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McDonnell Douglas Phantom

IF you asked people of a certain vintage to recall a supersonic jet that served the RAF with distinction, names such as the Harrier and Tornado would no doubt receive several mentions.

One of those likely to be less well remembered is the McDonnell Douglas Phantom, most likely because it was a US jet that was customised for British use, serving the RAF for a quarter of a century before it was sidelined by the end of the ‘first’ Cold War.

A two-seater long-range interceptor and fighter-bomber it was originally developed for the US Navy, noted in its design for its revolutionary wing positioning – mounted low in the fuselage and swept back at 45 degrees – and its ability to reach top speed in excess of Mach 2; it had a combat range of 420 miles and a ferry range around 1700 miles.

The principle of the Phantom was a jet that wasn’t completely focused on its capabilities in a dogfight, an aircraft that could engage its enemy at a distance, beyond visual range, using radar and missile technology. The two-person crew was necessary to cope with the workload from all the equipment associated with the jet, and it was capable of operating in air-to-air combat or modified to carry out ground attacks.

The Phantom boasted a carrying capacity of around 16,000lb with nine external pylons that could carry bombs, rocket pods or air-to-air missiles. It entered service with the US Navy in 1961, seven years before Britain received the first of their fleet of Phantoms. It was by accident the RAF came round to accepting the idea of the Phantom, coming after a decision to scrap the TSR2 (tactical, strike and reconnaissance) programme – a British jet planned to replace the Canberra that was shelved in 1965.

Following discussions with the British government, the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation drew up a specification for a British version of the Phantom based on the US Navy’s F-4J model, originally designated F-4K. Rolls-Royce proposed that its two-spool Spey turbofan engine, broadly the same size as the General Electric (GE) J79, would be ideal in providing increased thrust assisting in making the British Phantom compatible with the smaller flight decks of the British aircraft carriers.

Phantoms at RAF Connigsby in 1985
(Phantoms at RAF Connigsby in 1985 - Geoff Collins)

An order was made for the Phantom in July 1964, including the Spey engines that would form the basis of an aim to make it “50 per cent British”. The Hawker Siddeley company were also involved, their factory at Brough in the East Riding of Yorkshire becoming a ‘sister’ design company to McDonnell, with a number of components for the British version built at companies across the UK.

The requisite British components were then shipped to St Louis in Missouri for assembly by McDonnell, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) version designated F-4K, the RAF’s the F-4M. The original plans were for a total of 400 Phantoms for the Royal Navy and and the RAF, a number eventually scaled down to 170 due to the increased costs incurred to accommodate the new engines and the British components.

The first Phantom entered UK service in 1968 with the FAA, soon followed by the RAF version, which was given the designation FGR.2. The first RAF Phantom unit was 228 Operational Conversion Unit, OCU, stood up in August 1968, the Phantom entering operations as part of Strike Command in May 1969 when No. 6 was handed the new aircraft at Coningsby on the squadron’s return to UK soil after 50 years’ service overseas.

It was initially used in ground attack and reconnaissance roles, around 15 RAF squadrons flying the aircraft, many based in Germany where it operated around the borders of the countries of the old Soviet BLOC at the height of the ‘first’ Cold War. The Phantoms of Nos 14, 17 and 31 Squadrons were assigned a tactical nuclear strike role by Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SACEUR) at RAF Bruggen in Germany, their weaponry supplied by the US; the Phantoms of the tactical reconnaissance units were fitted with a pod containing four optical cameras, infrared linescan and sideways looking radar.

92 Sqn Phantom Landing at RAF Wildenrath on 6 August 1985

(92 Sqn Phantom Landing at RAF Wildenrath on 6 August 1985 - Rob Schleiffert)

The introduction of the Jaguar into RAF service saw Phantom’s role reviewed in the early 1970s, the aircraft soon switching to interceptor operations, its superiority over the English Electric Lightning in terms of range and weaponry making it a natural replacement: No. 111 Squadron converted in October 1974, soon followed by Nos. 19 and 92, also based in Germany, with home units also converting. The Phantom served as the primary interceptor until the late 1980s when it was superseded by the Tornado.

The Falklands War saw three Phantoms from 29 Squadron forward deployed to Wideawake on Ascension Island in May 1982 to provide Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) air cover for RAF operations, a total of nine Phantoms from the Squadron moving to Port Stanley at the end of the conflict to provide air defence for the Falklands Islands.

The need to provide air defence in the South Atlantic led to a shortfall in home Phantoms, the MoD deciding a new squadron of the aircraft was required. The ‘new’ Phantoms were not the same as the UK specification models already in service, F-4Js chosen from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona as the closest model to the British variant. A total of 15 were brought into RAF service, their engines GE J79 turbojets rather than the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans, the latest batch of Phantoms retaining the bulk of the US equipment on board, RAF pilots even required to use American flying helmets.

Phantom F.3 of 74 Squadron in 1984
(Phantom F.3 of 74 Squadron in 1984)

Assigned to the reformed 74 Squadron at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk, the Phantoms were involved in Exercise Priory in April and May 1985, testing the UK’s air defences with the ‘first’ Cold War at its height; the squadron’s first Phantom intercept was in April 1986, a Tupolev Tu-142 Bear-F persuaded to change course. The Phantoms of 74 Squadron also marked ‘the Tigers’ 70th anniversary on July 1, 1987, by breaking the London-to-Edinburgh speed record, registering a time of 27 minutes and three seconds.

By the late 1980s, the interceptor role was gradually being taken over by the Tornado, with the initial plans for the two aircraft to serve alongside each other. However, those plans changed with the ‘first’ Cold War effectively ending in the early 1990s, hastening the departure of the Phantoms from RAF service, with No. 228 OCU dissolved at Leuchars at the end of January 1991 and the Phantom’s RAF service ending in 1992.

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