Soviet reportage with English subtitles on Su 25 ops over Syria during the summer of 2017. A single click to view here..
Above; Phantom Finale video - Mark Mainwaring screen capture. White-tailed 29 Sqn F-4
The United Kingdom operated the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as one of its principal combat aircraft from the 1960s to the early 1990s. The UK was the first export customer for the Phantom, which was ordered in the context of political and economic difficulties around indigenous British designs for the roles that it was eventually purchased to undertake. The Phantom was procured to serve both in the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force in a number of different roles including air defence, close air support, low level strike and tactical reconnaissance.
Although assembled in the United States, the UK's first Phantoms were a special batch built separately and containing a significant amount of British technology as a means of easing the pressure on the domestic aerospace industry as a result of the major project cancellations. Two individual variants were eventually built for the United Kingdom; the F-4K variant was designed from the outset as an air defence interceptor to be operated by the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers, while the F-4M version was procured for the RAF to serve in the tactical strike and reconnaissance roles. In the mid-1980s, a third Phantom variant was obtained when a quantity of second-hand F-4J aircraft were purchased to augment the UK's air defences following the Falklands War.
The Phantom entered service with both the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF in 1969; while in the Royal Navy it had a secondary strike role in addition to its primary use for fleet air defence, in the RAF it was soon replaced in the strike role by other aircraft designed specifically for strike and close air support missions, and by the mid-1970s was transferred to become the UK's principal interceptor, a role in which it continued until the late 1980s.
The United Kingdom bought versions based on the U.S. Navy's F-4J for use with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. The main differences were the use of the British Rolls-Royce Spey engines and of British-made avionics. The RN and RAF versions were given the designation F-4K and F-4M respectively, and entered service as the Phantom FG.1 (fighter/ground attack) and Phantom FGR.2 (fighter/ground attack/reconnaissance) British designations. Initially, the FGR.2 was used in the ground attack and reconnaissance role, primarily with RAF Germany, while 43 Squadron was formed in the air defence role using the FG.1s that had been intended for the Fleet Air Arm for use aboard HMS Eagle. The superiority of the Phantom over the English Electric Lightning in terms of both range and weapon load, combined with the successful introduction of the SEPECAT Jaguar, meant that, during the mid-1970s, most of the ground attack Phantoms in Germany were redeployed to the UK to replace air defence Lightning squadrons. A second RAF squadron, 111 Squadron, was formed on the FG.1 in 1979 after the disbandment of 892 NAS.
In 1982 during the Falklands War, three Phantom FGR2s of No. 29 Squadron were on active Quick Reaction Alert duty on Ascension Island to protect the base from air attack. After the Falklands War, 15 upgraded ex-USN F-4Js, known as the F-4J(UK) entered RAF service to compensate for one interceptor squadron redeployed to the Falklands.
Below; Mark Lamont photo; Stanley rub hangar
Around 15 RAF squadrons received various marks of Phantom, many of them based in Germany. The first to be equipped was No. 6 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in July 1969. One noteworthy deployment was to No. 43 Squadron where Phantom FG1s remained the squadron equipment for 20 years, arriving in September 1969 and departing in July 1989. During this period the squadron was based at Leuchars.
Partly as a means of guaranteeing employment in the British aerospace industry, agreement was reached that significant amounts of the structure of the UK's Phantoms would be built domestically. The F-4J variant, which was then the primary version in service with the US Navy, was taken as the basis for the UK aircraft, with major redesign. The most significant change was the substitution of the larger and more powerful Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan for the GE J79 turbojet to allow operations from RN carriers Ark Royal, Eagle and potentially the smaller Hermes, all of which were smaller than the USN carriers that J79-GE-8 and -10 powered Phantoms operated from. To accommodate the larger engines, BAC redesigned and built the entire rear fuselage section. The Westinghouse AN/AWG-10 radar carried by the F-4J was to be procured and built under license by Ferranti as the AN/AWG-11 for Fleet Air Arm aircraft and AN/AWG-12 for those of the RAF. The overall changes to the aircraft led to the two variants being given their own separate series letters, with the FAA version being designated as the F-4K and the RAF version as the F-4M.
