McDonnell RF-4C Phantom II

Last revised December 28, 1999

The RF-4C (Model 98DF) was the unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the USAF's F-4C. The armament and radar of the fighter version was removed and replaced with equipment specialized for photographic reconnaissance. Perhaps the most readily-noticeable difference between the F-4C and the RF-4C was the presence of a new, longer, and more pointed nose in which the fire control radar of the fighter was replaced by cameras, mapping radar, and infrared imaging equipment for the reconnaissance role.

McDonnell had studied reconnaissance variants of the Phantom from the very start of the Model 98 project back in the early 1950s. They had offered the 98F unarmed photographic reconnaissance version to the Navy as early as August 25, 1953.

Eventually, McDonnell proposals for the Model 98AX (September 1958) and 98DF (January 1961) led to the issuance of Specific Operational Requirement 196, approved by the Air Force on December 31, 1962. The SOR-196 project evolved in parallel with the development of the previously-described Model 98DH (RF-4B) for the Marine Corps. The RF-4B and RF-4C differed from each other only in the previously-described changes between the F4H-1 and the F-110A.

In May 1962, prior to the issuance of SOR 196, the Navy had instructed McDonnell to modify six F-4Bs into YRF-110A prototypes (62-12200 and 62-12201) and RF-110A development aircraft (63-7740/7743). The mockup was reviewed in October 1962, by which time the designation of the RF-110A had been changed to RF-4C. Testing of optical and electronic reconnaissance systems was undertaken in 1963 at Holloman AFB with a bailed F-4B (BuNo 145310).

The first YRF-4C (serial number 62-12200) took off on its maiden flight on August 9, 1963, William S. "Bill" Ross being at the controls. This aircraft had the extended nose of the RF-4C, but was not fitted with any cameras or other reconnaissance systems. It was followed on September 30, 1963 by the second YF-4C (62-12201), which was fitted with high and low panoramic and frame cameras but still lacked most of the other systems that were planned for production aircraft.

The RF-4C had three camera stations in the nose. The Forward camera station (situated just behind the radar) could carry a single forward oblique or vertical KS-87 camera. Behind that, in the number 2 or "Low Altitude" station, a KA-56 low-altitude camera could be carried, although this could be replaced by a trio of vertical, left, and right oblique KS-87 cameras. Alternatively, a left or right oblique KS-87 could be carried in this station. A vertical KA-1 could be carried in the low-altitude station instead of the KS-87, or a KS-72 could replace a KS-87 in the 30-degree oblique position. The third station (the "High Altitude" station) was just ahead of the cockpit under the nose, and normally carried a single KA-55A or KA-91 high-altitude panoramic camera in a stabilized mount. Alternatively, two split vertical KS-87 cameras could be carried there, or KC-1 or T-11 mapping cameras could be installed. The High Altitude station could also house an AN/AVD-2 laser reconnaissance set, but this was later withdrawn from use.

The RF-4C was fitted with a photoflash ejection system for night photography. The ejectors were fitted on the upper rear fuselage behind hydraulically-actuated doors. Up to and including RF-4C serial number 71-0259, pairs of ejectors were fitted on each side, one with 26 M112 cartridges and one with 10 M123 cartridges. From RF-4C 72-0145 onward, a single LA-249A ejector was carried, with 20 M185 cartridges.

The AN/APQ-72 radar in the nose of the F-4C was replaced by the very much smaller Texas Instruments AN/APQ-99 two-lobe monopulse J-band radar. This radar had both terrain-avoidance and terrain-following modes, and has ground mapping capability. This was later replaced by the Texas Instruments AN/APQ-172 in all surviving RF-4Cs.

An AN/AAD-5 or AN/AAS-18 infrared detection set was installed just aft of the nose wheel bay. The AAD-5 is an infrared linescan unit with high performance in dual fields and automatic control of velocity/height ratio and can convert video signals into a permanent film record. The AN/AAS-18 offered improved optics and up to 350 feet of SO2498 film. Some RF-4Cs have been fitted with the AN/AVQ-9 infrared detection set and laser target designator to provide slant range for weapons aiming and high-resolution thermal imaging.

