14 January 1973: A McDonnell F-4B-28-MC Phantom II, Bu. No. 153068, flown by Lieutenant Victor T. Kovaleski and Ensign D.H. Plautz of VF-161 Chargers, from the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVA-41), was hit by 85 mm anti-aircraft artillery approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Thanh Hóa, North Vietnam. The aircraft began leaking fuel and after flying offshore, the crew ejected. Both men were rescued.
This was the very last United States aircraft lost to enemy action during the Vietnam War.
Two days earlier, Lieutenant Kovaleski and Lieutenant James R. Wise, flying 153068, had shot down a Vietnam Peoples Air Force MiG 17 flown by Senior Lieutenant Luu Kim Ngo, near Hải Phòng, using an AIM 9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile. This was the last air combat victory by a U.S. airplane during the Vietnam War.
On 18 May 1972, F-4B Bu. No. 153068, flown by Lieutenants Henry A. (“Bart”) Bartholmay and Oran R. Brown, on their first combat mission over North Vietnam, shot down an enemy MiG 19 fighter with an AIM-9 Sidewinder near Kep Airbase, northeast of Hà Nội, North Vietnam.
20 November 1963: The U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command accepted its first two production McDonnell F-4C Phantom II jet fighters, F-4C-15-MC 63-7415¹ and F-4C-15-MC 63-7416. These aircraft were the ninth and tenth production F-4Cs. They were flown to MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, by Brigadier General Gilbert Louis Meyers, commanding the 836th Air Division, and Colonel Frank Kendall (“Pete”) Everest, a world-famous test pilot, commanding the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Squadron. Lieutenant General Charles B. Westover, Vice Commander, Tactical Air Command, formally accepted the new fighters on behalf of TAC.
Up until this time, the 4453rd had been training crews with McDonnell F-4B Phantom IIs on loan from the United States Navy.
The McDonnell F-4C Phantom II (originally designated F-110A Spectre) was produced for the U.S. Air Force, based on the U.S. Navy McDonnell F4H-1 (F-4B after 1962) fleet defense interceptor. Evaluation testing had shown the the Navy’s F4H was superior to the Air Force Convair F-106 Delta Dart. It was faster, could fly higher, had a longer range and greater payload. It was also better suited as a tactical fighter.
The Navy operated its Phantom IIs with a pilot and a radar systems operator. The Air Force’s F-4C variant was equipped with dual flight controls and was flown by two rated pilots. The F-4C was externally the same as the F-4B, but otherwise differed by the addition of a ground attack capability. Also, while the F-4B used a hose-and-drogue system for air-to-air refueling, the F-4C was equipped with a boom refueling system. It retained the folding wings and arresting hook of the Navy variant, but deleted catapult provisions.
The F-4C was 58 feet, 3¾ inches (17.774 meters) long, with a wingspan of 38 feet, 5 inches (11.709 meters) and height of 16 feet, 3 inches (4.953 meters). Its empty weight was 28,496 pounds (12,926 kilograms) and its maximum takeoff weight was 58,000 pounds (26,308 kilograms).
The F-4C-15-MC was powered by two General Electric J79-GE-15 engines. The J79 is a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine, with a 17-stage compressor section and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-15 is rated at 10,900 pounds of thrust (48.49 kilonewtons) and 17,000 pounds (75.62 kilonewtons) with afterburner. It is 17 feet, 4.7 inches (5.301 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter and weighs 3,699 pounds (1,677.8 kilograms).
The F-4C had a maximum speed of 826 miles per hour (1,329 kilometers per hour)—Mach 1.09—at Sea Level, and 1,433 miles per hour (2,306 kilometers per hour)—Mach 2.17— at 48,000 feet (14,630 meters). The fighter’s service ceiling was 56,100 feet (17,099 meters). Its maximum unrefueled range, with external fuel tanks, was 1,926 miles (3,100 kilometers).
The standard armament for the F-4C were four AIM-7 Sparrow radar-homing missiles carried in recessed in the bottom of the fuselage. Four AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles could be carried on underwing pylons. A maximum of 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms) of bombs on five hardpoints.