Initially, there was an intention to procure up to 400 aircraft for the Royal Navy and the RAF, but the development cost associated with the changes specified by the United Kingdom to accommodate the Spey turbofans meant that the per unit price eventually ended up being three-times the price of an F-4J; because the government then had a policy of negotiating fixed-price contracts it meant that these costs could not be evened out by a large production run, which left the total order at 170.
The British Government ordered a total of four prototypes (two F-4K and two F-4M), together with a pair of pre-production F-4K aircraft. The first UK Phantom, a prototype F-4K (designated as YF-4K), first flew on 27 June 1966 at the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis. The second made its first flight on 30 August 1966. The two pre-production F-4K aircraft were constructed alongside the prototypes, and were initially used for fit check trials of the various systems they would be fitted with – the first was used for catapult/arrestor and deck landing trials, while the second was primarily for testing the radar and missile systems. All four were delivered to the UK from 1969–1970 for continued use in testing work by both the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment and British Aerospace. One of the pre-production examples was subsequently delivered to the RAF for operational use, but was lost in 1978. The first F-4M prototype (designated YF-4M) first flew on 17 February 1967, with both again used for fit check work before delivery to the UK.
In 1964, a total of 140 new build Phantoms were ordered for the Fleet Air Arm to serve as the Royal Navy's primary fleet air defence aircraft, combined with a secondary strike capability. These were procured to replace the de Havilland Sea Vixen then in service in the role, with the intention that they operate from the decks of four brand new or modernised aircraft carriers. At the time, the Royal Navy's carrier force consisted primarily of five fleet or light fleet carriers of differing sizes and ages.
The Royal Navy received its first F-4K Phantoms, which received the British designation FG.1, in April 1968. These were assigned to 700P Naval Air Squadron, which was to serve as Intensive Flying Trials Unit. Upon completion of the successful flight trials, 767 Naval Air Squadron was commissioned in January 1969 as the FAA's training squadron. This was followed at the end of March 1969 by 892 Naval Air Squadron, which commissioned as the Royal Navy's first operational Phantom unit, intended to embark in Ark Royal once her three-year refit had completed in 1970.
Ark Royal had entered refit to accommodate the Phantom in 1967; this involved amongst other elements the installation of water-cooled JBDs and bridle catchers. Once this was complete, Eagle was then scheduled to undergo a similar modernization. However, in 1969, the planned refit of Eagle was cancelled. As a consequence, it was then decided to further reduce the FAA's Phantom fleet to just 28 aircraft. The remaining 20 aircraft were then allocated to the Royal Air Force.
In 1970, Ark Royal embarked 892 NAS as part of her air group for the first time. However, the first operational use of the Royal Navy's Phantoms had come in 1969, when 892 NAS had embarked for training with the US aircraft carrier USS Saratoga in the Mediterranean, and had undertaken air defence missions alongside the ship's own F-4Js. During Ark Royal's first three-year commission, 892 NAS, which had initially had RNAS Yeovilton as its home base, moved to RAF Leuchars where, during the periods when it was not embarked, undertook Quick Reaction Alert duties alongside the RAF's 43 Squadron. The Phantom served in the Fleet Air Arm until 1978, when Ark Royal was finally withdrawn from service, leaving no ship left in the Royal Navy capable of operating the type. The final catapult launch from Ark Royal was a Phantom of 892 NAS on 27 November 1978 during the disembarkation of the air group following the ship's final deployment; the squadron's aircraft were delivered to RAF St Athan in Wales where they were then handed over to the RAF. During the type's service with the Royal Navy, a total of 11 of the total FAA fleet of 28 were lost. The RAF Phantom, given the designation FGR.2, was broadly similar to the naval version, with some minor variations in terms of engines, avionics and structure, which related to its use as a land-based, rather than carrier-based aircraft. The first RAF Phantom unit was 228 Operational Conversion Unit, which was stood up in August 1968. The Phantom entered operational service in May 1969, when 6 Squadron was formed at RAF Coningsby in the tactical strike role. 54 Squadron was formed in September the same year, while 41 Squadron came in 1972 as a tactical reconnaissance unit. A further four squadrons were formed in RAF Germany on the Phantom in these roles, with 2, 14, 17 and 31 Squadrons all formed at RAF Brüggen in 1970 and 1971. After Initial Work-up No II(AC) squadron moved to and operated from RAF Laarbruch in the tactical reconnaissance role. The aircraft assigned to the two tactical reconnaissance units were fitted with a recce pod containing 4 optical cameras, an infrared linescan and a sideways looking radar.