The RF-4C is also fitted with a Goodyear AN/APQ-102 side-looking mapping radar, with antennae on either side of the lower nose just aft of the optical reconnaissance bay. This system was later replaced on some aircraft with the AN/APD-10 with a podded extended range antenna in a modified 600-gallon external fuel tank and a UPD-8 datalink assembly replacing the number 2 station door. This datalink had a steerable antenna which made it possible to send radar images to ground stations in real time.

The ARC-105 high-frequency radio required a giant shunt antenna which was recessed into both sides of the vertical fin. This required that the upper pitot head on the vertical fin be deleted.

The original nose shape featured a flat underside and an angled window projection for the High Altitude Station. Many RF-4Cs were modified with an aerodynamically-refined nose with a bulging added to the camera housing which allowed larger cameras to be carried.

From aircraft 69-0375 onward, the low-altitude panoramic camera could be used in conjunction with an ejectable film cassette. This was designed to get film into the hands of ground-based intelligence units as rapidly as possible. Upon ejection, the film cassette deployed a parachute, and a transmitter was provided to aid in recovery. However, this system proved to be impractical in the field, and immediate postflight film processing capability and readout was provided by the use of film processing vans which were quickly deployed to Southeast Asia.

The RF-4C was provided with a stick and rudder set of controls in the rear seat, and the reconnaissance package operator could and did fly the aircraft on many occassions, especially on long overwater flights. However, the view from the rear seat was very poor, and landings from the rear seat position were very difficult if not downright dangerous. The rear seat position did not have a means to lower the landing gear normally--in order to lower the landing gear, the rear seat had to pull an emergency handle to blow the gear down, which would deplete the hydraulics and cause the wheel brakes to fail. In addition, the rear seat could not lower the arrester hook and could not deploy the drag chute.

The ECM capabilities of the RF-4C were progressively upgraded throughout its long service life. Radar homing and warning systems were fitted. Examples were the ALR-17, -31, -46, -50 or -126. Late in the service life of the RF-4C, the USAF standardized on the use of the AN/ALR-46A radar warning receiver. Newer electronic systems included the Litton AN/ALQ-125 TEREC (Tactical Electronic Reconnaissance) sensor with data link equipment for transmission in near real-time. This system was originally known as *Pave Onyx*. Also retrofitted to some RF-4Cs was the Lear Siegler AN/ARN-101 digital modular avionics system navigational unit. A few aircraft carried the Chicago Aerial Industries Electronic Wide-Angle Camera System (EWACS). The AN/AVQ-26 *Pave Tack* infrared detection set could be carried externally by 39 specially-wired RF-4Cs. A few of these aircraft could carry the AN/AVQ-9 laser target designator slaved to the IR detecting set. An upgraded APQ-172 forward-looking radar was also retrofitted to some RF-4Cs.

In 1970, 20 RF-4Cs were retrofitted with the ARN-92 LORAN-D navigation system with a "towel rail" antenna on the upper rear fuselage, which provided all-weather blind navigation capability. These aircraft were all 18 of the Block-40 RF-4Cs and two from Block 41 (69-0349 and 0350)

The RF-4C could also carry the gigantic General Dynamics HIAC-1 LOROP (LOng-Range Oblique Photography) camera system housed inside a large G-139 pod mounted on the fuselage centerline. This camera system was originally developed for the General Dynamics/Martin RB-57F and was capable of showing astonishing detail at standoff distances as large as 100 miles. Several LOROP-equipped RF-4Cs flew reconnaissance missions along the North Korean and Eastern European borders. However, with such a large pod mounted underneath the fuselage, the performance of the RF-4C was severely compromised. Later, 24 RF-4Cs were retrofitted to carry a CAI KS-127A or KS-127F LOROP camera with a 66- inch focal length in camera stations 2 and 3.

