Cold War

McDonnell F-4J Phantom II, Old Smokey Was Upgraded

The F-4J Phantom II is a variant of the F-4 Phantom II series, one of the most iconic aircraft used by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps

McDonnell Aircraft initially developed the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II for the United States Navy.

This American aircraft is a tandem two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, long-range supersonic jet. It functions both as an interceptor and a fighter-bomber.

It entered service with the Navy in 1961, showcasing high adaptability. By the mid-1960s, the United States Marine Corps and the United States Air Force had also adopted it. It became a significant part of their air fleets.

Production of the Phantom spanned from 1958 to 1981. A total of 5,195 aircraft were built during this period.

This makes it the most produced American supersonic military aircraft in history. It stood as a signature combat aircraft during the Cold War.


The Phantom is notable for its large build and top speed of over Mach 2.2. It has the capacity to carry more than 18,000 pounds of weapons.

F-4J Phantom of VF-114 intercepting Soviet Tu-16 1975
F-4J Phantom of VF-114 intercepting Soviet Tu-16 1975

It can be equipped with air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and various bombs on nine external hardpoints. Initially, it was designed without an internal cannon, like other interceptors of its time. However, later models incorporated an M61 Vulcan rotary cannon.

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Starting in 1959, the Phantom set 15 world records for in-flight performance. These include an absolute speed record and an absolute altitude record.

Back Ground

In 1952, Dave Lewis, McDonnell’s Chief of Aerodynamics, became the company’s preliminary design manager, appointed by CEO Jim McDonnell.

The company lacked new aircraft competitions, and studies revealed the Navy needed a new aircraft type, an attack fighter.

Key figures in the F-4 development: David Lewis, Robert Little, and Herman Barkey
Key figures in the F-4 development: David Lewis, Robert Little, and Herman Barkey

By 1953, McDonnell Aircraft was enhancing its F3H Demon naval fighter. The company was aiming for superior performance and extended capabilities.

Several projects developed included a variant with a Wright J67 engine and others with two Wright J65 or two General Electric J79 engines. The variant with J79 engines anticipated a top speed of Mach 1.97.

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On 19 September 1953, McDonnell presented the United States Navy with the “Super Demon” proposal. This aircraft boasted a unique modular design, allowing for the interchange of one- or two-seat noses for varied missions.

Full Scale Mock-Up

The noses could house radar, photo cameras, cannons, or unguided rockets, in addition to nine hardpoints. The Navy, already investing in Grumman XF9F-9 and Vought XF8U-1, ordered a full-scale mock-up but didn’t proceed further with the design.

The McDonnell F3H-G/H mockup, 1954
The McDonnell F3H-G/H mockup, 1954

McDonnell then transformed the design into an all-weather fighter-bomber, securing a letter of intent for two YAH-1 prototypes on 18 October 1954.

However, on 26 May 1955, Navy officers presented new requirements, reshaping the project to an all-weather fleet defense interceptor.

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This shift occurred as the Navy possessed the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk for attack and F-8 Crusader for dogfighting.

The adjusted project incorporated a second crewman to manage the advanced radar. Designers theorized that future air combat would inundate solo pilots with excessive information.


Early in its production, producers upgraded the Phantom’s radar to the Westinghouse AN/APQ-72, necessitating a bulbous nose.

This adjustment led to improvements in the canopy for better visibility and less claustrophobia in the rear cockpit. Throughout its career, the Phantom experienced many modifications, resulting in numerous variants.

The F-4J Phantom II remains a symbol of the technological advancements and versatility of military aircraft during its operational period, leaving a lasting impact on aviation design and capability.

The USN used the F4H-1, redesignated F-4A in 1962, fitted with J79-GE-2 and -2A engines, with subsequent models receiving -8 engines.

Both the USN and USMC got the definitive Phantom, the F-4B, featuring enhanced radar and engines, with deliveries beginning in 1961.

The USAF adopted Phantoms due to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s initiative for a unified military fighter.

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After winning “Operation Highspeed” against the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, the Air Force borrowed two F-4Bs and developed their version emphasizing dual roles in air-to-air and ground combat.

The F-4J, delivered between 1966 and 1972, improved capabilities with J79-GE-10 engines and advanced control systems. It boasted the AN/AWG-10 Fire Control System, making it the first fighter with operational look-down/shoot-down capability, and an integrated missile control system.

F-4J Phantom Engine Upgrade

The F-4J enhanced capabilities in air-to-air and ground attacks. Manufacturers delivered 522 units from 1966 to 1972. It featured J79-GE-10 engines, providing a thrust of 17,844 lbf (79.374 kN).

A General Electric J79 Jet engine in the National Museum of the United States Air Force

It was the first fighter globally with operational look-down/shoot-down capability, thanks to the Westinghouse AN/AWG-10 Fire Control System. This model also included a new integrated missile control system and the AN/AJB-7 bombing system, broadening its ground attack abilities.

General Electric J79 Engine

The General Electric J79 is a turbojet engine designed for various fighter and bomber aircraft and a supersonic cruise missile.

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General Electric Aircraft Engines in the United States produced the J79, and several global companies manufactured it under license.

The engine powered several aircraft including the F-104 Starfighter, B-58 Hustler, F-4 Phantom II, A-5 Vigilante, and IAI Kfir.

F-4J Phantom IIs VF-33 in flight 1979
F-4J Phantom IIs VF-33 in flight 1979

The commercial variant of this engine, the CJ805, was used in the Convair 880. Another derivative, the CJ805-23, powered the Convair 990 airliners and a unique Sud Aviation Caravelle.

