire squadron from the UK's air defences, the RAF procured 15 second-hand F-4J Phantoms that had previously been used by the US Navy. These aircraft were operated by 74 Squadron from 1984 until 1991, when they were replaced by FGR.2 Phantoms that had been released by other squadrons following their conversion to the Tornado.
Initially, it was intended that Phantoms and Tornados serve alongside each other; both 23 and 29 Squadrons converted from the Phantom to the Tornado between 1987 and 1988, alongside the conversion of the final two remaining Lightning squadrons; the intention was to retain a pair of UK based Phantom squadrons at RAF Wattisham alongside a pair of Tornado units at RAF Coningsby to provide air defence cover for the southern half of the UK Air Defence Region, with another two squadrons stationed in Germany. The end of the Cold War however led to a more rapid withdrawal of Phantom units than had originally been planned; under the Options for Change defence review the Phantom was to be withdrawn from service, with the two Germany based units disbanded as part of the gradual run down of the RAF's presence, and the final two UK units disbanded in late 1992.
Phantom FGR.2 of 228 OCU at NAS Patuxent River in 1970
Phantom FGR.2 of 19 Squadron alongside a US Navy F-14 in 1990
F-4J(UK) Phantom "F.3"
|A Royal Air Force Phantom F-4J(UK) of 74 Squadron in 1984|
|Role||Air defence interceptor|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||10 August 1984|
|Introduction||19 October 1984|
|Primary user||Royal Air Force|
Following the end of the Falklands War, the UK government began a programme of upgrading the defences of the Falkland Islands to guard against any further potential aggression from Argentina. One of the measures taken was the deployment of an interceptor squadron to the islands themselves, with 23 Squadron forming at RAF Stanley in October 1983. At the time, the air defence variant of the Panavia Tornado was still in development, meaning that the Phantom was the UK's primary air defence aircraft (supported by two remaining squadrons of Lightnings). The removal of a squadron of Phantoms to the Falkland Islands left a gap in the UK's air defences with nothing immediately available to fill it, given that the Tornado was still some years from entering service. As a consequence, the UK government decided to purchase an additional squadron of Phantoms. However, because the aircraft in service with the RAF were the special production batch built to UK specifications, it would not be possible to obtain identical aircraft. So, a total of 15 second-hand airframes were procured from among the best of the ex-US Navy F-4Js stored at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The F-4J was chosen as it was the variant from which the RAF's F-4Ks and F-4Ms had been developed, and thus the closest available to the British aircraft. The 15 that were selected were extensively refurbished and brought to a standard almost equivalent to the F-4S, which was the last variant in service with the US Navy, with the only differences being the absence of leading-edge slats and a helmet gun sight. The major difference between the F-4J and the British Phantoms was the absence of the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan, with instead the aircraft being fitted with the GE J79-10B, which produced less power than the British engine, but had a faster afterburner light up, which gave better performance at high altitude, at the expense of slightly poorer acceleration at low level; the high altitude performance was helped by the reduced drag from its smaller air intakes. Initially delivered capable of carrying the Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, they were soon made compatible with the Skyflash and SUU-23A gun pod, bringing them into line with the rest of the RAF's Phantoms. However, in spite of some modifications to allow them to operate with the rest of the fleet, the F-4Js retained the vast bulk of the equipment they were originally fitted with, which even led to their crews requiring American flying helmets.
Rather than give the new Phantoms a UK designation as the "F.3", they were instead classed as F-4J(UK). They were assigned to 74 Squadron at RAF Wattisham, which stood up in October 1984, just two months after the first flight. The aircraft remained in service through the transition to the Tornado, which began entering service in 1987. In 1990, thanks to the conversion of F-4M squadrons to the Tornado, the RAF were able to transfer the best of its remaining FGR.2s to 74 Squadron, which meant that the F-4J was able to be withdrawn in January 1991.
Between FG.1 and FGR.2
The Phantom FG.1 and FGR.2 as built were similar, being fitted as they were with the broadly the same engines and avionics, although in both cases there were minor differences. The FGR.2 was fitted with the Mark 202 version of the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan, while the FG.1 had the Mark 203; this was fundamentally the same, but had a modified control system for the afterburner, which allowed it to light faster, to enable power to be applied quickly in the event of a bolter on the small decks of the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers. Both variants were fitted with a licence built version of the Westinghouse AN/AWG-10 avionics package; the FG.1 was fitted with the AN/AWG-11, which differed primarily in having a nose radome that was hinged and able to fold backwards against the aircraft's fuselage to allow for storage in the hangar of an aircraft carrier. The AN/AWG-12 fitted to the FGR.2 was not foldable, and featured a better ground mapping mode, to take into account the strike role for which the type was originally procured; allied to this was a Ferranti inertial navigation/attack system (removed when the type converted to the air defence role). It was also configured to be able to control the SUU-23A gun pod, which the FG.1 was not fiited with.