In May 1982, three Phantoms from 29 Squadron were forward deployed to RAF Wideawake on Ascension Island to provide air cover during the RAF's operations as part of Operation Corporate, replacing Harriers of 1 Squadron, which were transiting to the war zone. In August 1982, following the end of the conflict and the reconstruction of the runway, 29 Squadron detached a number of its aircraft to RAF Stanley to provide air defence for the Falkland Islands. Late the following year, 23 Squadron took up the role, remaining stationed there until October 1988, when they were replaced by 1435 Flight. To make up for the loss of an entire squadron from the UK Air Defence Region, the RAF procured 15 second-hand F-4J Phantoms that had previously been used by the US Navy. These aircraft were operated by 74 Squadron from 1984 until 1991, when they were replaced by FGR.2 Phantoms that had been released by other squadrons following their conversion to the Tornado.
The UK government decided to purchase an additional squadron of Phantoms. However, because the aircraft in service with the RAF were the special production batch built to UK specifications, it would not be possible to obtain identical aircraft. So, a total of 15 second-hand airframes were procured from among the best of the ex-US Navy F-4Js stored at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The F-4J was chosen as it was the variant from which the RAF's F-4Ks and F-4Ms had been developed, and thus the closest available to the British aircraft. The 15 that were selected were extensively refurbished and brought to a standard almost equivalent to the F-4S, which was the last variant in service with the US Navy, with the only differences being the absence of leading-edge slats and a helmet gun sight. The major difference between the F-4J and the British Phantoms was the absence of the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan, with instead the aircraft being fitted with the GE J79-10B, which produced less power than the British engine, but had a faster afterburner light up, giving it better performance at high altitude, at the expense of slightly poorer acceleration at low level; the high altitude performance was helped by the reduced drag from its smaller air intakes. Initially delivered capable of carrying the Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, they were soon made compatible with the Skyflash and SUU-23A gun pod, bringing them into line with the rest of the RAF's Phantoms. However, in spite of some modifications to allow them to operate with the rest of the fleet, the F-4Js retained the vast bulk of the equipment they were originally fitted with, which even led to their crews requiring American flying helmets. Although the new Phantoms were assigned a UK designation as the F.3, they were generally referred to as the F-4J(UK). They were assigned to 74 Squadron at RAF Wattisham, which stood up in October 1984, just two months after the first flight. The aircraft remained in service through the transition to the Tornado, which began entering service in 1987. In 1990, thanks to the conversion of F-4M squadrons to the Tornado, the RAF were able to transfer the best of its remaining FGR.2s to 74 Squadron, which meant that the F-4J was able to be withdrawn in January 1991.
Initially, it was intended that Phantoms and Tornados serve alongside each other; a total of 152 Tornado F.3s were ordered for the RAF, enough to convert four squadrons of Phantoms and two of Lightnings, but insufficient to completely convert every air defence squadron; both 23 and 29 Squadrons converted from the Phantom FGR.2 to the Tornado between 1987 and 1988, alongside the conversion of the final two remaining Lightning squadrons; the intention was to retain a pair of UK based Phantom squadrons at RAF Wattisham alongside a pair of Tornado units at RAF Coningsby to provide air defence cover for the southern half of the UK Air Defence Region, with another two squadrons stationed in Germany. The end of the Cold War however led to a more rapid withdrawal of Phantom units than had originally been planned; under the Options for Change defence review the Phantom was to be withdrawn from service, with the two Germany based units disbanded as part of the gradual run down of the RAF's presence, and a reduction in the number of air defence squadrons leading to the two UK based units being disbanded in late 1992. However, just prior to the final withdrawal of the Phantom, it was recalled operationally as a result of Operation Granby, the UK's participation in the First Gulf War, when a total of six aircraft from 19 and 92 Squadrons were forward deployed to provide air defence cover at RAF Akrotiri; this was to replaced the Tornados that had been originally deployed there on exercise, and were subsequently sent to the Gulf region. Following their final withdrawal from service, with a few exceptions, the bulk of the RAF's FGR.2 fleet was scrapped. Over its service life, 37 FGR.2s were lost to crashes.
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