During the Vietnam War, the missile armament of the Phantom II was found unsatisfactory in dogfights with enemy aircraft. The violent maneuvers of Air Combat Maneuvering (“ACM”) made it difficult for the missiles to align and track the intended target. Of 612 AIM-7 Sparrows fired by F-4s, only 56 enemy aircraft were destroyed, while 187 AIM-9 Sidewinders brought down 29 enemy aircraft. This was a kill ratio of 9% and 16%, respectively.
Forward-thinking planners had assumed that an all-missile armament was all that was required in the modern era, so F-4s were built without any machine guns or cannon. The Air Force used an SUU-16/A pod containing a General Electric M61A1 20 mm rotary cannon with 1,200 rounds of ammunition mounted to the F-4’s centerline hardpoint. (Two additional SUU-16/A pods coud be mounted on the outboard underwing hardpoints.) This was useful in close-in combat, but the airplane was not equipped with a suitable gun sight. It was not until the F-4E variant that a gun was incorporated into the airplane.
The F-4C first flew 27 May 1963. 583 of this variant before production shifted to the F-4D in 1966. The F-4C remained in service until the last was retired from the Oregon Air National Guard in 1989.
Recommended reading: Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems by Glenn E. Bugos, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1996
¹ Source: UNITED STATES AIR FORCE STATISTICAL DIGEST FISCAL YEAR 1964 (19th Edition), Directorate of Data Automation (AFADA), Comptroller of the Air Force, Headquarters, USAF, Washington, D.C.: Chronology of United States Air Force Major Events— FY 1964, at Page XXXVIII
14 November 1974: The very first operational McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle air superiority fighters were delivered to the 555th Tactical Training Squadron, 58th Tactical Training Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, west of Phoenix, Arizona. The acceptance ceremony was presided over by President Gerald R. Ford.
“. . . I am here today to underscore to you and to the world that this great aircraft was constructed by the American people in the pursuit of peace. Our only aim with all of this aircraft’s new maneuverability, speed, and power is the defense of freedom.
“I would rather walk a thousand miles for peace than to have to take a single step for war.
“I am here to congratulate you: the United States Air Force, McDonnell Douglas, Pratt and Whitney, all of the many contractors and workers who participated in this very, very successful effort, as well as the pilots who have so diligently flight-tested the F-15 Eagle. All of you can underline my feeling that we are still pilgrims on this Earth, and there still is a place for pioneers in America today.”
The F-15A Eagle is a Mach 2.5+ fighter with outstanding acceleration and maneuverability. The F-15A was produced from 1972 to 1979. It is a single-seat, twin-engine air superiority fighter, 63 feet, 9 inches (19.431 meters) long, with a wingspan of 42 feet, 9½ inches (13.043 meters) and overall height of 18 feet, 5½ inches (5.626 meters). The F-15A has an empty weight of 27,000 pounds (12,247 kilograms) and its maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) is 66,000 pounds (29,937 kilograms).
The F-15A is powered by two Pratt & Whitney JTF22A-25A (F100-PW-100) afterburning turbofan engines capable of producing 14,670 pounds of thrust (65.255 kilonewtons), and 23,830 pounds (105.996 kilonewtons), each, with afterburner. The F100 is a two-spool, axial-flow turbine engine with a 3-stage fan section; 10-stage compressor; single chamber combustion section; and 4-stage turbine (2 low- and 2 high-pressure stages). The F100-PW-100 is 191 inches (4.851 meters) long, 46.5 inches (1.181 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,035 pounds (1,376.7 kilograms).
The cruise speed of the F-15A Eagle is 570 miles per hour (917 kilometers per hour). It has a maximum speed of 915 miles per hour (1,473 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 1,650 miles per hour (2,655 kilometers per hour) at 36,000 feet (10,973 meters). The service ceiling is 65,000 feet (19,812 meters). It can climb in excess of 50,000 feet per minute (254 meters per second), and with a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.15:1, could climb straight up. The Eagle’s combat radius is 1,222 miles (1,967 kilometers).
The F-15A is armed with one General Electric M61A1 Vulcan 20mm rotary cannon with 940 rounds of ammunition, four AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles and four AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles.
384 F-15A Eagles were built before production shifted to the improved F-15C version. As F-15Cs became operation, the F-15As were transferred to Air National Guard units assigned to defend continental U.S. airspace. The last F-15A was retired from service in 2009.
