McDonnell F-110 Spectre/F-4C Phantom II

Last revised November 12, 2018

The impressive performance of the Navy F4H Phantom immediately caught the attention of the USAF, which ordinarily would have been quite reluctant even to consider any aircraft originally designed for the Navy. However, under pressure from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who wanted to reduce defense expenditures by achieving greater commonality between the aircraft flown by the various services, the Air Force agreed in 1961 to undertake an evaluation of the F4H-1 Phantom II.

A comparative evaluation between the F4H-1 and the F-106A took place under the code name Operation Highspeed. The F4H-1 had better overall speed, altitude and range performance than the F-106A. In addition, it could carry heavier loads than the F-106A over longer distances and had a 25 percent greater radar range. Later, the Air Force also looked into the possibility of using the Phantom as a tactical fighter and as a tactical reconnaissance aircraft. The F4H-1 was much more versatile than the Air Force's F-105 Thunderchief, since it could not only carry similar external loads but was also potentially a much better air superiority fighter due to its more favorable wing and power loadings. In the reconnaissance role, the Phantom offered a much better performance than the RF-101A/C, and unlike the Voodoo, could be fitted for night photographic missions.

Since the Phantom had so much going for it, in January of 1962, President Kennedy requested Congressional approval for the procurement of F4H-1 derivatives for the Air Force under the designation F-110. The F-110A was to be the tactical fighter version, with RF-110A being the tactical reconnaissance version. The name Spectre was assigned to the aircraft.

In support of this program, the Defense Department instructed that McDonnell deliver two Navy F4H-1s to the Air Force for evaluation. On January 24, 1962, the two Navy F4H-1s (BuNos 149405 and 149406) were delivered to the Air Force at Langley AFB in Virginia. They were painted in USAF markings with the designation "F-110A" prominently displayed on the nose, but initially retained their Navy BuNos. They were later given Air Force serials 62-12168 and 62-12169 respectively.

The results of the trials were impressive. The Phantom met or exceeded all the Air Force's expectations. In March of 1962, the Defense Department announced that land-based versions of the Phantom were to be the standard tactical fighter and tactical reconnaissance aircraft of the USAF. On March 30, McDonnell received a letter of intent for one F-110A (serial number 62-12199), and on May 29, another letter was received for a pair of YRF-110A reconnaissance aircraft (62-12200 and 62-12201).

In order to formalize the F-110 project, the Air Force issued Specific Operational Requirement 200 on August 29, 1962. It called for an aircraft based on the F4H-1 but with added ground attack capability. The folding wings, catapult attachment points, and arrestor hooks of the naval version were to be retained, but dual controls were to be provided for the crew member in the rear seat. The high tire pressure of the Navy F-4B was unacceptable to the Air Force, and new wider tires with lower pressures were to be fitted. Anti-skid wheel brakes were to be provided, the Air Force considering that even the tailhook would not be enough insurance in case of a landing emergency.

On September 18, 1962, the Defense Department ordered that all Air Force, Army, and Navy aircraft be designated under a common, universal system. This was done because Secretary McNamara was interested in achieving greater commonality between the services. According to one story, he supposedly had gotten hopelessly confused when his aides told him that the Navy and the Air Force had completely different designation schemes, often for what was basically the same aircraft. Under the Defense Department order, the separate naval designation system which had been around since 1922 was eliminated. In particular, this meant that the F4H naval designation for the Phantom was abolished and replaced by F-4. At the same time, the F-110 Air Force designation for the Phantom was also abolished and replaced by F-4. Henceforth, both Navy and Air Force Phantoms were to be designated F-4, with Air Force and Navy Phantoms being distinguished from each other only by series letters. The Navy F4H-1 Phantom was redesignated F-4B, whereas the Air Force F-110A became known as F-4C and the YRF-110A became YRF-4C. At the same time, the separate name Spectre for the USAF's version was eliminated, and from that moment onward, both Air Force and Navy F-4s were named Phantom II.

The first production F-4C (62-12199) took off on its maiden flight on May 27, 1963. The factory designation was Model 98DE. The F-4C was externally almost identical to the naval F-4B, even retaining the folding wings and arrestor gear. However, it differed internally from the F-4B. It was fitted with dual controls, as the Air Force intended to fly it as a two-pilot aircraft. Low-pressure tires were fitted, which required thicker wheels which, in turn, required deeper wheel wells which resulted in a slight bulge having to be added above and below the inner wing panels. An anti-skid wheel system was fitted. The probe-and-drogue midair refueling system of the Navy version was replaced by a boom-type refueling system with a refueling receptacle being mounted on top of the fuselage behind the rear cockpit. The backseat crew member (who was now also a pilot) had new consoles, a lowered panel for improved forward visibility, and a relocated radar tracking handle, attack switches, and other refinements.

