Ave atque Vale, F-4 Phantom

The hulking, smoking jet that pilots compared to a combat rhinoceros first flew in the 1950s, and served the Navy first, then the Air Force from 1963-2016. On 22 December 16, a small formation of Phantoms — one decorated in the style of the jet’s peak years of Vietnam — lifted off from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, for the mighty jet’s last flight bearing the stars and bars of the US national insignia and flying an Air Force mission.

Here’s a video from the Alamogordo, NM, News:

The News had reporters on the scene.

To give you an idea on how old the Phantom is: when it first flew, most cars had yet to grow tailfins. Eisenhower was President. The company that designed and built it (McDonnell, which specialized in Naval fighters) is gone, merged with another old aviation firm (Douglas Aircraft, the Southern California giant), which is also gone, bought by Boeing in the Clinton-era forced mergers. In the end, just 14 of the jets were airworthy at an aerial target squadron, and retiring them in favor of the F-16s coming in lets them get rid of all the F-4 specific parts and tools, and move on. The fate of the remaining jets is uncertain: some are likely to go to AMARC to be spares for the handful of remaining foreign operators, others may wind up as ground targets on a range somewhere.

The one privately-operated Phantom, the Collings Foundation’s, is rumored to be dependent on military maintenance and retired from the airshow circuit some time ago.

The Phantom was a jet of the video age, so naturally there’s a bunch of videos of this final flight. Here’s one, mostly air-to-air video with a suitable soundtrack — the chorale from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony — that’s under three minutes long. A hit single.

And here’s a longer (much longer) all-shot-from-the-ground film of nearly thirty minutes (think of it as one side of an album, if you’re old enough to remember those, as most former Phantom pilots do).

Finally, here are a couple of Phantom greatest hits. First, found video of a Phantom-vs-MiG air-to-air kill. Moshe Shargal and his buddies went diving at Ras Mohammed every Yom Kippur, and he brought his video camera… and has authentic if shaky video of an Israeli Phantom flaming a MiG at very low altitude. Hebrew voice-over, by Shargal, with English subtitles.

For those of a more historical turn of mind, the indispensable Jeff Quitney has a 1967 too-hip-for-the-Navy USAF pilot training film. In it, filmmakers quiz an F-4 instructor pilot about the characteristics of the jet, as they put a film together. (Hey, anything to keep fighter jocks awake in training).

Best thing about the video? The slams that “Doug,” the pilot, delivers to “the swing-wing.” This is a mildly subversive line-level counterstrike against the McNamara-specified “switchblade Edsel,” the F-111, that was undergoing extreme teething problems at that time.

And finally, a fine collection of Phantom buzz jobs, flat out on the deck in Nevada. Not the fastest jet in this milieu (that would have been the F-105) but fast enough to be thrilling to watch.

Ave atque Vale, F-4 Phantom, the survivors of the 5,500 or so of you have earned your place in the hearts and minds of your countrymen (and the allied jet drivers who flew you, as well).

Hat tip, Russ Niles at AvWeb.

44 thoughts on “Ave atque Vale, F-4 Phantom

  1. Greg

    Farewell to a legendary bird. I still have somewhere an old VHS copy of “Threshold, the Blue Angels Experience” I got back back when the team flew them. It was one of many that put me on the path that led to a left seat.

  2. DaveP

    Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

    It occurs to me that this will be the first week in my entire life when F4’s aren’t flying somewhere.

    1. Boat Guy

      I’ll not be quite as misty-eyed as I was when the Intruder went out but I’ll hoist a glass to the F-4 regardless. A great airplane, made by and in a great country…

      1. Boat Guy

        The last video of the RF-4’s is GREAT. I tried very hard (alas with no success) to cop a backseat ride when the NEANG operated them.

  3. medic09

    A truly honored plane in Israel. There were still some flying overhead when I was in and out of Lebanon in the 80s. An F-4 navigator, Ron Arad, is still MIA from then. His pilot was rescued clinging to helicopter skids, but Arad was taken captive.

    The IAF gives Hebrew names to all aircraft; not translations of the original name. The F4 is indeed Kurnass, or sledge-hammer (in old Hebrew, a blacksmith’s hammer).

    Here’s an interesting story about a Phantom experiment that died in stillbirth. https://tacairnet.com/2015/06/18/redeveloping-the-f-4-phantom-ii-into-a-mach-3-fighterspy-plane/

    1. Slow Joe Crow

      I was in Israel in the summer 82 near a big air base, we mostly saw Skyhawks and Hawkeyes so Phantoms were a rare treat, trailing smoke and rumbling like a thunderstorm.

  4. medic09

    When I was in college in the late 70s, we would cut class and hitchhike down into the Sinai to snorkel off the Red Sea beaches. That’s a long, exposed drive back home if you think a war might break out!

  5. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    The last video is showing RF-4’s over Pyramid Lake, Nevada. This is in northern Washoe County. I’ve been there many times.

    On their last flight out of Reno when the “High Rollers” were flying RF-4’s, they went over our house on full burner, headed south. Whatever one can say for the F-4, you can say that it was unmistakable when it passed over you because of how loud it was.

    1. Gray

      That and the bread crumbs that you could follow for miles….

      Talked to quite few during Linebacker II.

  6. Keith

    My dad is medical discharged from the USAF so when I was a kid I had a military dependent ID. We used to have to go down to Seymour AFB to renew the ID’s. I can still remember the ramp being covered with Phantom’s.

    In 1996 went to Nellis AFB to see the Thunderbirds. While we were there a four ship flight of what were most likely RF-4’s did the down wind pass and break to land maneuver overhead. That was actually more interesting to me than the Thunderbird F-16’s.