Initially, the RF-4C carried no weapons, and the underfuselage Sparrow missile slots of the F-4C were omitted. However, in an emergency the RF-4C could carry a nuclear weapon on the centerline position, but this was rarely done in practice. Aircraft from the European-based 10th TRW were eventually fitted with AJB-7 low-altitude bombing system system equipment just in case the delivery of nuclear weapons ever became necessary. In later years, RF-4Cs were armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles carried on the inner underwing pylon for self-defense. Provision was also made for carrying an electonic countermeasures pod on the inboard pylon underneath the starboard wing, the Westinghouse AN/ALQ-115(V)-15 or Raytheon AN/ALQ-184(V)1 being typical.

The first production RF-4Cs went in September 1964 to the 33rd TRTS, a training unit based at Shaw AFB in South Carolina. The first operational unit to receive the RF-4C was the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 363rd TRW at Shaw AFB, achieving initial combat-readiness in August of 1965. Even then, early RF-4Cs continued to fly without their full sets of operational equipment, and many of the components that they did carry were still unqualified.

As part of the 460th TRW, the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was deployed to Tan Sun Nhut in South Vietnam in October of 1965. The second RF-4C squadron in action in Southeast Asia was the 15th TRS, which entered combat in February of 1967.

Initial missions turned up a whole host of problems and deficiencies. The AN/APQ-102A side-looking radar had major teething troubles and was initially very unreliable in combat. It took years before its problems were fully fixed. The AN/AAS-18 infrared sensor was initially defective and had to be improved. The RF-4C shared with the F-4C the problems with the defective potting compound in the electrical relays. Airframe vibrations would often result in distorted images being taken by the cameras in the sensor bays.

During the next eight years of the Vietnam war, the RF-4C served at various times with the 11th, 12th, 14th and 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadrons, flying missions from Tan Son Nhut AB and from Udorn RTAFB in Thalland. The RF-4C flew day missions until 1972 over North and South Vietnam as well as Laos, usually flying alone and without fighter escort. The aircraft posted an impressive record during the most intense years of the war. No RF-4Cs were lost to MiGs, but 7 were shot down by SAMs and 65 were destroyed by AAA or small arms fire. Four were destroyed on the ground and seven were lost in operational accidents. However, considering the total number of missions flown, the loss rate was relatively low.

The last of 503 production RF-4Cs was delivered in December of 1973. The RF-4C had been in production for over ten years, longer than any Phantom variant except the F-4E.

The following outfits flew the RF-4C:

The RF-4C was the first version of the Phantom to reach the squadrons of the Air National Guard. The first ANG unit to receive the RF-4C was the 106th TRS of the 117th TRW of the Alabama ANG, which received its RF-4Cs in February of 1971, replacing that unit's RF-84F Thunderflashes. Afterwards, eight more Guard squadrons acquired RF-4Cs, and a training unit was added to the Idaho ANG.

The following ANG squadrons were eventually equipped with RF-4Cs:

By early 1989, the number of RF-4C squadrons serving on active duty with the USAF was down to seven. These comprised the 16th TRS at Shaw AFB, the 12th TRS, 45th TRTS, 62nd TRS, and 91st TRS at Bergstrom AFB with TAC, the 15th TRS at Kadena AB on Okinawa with PACAF, and the 38th TRS at Zwiebrucken AB in Germany with USAFE. Plans to deativate two of these squadrons had already been announced.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact led to accelerated retirement plans for active duty USAF RF-4Cs. In 1989, the 15th TRS was transferred from the 18th TFW at Kadena to the 406th TRG at Taegu AB in Korea, and was inactivated there the next year.

The inactivation of the last USAFE and TAC RF-4C units was in the planning stages when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, and further deactivation plans were put on hold. Consequently, the RF-4C was still in service with the USAF at the time of *Desert Storm*.

