The Phantom II, among its other achievements, was the first fighter designed specifically for shipboard use to be adopted by the USAF as well . Its successful 'ground' career began on March 30, 1962 (after a single F-4B had proved itself far superior to a Convair F-106A) when the USAF placed an order for an air-superiority and tactical support version. The prototype of this, the F-4C, took to the air on May 27, 1963, and 583 were eventually built. Then followed 503 RF-4C photoreconnaissance planes (delivery commencing June 1964), 825 F-4Ds (first flight December 7, 1965), and about 1,500 F-4Es (first flight June 30, 1967), of which almost one-third were exported. Overall production ended in October 1979, by which time over 5,100 Phantom IIs had been built in the USA and 140 under license in Japan. The F-4 flew under the USAF insignia for practically the entire period of the Vietnam War. From 1975 the Phantom IIs were gradually replaced by F-14s, and although mainly consigned to reserve units, they are still used for front line duty in many countries.
The first F-4C Phantoms of the USAF arrived in Vietnam at the same time as those of the Marines, in April 1965, with the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron, followed by those of the 12th TFW, in November, and of the 8th TFW, which was stationed at the Ubon base in Thailand in December of the same year. The Phantoms were detailed to play a defensive fighter role, escorting the F-105s weighted down with their bomb-loads, but when the ranks of the latter began to thin out, the Phantoms also took on attacking roles, achieving excellent results with their precision bombing. Although many units covered themselves with glory in eight years of war, it was the 8th TFW, among the first to reach Vietnam, which was most highly distinguished in battle. On January 2, 1967, F-4Cs of this Wing played a key role in the biggest aerial encounter of the war, shooting down seven MiG-21s without loss; and the 555th TFS (which with the 432nd and 433rd formed the 8th TFW) achieved more victories than any other USAF squadron, with a tally of 39 MiGs. In such dogfights the radar-controlled Sparrow air-to-air missiles and heat-sensitive Sidewinders proved invaluable, but the lack of a traditional cannon, notably for strike missions, soon became evident. It was for this reason that the F-4E version, sent into action toward the end of the war, was equipped with a rotary 20mm cannon, soon proving its worth not only in hitting the enemy on the ground but also in shooting down six enemy jets. By the end of the war the F-4s of the USAF boasted a record of 82 victories in air duels with MiGs, the success ratio in favor of the Phantom pilots being more than two to one.
Aircraft: McDonnell F-4C