From Balloons to Drones – Editorial Changes and Future Developments

From Balloons to Drones – Editorial Changes and Future Developments

Twenty eighteen marks the start of the second full year of operations for From Balloons to Drones. With this, we are pleased to announce a significant change in our editorial line-up. Dr Brian Laslie, Mike Hankins and Alex Fitzgerald-Black have all agreed to become Assistant Editors of From Balloons to Drones. Brian, Mike, and Alex have been keen supporters of From Balloons to Drones since day one, and we are grateful to them for coming on board to add some depth to our operations. You can read their biographies here.

What does this mean for From Balloons to Drones? In short, it means we can come up with more ideas on how we might take the website forward. At the moment we are discussing several ideas which will hopefully see the light of day. One idea being discussed is a series of historic book reviews of crucial air power titles that will sit alongside our already established series of book reviews. We are coming up with a list of titles but if you think of a volume that is deserving of being reviewed then let us know.

Another project that we are currently working on is a collaborative series with The Central Blue, which is the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia. This set of posts will focus on some of the challenges related to high-intensity warfare in the 21st century, and they will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a seminar being held in Canberra in March on this topic. Posts will start appearing in February and will be posted here and at The Central Blue simultaneously. If you are interested in contributing to this series, then get in contact.

Finally, we are always on the lookout for new contributors to the site as well as ideas for future articles. We encourage potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, policymakers, service personnel and relevant professionals involved in researching the subject of air power. More details can be found here. Also, do not forget that we can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Header Image: A French Air Force Mirage 2000C drops away from a United States Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker after refuelling during a combat air patrol mission while participating in Operation ALLIED FORCE, c. 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980

#BookReview – Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980

By Mike Hankins

Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Notes. Works Cited. Index. Hbk. 435 pp. 

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Works dealing with the history of military technology tend to fall into a few camps. Some will praise a single ‘genius inventor,’ some will chronicle a teleological, linear path of ‘advancement,’ some are content to merely unpack the ‘black boxes’ and describe a piece of technology in detail for its own sake. Rare is the work that discusses the social and cultural interchange between people and machines, digs deep in technical details, while at the same time being a well-written, gripping narrative history sure to excite any enthusiast. Steven Fino’s Tiger Check is all those things at their finest.

Fino examines the American fighter pilot experience in three specific aircraft: The F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle. Each plane featured new technology that seemed to threaten the existing ‘knights of the air’ culture of fighter pilots. Fino argues that despite this series of cultural threats, that culture adapted. The image of pilots as ‘flying knights’ never changed, although they did have to modify themselves into ‘flying scientists.’ This did not replace the previous culture of fighter pilots but merely broadened and democratised it.

Fino begins the book by briefly exploring the ‘knights of the air’ mythology that dates to air-to-air combat in the First World War. As he defines it, the fighter pilot myth has three elements. First, air-to-air engagements as a form of honourable combat among gentleman warriors. Second, that success in air combat is due to the unique skill of the individual pilot. Finally, that the measure of greatness is the kill count—the number of enemy aircraft downed by a single pilot. It could be argued that there are more elements to this myth, and in his attempt to define these cultural factors as steady between the two World Wars, Fino glosses over the emphasis on bombing doctrine in the Second World War, and the battles between fighter culture and bomber culture during those years. That is a minor nitpick, however, as he does a wonderful job of defining the terms of his argument and how he intends to explore the evolution of the fighter pilot myth in the Cold War era.

The rest of the book is organised into three long chapters, each devoted to a particular aircraft. These chapters all follow a similar formula. First, Fino looks at how the pilots of a specific era still maintained and celebrated the three main elements of the ‘flying knights’ mythology. Fino then gives a detailed look at the new cockpit technologies of that era and how they seemed to threaten that myth. Finally, Fino chronicles how pilots adapted, slightly modifying their culture and practices in a way that allowed them to both masters the new technology while keeping the ‘knights of the air’ myth intact.