In response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the 106th TRS of the 117th TRW of the Alabama ANG was deployed on August 24, 1990 to Sheika Isa in Bahrain. Its LOROP-equipped RF-4Cs were used to conduct prewar surveillance of Iraqi forces in occupied Kuwait as as well as those deployed along the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border. Unfortunately, 64-1044 crewed by Major Barry K. Henderson and Lt. Col. Stephen G. Schraam was lost in an operational accident on October 8, 1990. In December, the 106th TRS was relieved by the 192nd TRS of the Nevada ANG. Later, RF-4Cs taken from the USAF's 12th TRS/67th TRW and the 38th TRS/26th TRW were deployed to Desert Shield. The 26th TRW of USAFE were detached to the 7440th Composite Wing at Incirlik AB in Turkey, and the 67th TRW went to the 35th TFW (Provisional) at Shiek Isa AB in Bahrein to serve alongside the RF-4Cs and crews from the Air National Guard. Many of these planes were veterans of combat in Vietnam. The 12 TRS did not arrive in Bahrain until right before the offensive (I seem to remember 1-2 weeks). The 91st TRS had aircrew waiting on the east coast (I believe McGuire AFB) to replace any losses which luckily did not occur.

When the first air strikes against Iraq took place on January 17, 1991, the RF-4Cs were in action from the start. At first, they were limited to daylight operations, flying over Kuwait almost every day in search of Republican Guard units. They flew over Baghdad looking for such targets as rocket fuel plants, chemical weapons plants, and command and communications centers. The RF-4Cs were repeatedly diverted from other photographic missions to go and look for Scud launchers hiding in western Iraq. None were lost in action, although one crashed into the Persian Gulf following the end of hostilities. Fortunately, the crew ejected safely.

Following the end of Desert Storm, the RF-4Cs of the 26th TRW and the 67th TRW returned to their home bases, respectively Zwiebrucken AB in Germany and Bergstrom AFB in Texas. Within a year, all of the remaining RF-4Cs were withdrawn from USAF service. The 26th TRW was deactivated in April of 1991 and its RF-4Cs were relegated to storage. The 91st TRS of the 67th TRW was deactivated in September of 1991, thus ending RF-4C service with active duty USAF units. The 12th TRS and the remainder of the wing stood down in 1994.

After the end of Desert Storm, the phaseout of the RF-4C with the ANG was accelerated. The 163rd TRG, the 186th TRG, the 155th TRG, and the 117th TRW switched over the aerial refuelling mission in 1992-94, trading in their RF-4Cs for KC-135s. The 124th TRG of the Idaho ANG converted to F-4G "Wild Weasls. The 192nd RS of the Nevada ANG finally turned in its last four RF-4Cs on September 27, 1995, their planes being flown to Davis-Monthan AFB for storage. This brought the era of RF-4C service with United States armed forces to an end.

Twelve RF-4Cs were subsequently transferred to the Spanish Air Force. Two were loaned to Israel in 1970-71. Twelve ex-USAF RF-4Cs were transferred to Korea in 1989. This leaves Spain and Korea as the only operators still flying the RF-4C.

After the completion of the original test program, YRF-4C 62-12200 was modified to serve as the aerodynamic prototype of the F-4E version, flying in this configuration on August 7, 1965. It was later used in Project Agile Eagle to test leading edge maneuvering slats that were fitted to late production F-4Es. The YRF-4C was later fitted with a slotted stabilator and was fitted with various composite material components such as a beryllium rudder. In April 1972, it was modified as a test bed for a fly-by-wire control system. In 1974, it was fitted with canard surfaces and special controls as part of the Precision Aircraft Control Technology (PACT) program. It first flew in this configuration on April 29, 1974. In January 1979, 62-12200 was donated to the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, where it is now on display.