Between British Phantoms and other Phantoms
Although there were some minor differences between the two types of Phantom built for the United Kingdom, there were many significant ones between the British Phantoms and those built for the United States. The most obvious one was the substitution of the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan for the General Electric J79 turbojet. The Spey was shorter in length than the J79, but wider in diameter, which meant that the intakes had to be redesigned, making them 20% larger (with a consequent increase in drag). The Spey was more efficient at lower altitudes, and meant that British Phantoms had better range and acceleration; however, they were less efficient at higher altitudes, and also lacked speed compared with J79 powered versions. This discrepancy became apparent when the F-4J was obtained in 1984, which was regarded as being the best of the three variants to serve in the RAF.
The small size of the aircraft carriers Eagle and Ark Royal from which the Royal Navy's Phantoms were intended to operate, compared to the then current US Navy carriers of the period, meant that the F-4K version required significant structural changes compared to the F-4J, from which it was descended, and which performed a similar role. In addition to the folding nose radome to allow for storage in the smaller hangars of the British ships, it had to have a significantly strengthened undercarriage to account for the more violent landings that would take place on the shorter flight decks; a telescopic nosewheel oleo that extended by 40 inches (100 cm) to provide an increased take-off attitude due to the shorter and less powerful catapults; and drooping ailerons, enlarged leading edge flaps and a slotted tailplane, all to improve the lift and handling characteristics of carrier operation.
As the Phantom continued in service, other changes were made, most notably the addition of the Marconi ARI.18228 Radar Warning Receiver in an installation mounted on top of the vertical stabiliser, the only Phantom variants to be so fitted. The RWR installation was fitted in the mid-1970s to both the FG.1 and FGR.2 Phantoms, but was left off of the F-4J(UK). From 1978, the Skyflash AAM, derived from the AIM-7 Sparrow, began to be delivered to RAF Phantom units, and was used concurrently with the Sparrow; all three UK Phantom variants were eventually fitted to operate the Skyflash.
Aircraft replaced by and replacing the Phantom
Sir Sydney Camm, the Chief Designer at Hawker for many years, once said that no British aircraft could be considered a success until it was able to match the capabilities of the Phantom. The Phantom's versatility was such that, in the RAF and Royal Navy, it was the direct replacement for a total of four different aircraft types, with nine separate variants amongst them. In turn, when the Phantom was replaced in service, it required three separate aircraft.
- Aircraft replaced by the Phantom:
- Aircraft that replaced the Phantom:
|Unit||Formed||Previous Aircraft (Withdrawn)||Disbanded||Replaced by|
|892 NAS||1969||Sea Vixen FAW.2 (1969)||1978||N/A|
|2 Sqn||1970||Hunter FR.10 (1970)||1976||Jaguar GR.1|
|6 Sqn||1969||Canberra B.16 (1969)||1974||Jaguar GR.1|
|14 Sqn||1970||Canberra B(I).8 (1970)||1975||Jaguar GR.1|
|17 Sqn||1970||Canberra PR.7 (1970)||1975||Jaguar GR.1|
|19 Sqn||1977||Lightning F.2A (1977)||1992||Hawk T.1|
|23 Sqn||1975||Lightning F.3/F.6 (1975)||1988||Tornado F.3|
|29 Sqn||1975||Lightning F.3/F.6 (1975)||1987||Tornado F.3|
|31 Sqn||1971||Canberra PR.7 (1971)||1976||Jaguar GR.1|
|41 Sqn||1972||Bloodhound Mk.2 SAM (1970)||1977||Jaguar GR.1|
|43 Sqn||1969||Hunter FGA.9 (1967)||1989||Tornado F.3|
|54 Sqn||1969||Hunter FGA.9 (1969)||1974||Jaguar GR.1|
|74 Sqn||1984||Lightning F.6 (1971)||1991||Hawk T.1A|
|92 Sqn||1977||Lightning F.2A (1977)||1992||Hawk T.1A|
|111 Sqn||1974||Lightning F.3/F.6 (1974)||1990||Tornado F.3|
Data from Thunder & Lightnings - Phantom History
- Crew: 2
- Length: 57 ft 7 in (17.55 m)
- Wingspan: 38 ft 4.5 in (11.7 m)
- Height: 16 ft 1 in (4.9 m)
- Empty weight: 31, lb (14,061 kg)
- Max. takeoff weight: 56,000 lb (25,402 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Spey 202/204 low bypass turbofans, 12,140 lbf dry thrust (54 kN), 20,500 lbf in afterburner (91.2 kN) each
- Maximum speed: Mach 1.9 (1,386 mph) at 40,000 ft (12,190 m)
- Ferry range: 1,750 mi (2,816 km)
- Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,300 m)
- 4× AIM-7 Sparrow or Skyflash in fuselage recesses plus 4 × AIM-9 Sidewinders on wing pylons;
- 1× 20 mm (0.787 in) M61 Vulcan 6-barrel Gatling cannon in SUU-23 gun pod
- Ferranti AN/APG-61 Fire Control Radar
- Marconi ARI18228 Radar Warning Receiver
- Marconi AN/ASN-39A computer
- AN/ARN-91 TACAN bearing/distance navigation system
- Cossor IFF
- STR-70P Radio Altimeter
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