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Captain Joseph McConnell Jr. in the cockpit of his F-86, which shows his 16 kills as red stars. ‘Beauteous Butch’ referred to his nickname for his wife, Pearl. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

This pattern starts with the F-86 Sabre and the massive air-to-air battles over ‘MiG Alley’ during the Korean War. The main new piece of technology in the fighter cockpit was the A-1C(M) gunsight, relying on radar to help pilots aim their guns against the new generation of fast, agile jet fighters. The new gunsights, which required more technical knowledge and at least some understanding of radar theory, threatened the image of the lone fighter pilot using his skills, rather than relying on machines. Many pilots resisted the new gunsights and lobbied for their removal. Indeed, the first generation of sights was notoriously unreliable. However, after mid-1952, newer versions of the gunsight increased its reliability, and a younger generation of pilots adapted their culture to emphasise the combination of man and machine, rather than the earlier conception of man or machine. As Fino concludes:

Pilots had to move beyond the decades-old stereotype that had defined their profession. Detailed knowledge of their aircraft and its weapons systems wouldn’t necessarily dilute their tiger spirit […] It might actually render their tiger-like instincts that much more lethal for their opponent. (p. 109)

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Early F-4s in Southeast Asia were painted gray, but by 1966, they were camouflaged like the Phantom at the bottom of the photograph. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The next section jumps to the Vietnam War and examines the next biggest ‘threat’ to the fighter pilot mythology: The F-4 Phantom. The threat came not only from a reliance on guided missiles rather than guns (as the Phantom did not carry a gun at all until the later ‘E’ model) but more so from the fact that the F-4 was a two-seater. No longer was the fighter pilot a lone wolf, but he had to work in tandem with a radar cooperator in the back seat (colloquially called the ‘GIB’ for ‘guy in back’) to help identify and track enemy aircraft as well as obtain weapons locks. It was no longer enough to use one’s skill to maneuver a fighter into position and pull the trigger aggressively—now a pilot needed to understand the intricacies of how their large radar worked, and how to operate a large array of knobs, buttons, and switches to find and track targets. These tasks, split between two people, seemed to destroy social conventions among fighter pilots. Most importantly, who got credit for a kill? Most pilots bristled at these changes, as Fino notes:

Many of those sitting in either seat in the Phantom would have preferred instead to be flying a single-seat fighter, even if it was an older, less sophisticated, more vulnerable aircraft. (p. 196)

Even this radical of a shift did not destroy the image of pilots as ‘flying knights.’ The definition of what a pilot was shifted, emphasising coordination between men and machines. As Fino surmises, the Phantom’s advanced technology:

[m]ight have been designed to simplify and democratize fighter aviation so that the nation would no longer have to rely solely on the skills of carefully screened and combat-seasoned ‘birdmen,’ but it quickly became apparent in the skies over Vietnam that skilled pilots were still needed, and that those necessary skills could often be developed only in combat. (p. 197)

The final shift in this narrative came with the arrival of the F-15 Eagle—which promised to be a return to ‘traditional’ fighter pilot conceptions, optimised for air-to-air combat as a true ‘fighter pilot’s fighter plane.’ Although the Eagle had a single-seat, it was also larger and much more complicated than the Phantom. Its radar and long-range missiles still required extensive knowledge and skill to operate, although a computer now performed most of the tasks formerly handled by the GIB. Still, Eagle pilots had to be, to some degree, ‘flying scientists,’ who could perform delicate, precise movements on their joysticks to manipulate their radars and make the most of their weapons systems.

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An F-15C Eagle breaks away from a KC-135R Stratotanker after in-flight refueling during Operation ALLIED FORCE on 4 April 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)

Fino does not examine the Eagle’s performance in actual warfare as much as simulated combat, specifically the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests of 1976-1977. During and after these tests, F-15 pilots developed new tactics, including changing their formations, but more importantly developing the practice of ‘sorting’ targets. Fino examines this shift from a cultural perspective—lone fighter pilots duelling in the skies indeed became a thing of the past. Skilled individuals were still key, but now, pilots had to work together and pick targets, maximising the advantages of their weapons, ideally to end air-to-air engagements before they became dogfights. This seemed to threaten the ‘knights of the air’ image at first, but ultimately upheld it. Although the necessary skill set to be an effective Eagle pilot had drastically changed since the Korean War, pilot skill, aggression, and individual prowess were still crucial factors.

When describing the technical aspects of these systems, Fino goes into incredible detail. A close reading of this book would give the reader a thorough knowledge of the science behind radar technology and comes close to approaching an instruction manual for all three aircraft. These technical descriptions are never boring and never devolve to a case of opening ‘black boxes’ for their own sake. Fino continually ties the technical issues back to larger questions of cultural identity with an engaging style of writing. His sources are deep, and his notes thorough, proving ample opportunity for further research. If there is any flaw in the work, it tends to assume pilots are inherently antagonistic to engineers and aircraft designers. Many pilots likely shared this view. However, it might have been interesting to examine the culture and perspective of those designing and building this technology and how they viewed themselves as aiding pilots rather than threatening their culture. However, that would require another book’s worth of research and is not the type of work Fino set out to create here.