Serials of the RF-4C:

62-12100/12101 	McDonnell RF-110A Spectre
			redesignated RF-4C-14-MC
63-7740/7742		McDonnell RF-4C-17-MC Phantom
63-7743/7749		McDonnell RF-4C-18-MC Phantom
63-7750/7763		McDonnell RF-4C-19-MC Phantom
64-0997/1017		McDonnell RF-4C-20-MC Phantom
64-1018/1037		McDonnell RF-4C-21-MC Phantom
64-1038/1061		McDonnell RF-4C-22-MC Phantom
64-1062/1077		McDonnell RF-4C-23-MC Phantom
64-1078/1085		McDonnell RF-4C-24-MC Phantom
65-0818/0838		McDonnell RF-4C-24-MC Phantom
65-0839/0864		McDonnell RF-4C-25-MC Phantom
65-0865/0901		McDonnell RF-4C-26-MC Phantom
65-0902/0932		McDonnell RF-4C-27-MC Phantom
65-0933/0945		McDonnell RF-4C-28-MC Phantom
66-0383/0386		McDonnell RF-4C-28-MC Phantom
66-0387		McDonnell RF-4C-29-MC Phantom
66-0388		McDonnell RF-4C-28-MC Phantom
66-0389/0406		McDonnell RF-4C-29-MC Phantom
66-0407/0428		McDonnell RF-4C-30-MC Phantom
66-0429/0450		McDonnell RF-4C-31-MC Phantom
66-0451/0472		McDonnell RF-4C-32-MC Phantom
66-0473/0478		McDonnell RF-4C-33-MC Phantom
67-0428/0442		McDonnell RF-4C-33-MC Phantom
67-0443/0453		McDonnell RF-4C-34-MC Phantom
67-0454/0461		McDonnell RF-4C-35-MC Phantom
67-0462/0469		McDonnell RF-4C-36-MC Phantom
67-0462/0469		McDonnell RF-4C-36-MC Phantom
68-0548/0561		McDonnell RF-4C-37-MC Phantom
68-0562/0576		McDonnell RF-4C-38-MC Phantom
68-0577/0593		McDonnell RF-4C-39-MC Phantom
68-0594/0611		McDonnell RF-4C-40-MC Phantom
69-0349/0357		McDonnell RF-4C-41-MC Phantom
69-0358/0366		McDonnell RF-4C-42-MC Phantom
69-0367/0375		McDonnell RF-4C-43-MC Phantom
69-0376/0384		McDonnell RF-4C-44-MC Phantom
71-0248/0252		McDonnell RF-4C-48-MC Phantom
71-0253/0259		McDonnell RF-4C-49-MC Phantom
72-0145/0150		McDonnell RF-4C-51-MC Phantom
72-0151/0153		McDonnell RF-4C-52-MC Phantom
72-0154/0156		McDonnell RF-4C-53-MC Phantom

Specification of the RF-4C:

Engines: Two General Electric J79-GE-15 turbojets, 10,300 lb.s.t. dry, 17,000 lb.s.t. with afterburner. Performance: Maximum speed 1459 mph at 48,000 feet (Mach 2.21), 834 mph at sea level (Mach 1.09). Cruising speed 587 mph. Landing speed 143 mph. Inital climb rate 48,300 feet per minute (clean), 8510 feet per minute (with external tanks and camera equipment). Service ceiling 59,400 feet. Combat range 840 miles, maximum ferry range 1750 miles with maximum external fuel. Weights: 28,276 pounds empty, 39,788 pounds gross, 39,773 pounds combat weight, 58,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight. Dimensions: Wingspan 38 feet 5 inches, wing area 530 square feet, length 62 feet 11 inches, height 16 feet 6 inches. Maximum internal fuel in the fuselage tanks was 1260 gallons for aircraft up to production block 40 and 1142 US gallons in block 41 and beyond. An additional 630 gallons of fuel could be carred in the wings. Maximum external fuel load was 600 US gallons in a centerline tank that could be carried underneath the fuselage plus 370 US gallons in each of two tanks that could be carried underneath the outer underwing pylons.


  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. The Fury of Desert Storm--The Air Campaign, Bret Kinzey, McGraw- Hill, 1991.

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

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

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

  10. Phantom II--An American Legend, Rene Francillon, Air Fan International, Vol 1 No 2, p 12 (1995).

  11. E-mail from Chris Kiser, who was in the 38 TRS/26 TRW from 6/86-6/89, and the 91 TRS/67 TRW from 8/89-8/91.

  12. E-mail from Fred Guillot, who was in the 15th TRS, Kadena, Okinawa from 1968 to 1971.