11 September 1953: At Naval Ordinance Test Station China Lake, the experimental Philco/General Electric XAAM-N-7 “Sidewinder” heat-seeking air-to-air missile scored its first “hit” when it passed within 2 feet (0.6 meters) of a radio-controlled Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat. The missile was fired from a Douglas AD-4 Skyraider flown by Lieutenant Commander Albert Samuel Yesensky, United States Navy, the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of Guided Missile Unit SIXTY-ONE (GMU-61).
The Sidewinder was later redesignated AIM-9. It entered service in 1956 as the AIM-9B and has been a primary fighter weapon for 60 years.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder is a Mach 2.5+ missile, equipped with an infrared seeker to track the heat signature of the target aircraft. (The Hellcat drones used in the early test had flares mounted on the wingtips to give the experimental missile a target).
The current production version, AIM-9X Block II, is produced by Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Arizona. It is 9 feet, 11 inches long (3.023 meters), 5 inches in diameter (12.70 centimeters), and weighs 188 pounds (85 kilograms). The warhead weighs 20.8 pounds (9.4 kilograms). The missile’s range and speed are classified. At current production levels, the average cost of each AIM-9X is $420,944 (FY 2015 cost). Block III development was cancelled for FY 2106.
Future Astronaut Wally Schirra flew many of the early test flights at NOTS China Lake. On one occasion, a Sidewinder came back at him, and only by skill and luck was he able to evade it.
NOTC China Lake is now designated as Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) China Lake. It is located approximately 55 miles (88 kilometers) north-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California.
9 September 1972: Captain Charles Barbin DeBellevue, United States Air Force, a Weapons System Officer flying on F-4D and F-4E Phantom II fighters, became the high-scoring American Ace of the Vietnam War when he and his pilot, Captain John A. Madden, Jr., shot down two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 19¹ fighters of the Không Quân Nhân Dân Việt Nam (Vietnam People’s Air Force), west of Hanoi.
Captain DeBellevue was assigned to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. With Captain Richard S. Ritchie, he had previously shot down four MiG 21 fighters using AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles. Then while flying a combat air patrol in support of Operation Linebacker, he and Captain Madden, aboard F-4D-29-MC Phantom II 66-0267, call sign OLDS 01, used two AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles to destroy the MiG 19s. These were Madden’s first two aerial victories, but for DeBellevue, they were number 5 and 6.
Madden and DeBellevue had fired two AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles at a MiG-21 which was on approach to land at the Phúc Yên Yen air base northwest of Hanoi, but both missiles missed. The MiG was then shot down by gunfire from an F-4E flown by Captain Calvin B. Tibbett and 1st Lieutenant William S. Hargrove (after two of their missiles also missed). The flight of Phantoms was then attacked by MiG 19s. DeBellevue reported:
We acquired the MiGs on radar and positioned as we picked them up visually. We used a slicing low-speed yo-yo to position behind the MiG-19s and started turning hard with them. We fired one AIM-9 missile, which detonated 25 feet from one of the MiG-19s. We then switched the attack to the other MiG-19 and one turn later we fired an AIM-9 at him.
I observed the missile impact the tail of the MiG. The MiG continued normally for the next few seconds, then began a slow roll and spiraled downward, impacting the ground with a large fireball. Our altitude was approximately 1,500 feet at the moment of the MiG’s impact.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Pages 104–105.
The first MiG-19, damaged by the Sidewinder’s close detonation, crashed on the runway at Phuc Yen.
After becoming the war’s highest-scoring American ace, Chuck DeBellevue was sent to Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, for pilot training. He became an aircraft commander of F-4E Phantom IIs. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1998, after 30 years of service.
DeBellevue’s F-4D, 66-0267, was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It was reassembled with parts from other damaged Phantoms and is on display as a “gate guard” at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida.
F-4D-29-MC 66-7463, in which he scored his first and fourth kills with Steve Ritchie, is on display at the United States Air Force Academy. Like DeBellevue, this airplane is also credited with 6 victories. DeBellevue’s F-4E-36-MC, 67-0362, in which he and Ritchie shot down their second and third MiG 21s, was sold to Israel in 1973.
¹ Many VPAF MiG 19s were the Chinese-built Shenyang J-6 variant.