Ultimately, this work is one of the best works of air power (and technology) history that this reviewer has read in quite some time, and will likely become a standard of the field. It certainly sets a very high bar for other historians. For those interested in pilot culture and/or aircraft technology, this is required reading, while still pointing towards directions for future scholarship.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: An F-22 Raptor, P-51 Mustang and F-15E Strike Eagle perform the historic heritage flight during an air show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, 8 November 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchNote – A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

#ResearchNote – A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

By Mike Hankins

One of the lesser known large contributors to Allied victory in World War II was the role of aerial photographic reconnaissance. The allies relied on up-to-date photographs from the air. Flying these photo ‘recce’ missions could be every bit as harrowing as combat sorties. Recce planes flew over enemy territory with their guns removed and replaced with cameras. If they were attacked, pilots had no choice but to try and escape using only speed and manoeuvring, hoping to hide inside cloud cover or just to outrun the enemy. Up until the D-Day invasion, many of these missions were flown at extremely high speed and low altitude, as low as five to fifteen feet over the beaches of Normandy. Pilots likened these missions to throwing dice across a gambling table and called them ‘dicing’ missions. To get an in-the-cockpit view of what flying recce missions could be like, I am going to outline a brief period in the career of First Lieutenant George Adams, Jr., who joined the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS) in Toussus le Noble, France at the end of July 1944.

Adams flew the F-5, which was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning modified to take photos. The P-38 was not an uncontroversial plane, drawing mixed reviews from those that flew it. Ace fighter pilot Captain Jack Ilffey called it ‘a beautiful monster.’[1] Famed pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds, later noted for his contributions to air combat in the Vietnam War, first earned ace status in a P-38 in World War II. As he recalled,

I loved the P-38 but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it. […] The P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid and a full-time job for even a mature and experienced fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38 but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.[2]

Although, from an air combat perspective, the P-38 was not nearly as effective as other fighter types, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, the Lightning’s high speed, long range, and sheer toughness allowed it to excel in the role of photo reconnaissance. Allied forces had learned early on that a group of F-5s together was easily spotted, so to reduce the likelihood of being seen, photo reconnaissance missions were often flown by single planes, unescorted and completely alone, usually deep over enemy territory.

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Adams after landing in Mussidan, France. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Adams happened to arrive at a time when the 30th PRS was busier than it ever had been. The official unit history referred to August of 1944 as the ‘month of months.’ Ten August 1944 saw more missions take to the air than on D-Day itself. [3] For Adams, however, that month witnessed one of the defining moments of his career and very nearly cost him his life.

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Adams welcomed in Mussidan. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

On 3 September, Adams was flying a reconnaissance mission over Belgium, when the weather took a turn for the worse. Due to extremely limited visibility, Adams flew far off course. With his fuel tanks almost empty, he had no choice but to land in the town of Mussidan in southwestern France. Luckily, just over one week previously on 25 August, the town had been liberated by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). The townspeople welcomed him as a hero and gave him a place to stay at a nearby hotel for three days. The French resistance was able to purchase some German gasoline, and at the first sign of clear weather, on 6 September, Adams took off. After signalling his thanks by flying a few victory laps around the town, he headed back to Toussus le Noble.[4]

Adams’ ordeal was not over. The weather, which the 30th PRS unit historian called, ‘the airman’s most relentless foe,’ again proved troublesome for Adams on his flight back to base. After becoming lost in rough weather and losing all radio contact with his commanding officer, Major William Mitchell (not to be confused with the other Billy Mitchell, author of Winged Defense), Adams attempted to land in a field near Morannes and slammed his P-38 into a grove of trees. Adams himself was unharmed, but the aircraft was disabled. There was a military group at Morannes, and Adams stayed with them before travelling to an airstrip at Le Mans, about thirty miles away. Cooperating with intelligence services at Le Mans and the FFI, Adams tried to contact Major Mitchell but was unable to do so. The officials at Le Mans eventually brought Adams to Versailles on 8 September, where he was able to reconnect with the 30th PRS, and he returned to flying duty the next day.[5]