The F-4C had substantially different electronic equipment, including a Westinghouse AN/APQ-100 radar system with ground mapping capability, an AN/APA-157 CW illuminator for the AIM-7 Sparrow family of air-to-air missiles, an AN/AJB-7 all-altitude nuclear bomb control system with low-altitude release capability and option for Bullpup release, a Litton AN/ASN-48 (LN12A/B) inertial navigation system, and an AN/ASN-46 navigation computer. Other systems included the ASN-39 (later -46) dead-reckoning navigation computer, the ALR-17 electronic countermeasures radar warning receiver, APR-25 radar homing and warning system, an APR-26 SAM launch warning system, an APN-141 (later -159) radar altimeter, an A24G central airr data computer, a General Electric ASA-32A analog autopilot and flight-control system, an ASQ-19 communications/navigation/ identification package, and an ARW-77 Bullpup missile control system. Some F-4Cs were equipped with the SST-181X Combat Skyspot radar bombing system.

The F-4C was powered by two 10,000 lb.s.t. (17,000 lb.s.t. with afterburning) General Electric J79-GE-15 turbojets. A built-in cartridge starting system was provided. The crew members sat on Martin-Baker Mk H5 ejector seats.

The F-4C had no built-in cannon armament. Four AIM-7D or -7E Sparrow missiles could be mounted in recesses underneath the fuselage. Four AIM-4D Falcon or AIM-9B or -9D Sidewinder infrared homing air-to-air missiles could be carried externally on the inboard underwing pylon. Air-to-ground missiles that could be carried included the AGM-12 Bullpup, the AGM-45 Shrike, and the AGM-65 Maverick. Unguided rocket launchers could also be carried, and a load of retarded and unretarded bombs (conventional, cluster, fire, chemical, or leaflet) could be carried. The Mk.28 "special store" could be carried, although the F-4C did not have a nuclear mission as one of its primary goals. A maximum external load of 16,000 pounds could be carried.

In later years, the lack of an internal gun came to be a problem, and a centerline SUU-16/A pod containing an M61A1 gun and 1200 rounds of ammunition was fitted underneath the fuselage. The F-4C could carry as many as three SUU-16/A (later -23/A) pods, each housing an M61A1 cannon and 1200 rounds of ammunition.

The internal fuel was 1979 US gallons, carried in six fuselage tanks and two integral wing tanks. To supplement the internal fuel, the F-4C could carry a single 600-gallon drop tank on the centerline rack and/or one 370-gallon drop tank underneath each wing

In order to give the Air Force an early start in getting the Phantom into service, the Navy temporarily loaned 27 more F-4Bs to the USAF. These planes were BuNos 150480, 150486, 150493, 150630, 150634, 150643, 150649, 150650, 150652, 150653, 150994, 150995, 150997, 150999, 151000, 151002, 151004, 151006, 151007, 151009,151011, 151014, 151016, 151017, 151020, and 151021. They were temporarily assigned the USAF serials 62-12170/12196. In November of 1963, these aircraft were delivered mainly to the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing at MacDill AFB in Florida. They were soon followed by production F-4Cs. This wing was assigned the initial responsibility for crew training for the F-4C. Some of these borrowed aircraft later went to the 12th TFW, also based at MacDill. The 12th TFW was the first operational user of the F-4C, receiving its first machines in January 1964, replacing the unit's F-84F Thunderstreaks. The 12th TFW achieved initial operational capability in October of 1964. As the pace of F-4C deliveries quickened, the borrowed F-4Bs were returned to the Navy.

On December 2, 1964, four F-4Cs set an unofficial endurance record for jet fighters. They landed at MacDill after an 18-hour flight of nearly 10,000 miles during which they were refuelled by KC-135 tankers.

A total of 583 F-4Cs were built. The last F-4C rolled off the production line on May 4, 1966.