    1. DSM

      Nope, in ’96 those would’ve been the last of the Wild Weasels. I was stationed there when they decommissioned the unit, it was the last active F-4 unit in the Air Force. Well, I guess last active manned squadron I suppose.

  7. Loren

    Great bird if you forget it took the space of a small country to turn around in, left a smoke tail anybody could follow and wasn’t fitted with a gun (pod added later) and carried shitty missiles.
    If anything it showed the AF what it really needed, the F-15.

    1. Hognose Post author

      It was a Navy plane; the Air Force got force-fed it (after rejecting a de-navalized version as the F-110) by MacNamara. Still, they made the best with it.

      I have fond (?) memories of offset beacon bombing missions with both F4Es and F111Fs.

  8. Fred Altum

    The Phantoms were proof that with enough engine even a rock could fly. I cut my AF fighter maintenance teeth on broken, shot up Phantoms of the 401st TFW, Torrejon AFB Spain in 1975 after 19 months in Thailand with the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, operating location NKP Thailand, 1972-74.

    I fell in love with the F-4 and suffered many Phantom bites. Toughest fighters ever built.

  9. Sam Brady

    Many a time in Vietnam F-4s saved my bacon. I can close my eyes and still hear the roar of those engines……..

    1. Badger

      Yup. I saw… he came… they bothered us no more… and we were very grateful. And apparently no one had ever told him he couldn’t turn that thing like that over a tight valley. Brass ones; maybe a Marine-specific item of equipment for that plane.

      Thanks for the retrospective Hognose; a bit melancholy. I’ll be damned.

  10. DSM

    The F-4 was a favorite as a youngster. Had many, many model kits of them. The Marine aviation units my pop’s Seabee battalion supported flew them out of Chu Lai so I always loved seeing his pictures from over there.
    He did tell me a scary story of one that had hung ordnance coming back from a mission. It let go as it circled around and lobbed across the other side of the airfield.

  11. poobie

    ALANG had a squadron of RF-4Cs in Birmingham when I lived there; seems like they sent them to AMARG in 1994. They used the ridgeline behind my house as a marker, and would come screaming overhead right at minimums pretty frequently. I’m disappointed to see them go, not only for their sake, but because it means the -15s aren’t far behind them.

  12. BAP45

    Had a teacher in high school who had a story about being a backseat on an F4 for a certain “company” that he would not name. The story ended with his face smashed into the instrument panel after a crash landing that left him wearing coke bottles. Always had a model of his plane hanging in his classroom. Said they were using a ground penetrating radar to seek out tunnels.

  13. aGrimm

    Running recon patrols off of a hill, one of our teams found some “friends”. So a napalm strike was called. The first F-4 came in low. Rat-a-tat-a-tat from an AK-47. Radio operator: ‘Ahh, pilot be advised you are taking ground fire.’ The second pilot dropped his load about 2,000 feet higher. Now we ground guys loved the fly-boys, but that second pilot got no respect this time as shouts of wussy, wussy echoed over the valley followed by oohs and aahs as the napalm did its job. I have a picture of the strike over at the 1st Recon Bn website and will be happy to provide a link if anyone is interested (PS: the PDF of my pics from Nam at this site is pretty large).

    1. DaveP

      That’s a great collection of photos, ‘Doc’ and a good excuse for me to dig into the 1st roster; a friend of my father would have been in Charlie Co., probably just prior to that.


  14. H

    Anyone care to guess where Steve Ritchie’s F-4 is today? With Robin Olds’ F-4 at the AF Museum at Dayton, perhaps? Or at some other nifty air museum?

    Nope. It’s at the Kansas National Guard museum at Forbes Field in Topeka, of all places, parked outside slowly baking to aluminum dust in the hot Kansas sun. What the hell? The adjacent Combat Air Museum at least has their aircraft, including a MIG-killer Four, under cover. Anyway, if you find yourself anywhere near Topeka, you ought to go by and have a look, while it’s still in viewable condition.

    1. CJ

      One of BGen Richie’s F-4s is on the Terrazzo at the USAF Academy. It downed six MiGs total, to include Richie’s fourth and fifth. I actually met BGen Richie last year at the WA ANG annual awards banquet. Quite the collection of glittery bits on his mess dress.

  15. John O'Brien

    Weren’t the Phantoms of the fifties a different airplane than the Phantom II’s of the sixties?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yes, this jet is the Phantom II, first flown circa 1955 or 56. The original nomenclature was F4H (USN) and XF-110 (USAF version). The original Phantom (McDonnell FH) was made in 1945-46 and some of them flew in the Korean War. The follow-on was the F2H Banshee. This is a 1948 picture of an FH preparing for takeoff. Must have been hairy to fly off the boat!

      1. Boat Guy

        They was MEN in those pre-angle deck days. Purty sure it’s ALWAYS a bit hairy; though having only one trap and one shot I can’t attest to it as each was an E-ticket ride. Like a first jump, it’s pretty difficult to assess; you just kinda …feel the rush.
        Hats off to the boys and girls who do it for a living – though I still have reservations about paying their base pay.

  16. Aesop

    Was once buzzed by one hiking along a mountain trail in Joshua Tree, south of MCB 29 Palms, pre-mil while I was still in college.
    Phantom doing full military power at 100′ AGL definitely gets your heart started, and as our party was shaking our shorts clean, he rocked the wings, acknowledging he’d been lining up our backpacker conga line for his own little target of opportunity.

    The sound of freedom, indeed.

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