4-The wreckage of Adams' P-38 near Morannes
The wreckage of Adams’ P-38 near Morannes. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Typically, the weather of the winter months limits photo recce missions. However, that was the least of the allies’ problems in December of 1944 as eight panzer divisions tore their way through the Ardennes forest, beginning what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 30th PRS joined the battle, providing valuable photographs to aid ground units. However, the weather again reared its head. Only five days before the end of the year were suitable for taking photos. The 30th managed to squeeze out 96 missions in those five days. Adams and his fellow pilots flew as much as possible, including flying multiple missions on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and New Year’s Eve. The squadron set a record for a number of photographs processed: nine miles of film, consisting of 44,306 negatives that produced 153,579 prints.[6]

On New Year’s Day, 1945, ground forces requested an urgent, secretive mission to be flown over a particularly well-defended area of the German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. The nature of the photographs needed required a low-altitude approach of 2,000 feet, rendering the reconnaissance planes especially vulnerable to ground defences. Adams and six other pilots volunteered for the job. Four of them, including Adams, flew out twice. Despite the heavy risk and the intrusion of adverse weather conditions, the mission was a success, providing valuable intelligence to the front lines. The secretive nature of the mission prevented much discussion of it at the time, however, several months later, on 21 July 1945, Adams was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying his ‘unarmed photographic aircraft under circumstances entailing utmost courage and skill.’[7]

In the popular memory of World War II, we often tend to celebrate or romanticise the fighter pilots or bomber crews that engaged in seemingly heroic combat actions. However, Adams and his fellow recon pilots should not be forgotten. They took serious risks and made key contributions to the Allied victory in World War II.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: Ground personnel of the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group fit cameras into a Lockheed F-5 Lightning before a long-range mission. Image by Staff Sergeant Robert Astrella, 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. (Source: ©IWM (FRE 5390))

[1]    Robert F. Dorr, ‘Why the P-38 Flunked in Europe,’ Aviation History 24 (May 2014), 22.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    US Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of August, 1944; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3, George Adams Pilot Information File, August 1944. Hereafter, the Adams Papers.

[4]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944; Testimony of Labattu de Montpon, as related in email from Mayor Stephane Triquart to Bruce Adams, 21 January 2016.

[5]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944.

[6]    Ibid.

[7]    AFHRA, Recflash, Vol. 2 No. 1, Highlight Missions, 2, attached to Historical Records and History of Headquarters 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Month of January 1945; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Adams Papers, Box 3, Quote from Distinguished Flying Cross award citation, General Orders 116, 27 June 1945.

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

Remembering The F-4 Phantom – Part 2: Orchestrated Confusion

Remembering The F-4 Phantom – Part 2: Orchestrated Confusion

By Mike Hankins

Previously, we looked at how McDonnell lost a significant contract with the US Navy after their upgraded F3H Demon failed a fly off competition against their competitor, Chance-Vought’s entry which became the F-8U Crusader.

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An early mockup of a modified F3H which is beginning to show some familiar visual characteristics of the F-4. (Source: US Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

McDonnell engineer Herman Barkley took the Demon’s rejection as a personal challenge and immediately began designing an unsolicited new aircraft initially without military funding.[1] Original sketches for the new craft consisted of yet another version of the Demon, similar to the design that had already failed against Vought’s F-8U. The US Navy had a vested interest in allowing McDonnell to experiment with the design. It could keep McDonnell afloat, enabling it to remain a valuable supplier, and perhaps reap some return on the initial investment they had both placed in the failed F3H. Upon review of these sketches, The US Navy did support the project, but gave no stated mission requirements for the plane, encouraging McDonnell to experiment on the drawing board. According to J. S. McDonnell himself:

All we had to work with in the beginning [of F-4 Phantom II Development] was a gleam in the customer’s eye […] What followed was two years […] of orchestrated confusion.

The US Navy, because of their doctrinal assumptions, wanted to focus on high-speed interceptors but was purposefully vague about communicating this, hoping McDonnell would reach in new and unexpected directions. This lack of specificity and a desire to maximise profits by designing a versatile plane that functioned in many contexts led McDonnell to develop a multi-role aircraft not optimised for the air-to-air mission.[2]

The confusion continued until Spring of 1955 when Commander Francis X. Timmes (newly in charge of the project) emphasised the high-speed interceptor role and stressed adaptability. Those concepts required that the plane to have two seats, two engines, and an armament of only missiles. The plane thus featured eleven hardpoints for carrying bombs or missiles, the most ever designed on an airframe at that time. The homogenous armament and dual-pilot setup both theoretically enhanced adaptability, since dogfighting was (allegedly) unnecessary, the lack of guns made the plane lighter (thus faster), and pilot duties could be split between two people. In July 1955, the US Navy rewarded McDonnell’s efforts with a contract for the production of seven prototypes.