This version aimed to demonstrate the advantages of a bypass engine to the U.S. market, comparing it with the existing Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet.

The J79 powered various aircraft, including the F-104 Starfighter and the F-4 Phantom II. It had a production run of over 30 years, with over 17,000 units built in the U.S. and other countries like Japan and Germany.

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A variant of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, utilizing a J79, was developed as a low-cost export fighter, but it found no buyers.

By the late 1960s, newer designs started replacing the J79, opting for afterburning turbofans like the Pratt & Whitney TF30 in the F-111 and F-14. These newer generation turbofans, such as the Pratt & Whitney F100 in the F-15 Eagle, offered better cruise fuel efficiency.

Gerhard Neumann and Neil Burgess from General Electric Aircraft Engines received the Collier Trophy in 1958 for designing the J79. They shared this honor with Clarence Johnson and the U.S. Air Force for their respective contributions in the field of aviation.

The F-4J Phantom

The F-4J Phantom was the last version made for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. It improved upon the initial Navy F-4B, fixing its deficiencies.

F-4J Phantom II of VF-33 on a catapult of USS Independence (CV-62), in October 1974 (NH 97718)
F-4J Phantom II of VF-33 on a catapult of USS Independence (CV-62), in October 1974 (NH 97718)

Three YF-4Js were converted from F-4B airframes. The first YF-4J took to the skies on June 4, 1965. The first production F-4J flew on May 27, 1966.

Between December 1966 and January 1972, 522 F-4Js were constructed. The F-4J had two J79-GE-10 engines, each offering an afterburning thrust of 17,900 pounds. These engines featured longer afterburner “turkey feathers.”

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Due to increased weight and demanding sink rate requirements, the F-4J had stronger landing gear and larger main wheels. To fit these larger wheels, the inner wing’s surfaces were bulged outward, resembling the USAF F-4C.

An extra fuel cell was added to the rear fuselage, increasing the internal fuel capacity to 1998 gallons. However, the number 1 fuel cell size was slightly reduced to house the computer and other electronics.


The Navy prioritized speed, climb, and range over improved takeoff and landing performance for the Phantom.

The F-4J Phantom II remains a symbol of the technological advancements and versatility of military aircraft during its operational period, leaving a lasting impact on aviation design and capability.

They rejected the high-drag slatted wing used by the Air Force on the F-4E. McDonnell chose to enhance performance by adding a slot to the stabilator leading edge, creating a miniature inverted slatted wing.

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This allowed significant downward force at low speeds, enabling large leading edge down deflection without stalling. Locking the inboard leading flap in the up position notably enhanced the effectiveness of the slotted stabilator.

Aerodynamic Innovations

The F-4J featured 16.5-degree drooped ailerons. When the gear and flaps were down, the ailerons’ “neutral” deflection was 16.5 degrees downward.

The F-4J had the capability for all-altitude release of nuclear weapons and was compatible with the Bullpup air-to-surface missile, enhancing its ground attack prowess.

These aerodynamic innovations reduced the approach speed from 157 mph to 144 mph. The F-4J carried the AN/AJB-7 bombing system, enhancing ground attack capability significantly compared to the F-4B.

It could release nuclear weapons at all altitudes and angles, on a timed basis, from the target or offset. It also supported the Bullpup air-to-surface missile.

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Equipped with the AN/AWG-10 fire control system, the F-4J housed it in an enlarged radome. It used the AN/APG-59 pulse-Doppler radar, replacing the earlier APQ-72. This radar could discern low-flying aircraft from sea/ground returns.

The F-4J also had the AN/ASW-25 one-way datalink, enabling automatic carrier landings. Lastly, the infrared search and tracking pod under the F-4B’s nose was removed.

Sidewinder Missiles

During production, several improvements were made to the F-4J. From 1969, the Sidewinder Expanded Acquisition Mode (SEAM) was incorporated, involving new wiring and additional fittings to optimize the use of upgraded.

The aircraft was equipped with advanced avionics including the AN/AJB-7 bombing system and the AN/AWG-10 fire control system for improved combat efficacy.

The Visual Target Acquisition System (VTAS) helmet sight was introduced to Blocks 45 and 46 F-4Js and retrofitted to most previous models. The Sanders AN/ALQ-126 electronics countermeasures set, with prominent antennae, was also retrofitted.

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First F-4J deliveries started on October 1, 1966, and VF-101 started re-equipping in December of that year. The model quickly began replacing the earlier F-4B in most operational Navy squadrons. Additional antennae were placed below the engine intakes.

A total of 522 F-4Js were built between December 1966 and January 1972, with the first deliveries beginning on October 1, 1966.

An AN/AYK-14 dogfight computer and either AN/APX-76 or -89 IFF equipment were added. The AN/APR-32 radar warning set was installed with antennae in the fin-cap trailing edge and under the nose. Reduced smoke J79-GE-10B engines were also retrofitted.

Units Built

Production of the Phantom II concluded in the U.S. in 1979 after the completion of 5,195 units—5,057 by McDonnell Douglas and 138 by Mitsubishi in Japan. The USAF received 2,874, and the Navy and Marine Corps obtained 1,264, with the remaining going to international customers.

The final U.S.-built F-4 was delivered to South Korea. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan manufactured the last F-4EJ, delivered on 20 May 1981.

As of 2008, 631 Phantoms were still in active service globally. The U.S. military used Phantoms as target drones, specifically the QF-4Cs, until 21 December 2016, marking the official end of their use by the Air Force.