The 15th TFW deployed its 45th Tactical Fighter to Thailand in 1965. On July 10, 1965, two F-4C crews scored the USAF's first kills of the Vietnam War when they destroyed two MiG-17s over North Vietnam with Sidewinder missiles. In time, the F-4C took over the bulk of the heavy fighting over North and South Vietnam. On a typical mission over the North, an F-4C would carry four Sparrows, four Sidewinders, and a load of eight 750-pound bombs.

The AIM-7D/E Sparrow was carried in the ventral trays. It gave the Phantom a beyond visual range capability at distances of up to 28 miles. However, such launches were very rarely permitted under the terms of the rather restrictive rules of engagement. When it was fired, the Sparrow turned out to be virtually useless against fighter-sized targets, especially at low altitudes. The AIM-9B/D Sidewinder was usually the weapon of choice. The AIM-9D had a range of up to 12 miles. The PbS infrared seeker head of the AIM-9D had to be cooled before it could lock onto a target, but this was not usually a problem. The early Sidewinders were generally effective only in close stern engagements in good weather at high altitudes. In bad weather or at low altitudes, the results were less impressive, the Sidewinder often losing its lock on its target due to interference from rain or from clouds or having a tendency to lock onto the Sun or onto reflections in lakes or ponds. However, ultimately the Sidewinder scored more aerial victories in the Vietnam War than any other weapon.

On July 24, 1965, F-4C 63-7599 of the 47th Tactical Fighter Squadron was downed by a surface to air missile, becoming the first American warplane to be downed by a SAM.

In the first two years of combat in Vietnam, the casualties among the first F-4C squadrons had reached almost 40 percent, for a total of 54 aircraft. Most were lost to AAA, but a few were lost in stall/spin accidents at low altitude. During close-in dogfights, when pulling high-gs or when at steep angles of attack, it was very easy to lose control of an F-4C, especially if it was carrying a centerline store. Recovery from a spin at an altitude below 10,000 feet was essentially impossible, and the only option for survival was generally for the crew to eject.

The F-4C lacked the guns of a complete fighter system, which was found to be a serious deficiency in close-in air-to-air combat. The addition of a SUU-16A gun pod on the underfuselage centerline compensated for the lack of a gun, but it seriously degraded overall performance and in addition made the aircraft somewhat unstable and difficult to recover from a spin.

Early F-4Cs had problems with wing tank leaks, these problems being so serious that the tanks had to be carefully resealed after each flight. The radar had a tendency to malfunction far too easily, the humid air of Southeast Asia being a persistent problem. Early F-4Cs also had problems with cracked ribs and stringers on the outer wing panels. Later F-4Cs were equipped with a heavier stringer and an additional wing rib. These modifications were retrofitted to earlier F-4Cs.

A number of F-4Cs were modified and equipped with a radar homing and warning (RHAW) system, which enabled these fighters to act as killer pack leaders for air strikes on radar and surface-to-air sites.

The Air Force lost six F-4s in crashes between June 1966 and December 1967 because of defects in cylinder barrels that controlled the ailerons. By mid-1968, an inferior potting compound was found in various electrical connections and relays of 385 early production F-4Cs. It took over a year to correct each of these problems.

In the USAF F-4s, the rear seat crewmember could perform virtually all of the flight maneuvers that the pilot could, with only a few exceptions. The rear seater could even drop bombs if need be, but he could not fire the gun and could not launch missiles. In addition, the rear seater could not raise either the landing gear or the flaps, but he could lower them both in an emergency by using a pneumatic charge stored in a high-pressure bottle. A number of my references claim that the USAF removed the rear seat dual controls from the F-4C in 1969. It seems that this is little more than an urban legend, since several people in a position to know have e-mailed me to say that the USAF F-4s retained their rear seat dual controls all throughout their careers.

Several F-4s had been lost because of fires in the engine bay. This caused a major reconfiguration program to be undertaken which lasted from January through October of 1970.

As F-4Cs were superseded in front-line service by later marks of the Phantom, they were transferred to Air Force Reserve units or to units

The following USAF Wings operated the F-4C:

As F-4Cs were superseded in front-line service by later marks of the Phantom, they were transferred to Air Force Reserve units or to units of the Air National Guard.

The first F-4Cs began to reach Air Force Reserve units in 1978, initially equipping the 93rd TFS of the 915th Tactical Fighter Group based at Homestead AFB in Florida. In 1981, the 93rd TFS of the 482nd TFW (also based at Homestead) received F-4Cs. These were the only Air Force Reserve units to get the F-4C version of the Phantom, with most of the other Phantom-equipped AF Reserve units getting later F-4Ds and Es. These units operated the F-4C for only a brief time, converting during the early 1980s to F-4Ds.