The Phantom’s unique look was the result of over 5,300 hours of wind tunnel tests, which revealed a significant problem in supersonic flight. The plane was susceptible to ‘roll coupling,’ which is a technical way of saying the plane became uncontrollable – a condition from which pilots were trained to eject immediately. The angled wingtips and tail decreased the chances of this occurring. To add to stability concerns without sacrificing speed, the Phantom was given the ‘Stab Aug’ system that could sense unstable flight paths and automatically correct for them quicker than a pilot could manually. Computer controlled intake ramps to control air flow into the engines also increased the plane’s top speed. Another computerised system, ‘Boundary Layer Control,’ sent excess air from the engines over the wings to generate more lift and increase speed and acceleration. [3]

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Herman Barkley (left) with test pilot Robert Little(center) and fellow engineer David Lewis (right) in front of a prototype of the F-4. (Source: Wikimedia)

Though the bond between the US Navy and its developers was strong, the military was loathed to place all its eggs in one basket. Timmes solicited other designs to fit the same roles as the Phantom in August 1955. The company that stepped up to the plate was none other than McDonnell’s old nemesis: Chance-Vought. Vought had developed an upgraded version of their successful F-8U Crusader, the very plane that had beaten McDonnell’s F3H Demon. Both new designs were set to compete in an unofficial fly off beginning on 15 September 1958. The tests emphasised the assumptions of the time, focusing on maximum speed and climbing rates. The assessments did not include manoeuvrability, gunnery, or other metrics pertinent to air-to-air combat.

In every tested category, the F8U-3 Crusader proved superior. It even had better fuel mileage. Its only drawbacks were a lower payload and time-consuming maintenance requirements. Despite this, George Spandenberg, then the director of Bureau of Aeronautics’ Evaluation Division, thought that single-seat, single-engine planes were inherently unreliable and argued that a two-seat plane would boost morale. Thus he boldly asserted, ‘The single-seat fighter era is dead.’ Advocates of the F-4 often claim the Phantom ‘won’ the contest (since it did win the US Navy contract after all), although a close look at the fly off reveals the upgraded Crusader had clear performance advantages in every category.[4]

Despite the Phantom’s lacklustre performance at the fly off, it was still an impressive aircraft in many respects. Between December 1959 and April 1962, the F-4 set over a dozen world records, the most coveted (and revealing of the plane’s doctrinal design focus) of which was that of absolute top speed: 1,606.3 miles per hour.[5] The F-4 also possessed many problems that came back to haunt the military over the jungles of Vietnam, and that appear almost negligent in retrospect. Aside from the stability issue (which caused ‘departure’ or ‘the adverse yaw effect,’ terms for when the plane loses control during maneuvers), the almost non-existent rear-visibility was a problem, as were the giant plumes of black smoke produced by the engines that gave away the location and heading of every Phantom. The plane was also quite vulnerable to ground fire because its hydraulic lines were delicate and devoid of redundancy. Indeed, ground fire downed more F-4s in Vietnam than any other single threat. Across US Air Force (USAF), the US Navy and the US Marine Corps combined, from January 1962 to January 1973, 930 planes were lost to small arms ground fire, or, 45% of losses by known causes. AAA claimed 632; SAMs shot down 191; MiGs destroyed 79, and friendly fire claimed 25.

The USAF observed these record-setting demonstrations and grew interested in the plane’s usefulness as a strategic bomber and interceptor.[6] After a series of tests, USAF eventually ordered more than triple the number of Phantoms as the Navy. McDonnell finally created four new models of the Phantom to USAF specifications, the first and most significant of which was the F-4C.[7]

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USAF Phantoms frequently performed ground attack missions in the Vietnam War. (Source: Time Magazine)

Although the Phantom would undoubtedly have performed extremely well in its designed role of intercepting enemy bombers, it ironically never had to. Instead of saving the world from nuclear Armageddon in the hypothetical World War III, the F-4 instead flew in a limited war over the jungles of a tiny third world country that many Americans had trouble locating on a map. The enemies it faced were not large lumbering bombers threatening nuclear annihilation, but missiles, ground fire, and manoeuvrable MiG fighters much more adept at air combat. Statistically, the deadliest enemy for the Phantom, one of the most powerful and expensive planes in US history to that point, was an individual on the ground with a machine gun. Similar to the doctrine that spawned it, the F-4 was the right plane for the wrong war.