Ex-USAF F-4Cs first began to reach units of the Air National Guard in 1972. First to get the F-4C was the 170th TFS of the 183rd TFG of the Illinois ANG, which began to receive the type in January of 1972. F-4Cs ended up serving with seven ANG units in the tactical role. In addition, they served in the air defense role from 1978 with seven ANG fighter interceptor squadrons and with a air defense training squadron They equipped the following ANG units:

Most of the ANG's F-4Cs were replaced in service by later-model F-4Ds and Es (as well as by F-15s and F-16s) during the mid- to late-1980s. The last ANG squadron to fly the F-4C, the 123rd FIS of the Oregon ANG, exchanged its F-4Cs for F-16s in the spring of 1989. None remain in service with any ANG units today.

The only F-4Cs exported to overseas customers were ex-USAF machines (mainly from the 81st TFW) which were shipped to Spain's Ejercito del Aire in 1971-72.

F-4C-24-MC serial number 64-0829 is on display in the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. It was once flown by Robin Olds, who scored four MiG kills in Vietnam.

Serials of the F-4C:

62-12199		McDonnell F-110A Spectre
				later redesignated F-4C-15-MC Phantom
63-7407/7420		McDonnell F-4C-15-MC Phantom
63-7421/7442		McDonnell F-4C-16-MC Phantom
63-7443/7468		McDonnell F-4C-17-MC Phantom
63-7469/7526		McDonnell F-4C-18-MC Phantom
63-7527/7597		McDonnell F-4C-19-MC Phantom
63-7598/7662		McDonnell F-4C-20-MC Phantom
63-7663/7713		McDonnell F-4C-21-MC Phantom
64-0654/0672		McDonnell F-4C-21-MC Phantom
64-0673/0737		McDonnell F-4C-22-MC Phantom
64-0738/0817		McDonnell F-4C-23-MC Phantom
64-0818/0881		McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom
64-0882/0928		McDonnell F-4C-25-MC Phantom

Specification of the F-4C:

Engines: Two General Electric J79-GE-15 turbojets, 10,900 lb.s.t dry, 17,000 lb.s.t. with afterburner. Performance: Maximum speed 1433 mph at 48,000 feet, 826 mph at sea level. Inital climb rate 40,550 feet per minute. Service ceiling 56,100 feet, combat ceiling 55,600 feet. Combat range 538 miles, maximum range 1926 miles with maximum external fuel. Weights: 28,496 pounds empty, 51,441 pounds gross, 38,352 pounds combat weight, 58,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight. Dimensions: Wingspan 38 feet 5 inches, wing area 530 square feet, length 58 feet 3 3/4 inches, height 16 feet 3 inches. Fuel: Maximum internal fuel was 1986 US gallons (1343 gallons in fuselage, 630 gallons in wings). Maximum external fuel load was 600 US gallons in centerline tank underneath the fuselage and 740 US gallons in two underwing tanks, bringing total fuel to 3313 US gallons. Armament: Armed with four AIM-7D or-7E Sparrow semiactive radar homing missiles in underfuselage recesses. Inner underwing pylons could each accommodate a pair of AIM-9B/D Sidewinder infrared homing missiles. In ground attack mode, could carry as much as 16,000 pounds of ordnance on centerline pylon underneath the fuselage and on four underwing hardpoints.


  1. The World's Fighting Planes, William Green, Doubleday, 1964.

  2. McDonnell F-4 Phantom: Spirit in the Skies. Airtime Publishing, 1992.

  3. Modern Air Combat, Bill Gunston and Mike Spick, Crescent, 1983.

  4. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  5. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  6. Post-World War II Fighters: 1945-1973, Marcelle Size Knaac, Office of Air Force History, 1986.

  7. The World Guide to Combat Planes, William Green, Macdonald, 1966.

  8. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aircraft Armament, Bill Gunston, Orion, 1988.

  9. The World's Great Attack Aircraft, Gallery, 1988.

  10. E-mail from Donald G. Barnett

  11. E-mail from Tom LaMonica with correction on F-4C service with 18th TFW.

  12. E-mail fro Erv Smalley on 191st FIG being with Michigan ANG, not Minnesota ANG.