The F-4 Phantom II was a fighter plane possessing few characteristics of traditional fighters. It was large, cumbersome, and built around the concept of long range attacks, sacrificing the agility and armament necessary of true air superiority craft. Originally conceived as an interceptor and soon burdened by ‘mission creep’ that insisted it handle multiple roles, the plane was the poster child for pre-Vietnam USAF doctrine, namely, the quasi-religious devotion to strategic bombing that minimised all other roles of air power.

Part One of this article can be found here.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II from the 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 52nd Tactical Wing, releasing 18 Mark 82 227 kg bombs over the Bardenas Reales Gunnery Range, Spain, 25 March 1986. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, The American Fighter (New York: Orion, 1987), p. 451, 310. Larry Davis, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1984), p 4.

[2] Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996)p.  23, 9, pp. 13-14.

[3] Ibid, p. 20, pp. 25-28, 37-40, 51-2.

[4] Peter E. Davies,  USN F-4 Phantom II vs VPAF MiG 17/19: Vietnam 1965-73 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011), p. 16; Lou Drendel, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Warren, MI: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1972), p. 6; Bugos, Engineering the F-4, pp. 95-9.

[5] Mick Spick, All-Weather Warriors: The Search for the Ultimate Fighter Aircraft (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), p. 131; Enzo Angelucci with Peter Bowers, The American Fighter: The Definitive Guide to American Fighter Aircraft from 1917 to the Present (London: G.T. Foulis, 1987), pp. 310-1.

[6] Bugos, Engineering the F-4, p. 104.

[7] Anthony M. Thornborough, USAF Phantoms: Tactics, Training, and Weapons (New York: Arms & Armour Press, 1988), pp. 11-12; Bugos, Engineering the F-4, p. 115.

Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time

Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time

By Mike Hankins

A few weeks ago, on August 17, 2016, the QF-4 Phantom flew its final mission for the United States Air Force (USAF). Although the Phantom was officially retired from combat use in 1996, USAF has been using unmanned, remote-controlled versions of the F-4 as target drones in training exercises. As the QF-4 completes its final flight, it feels like the end of an era. With over 5,000 built, the F-4 was one of (if not the) most ubiquitous aircraft of the Vietnam War and formed the backbone of the USAF in that period.

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The unmanned QF-4 target drone (Source: http://www.military.com/equipment/qf-4-aerial-target)

In many ways, the F-4 was the last representative of an earlier era in USAF thinking — its design (emphasising speed, interception, and multi-role capability) reflected the doctrines and assumptions of the early Cold War. During the Vietnam War, those assumptions began to be overturned, and the Air Force eventually turned to a new generation of fighters in planes like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon. As the Phantom has now officially passed out of use in the US, it is worth taking some time to look back at the Phantom’s design, what that tells us about previous modes of thinking in the Air Force, and what that might mean for the future.

After World War II, USAF, and indeed the entire US military was dominated by Strategic Air Command (SAC), which maintained a fleet of nuclear bombers. The assumption was that a potential “next war” would involve the US and the Soviet Union launching atomic bombs at each other. Thus, national security rested on the idea of being able to drop nukes on Soviet vital centres, while also being able to intercept any Soviet bombers that attempted to do the same.

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Clockwise from bottom: F-104 Starfighter, F-100 Super Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-101 Voodoo, and F-105 Thunderchief. These ‘Century Series’ aircraft were all designed primarily as interceptors (Source: Wikimedia)

Other tactical missions like air superiority, ground support, or supply interdiction, became irrelevant. The age of fighter escorts, dogfights, and close air support against fielded enemy ground forces was over. In those early years of the Cold War, despite a few small voices of criticism, the USAF devoted less than 6 percent of its research and development resources into tactical and fighter roles. As a result, several tactical fighter wings disappeared in the late 1950s. Tactical Air Command was responsible for these functions and quickly found that the best way to retain relevance (and budget dollars) was to make a case that they too could contribute to SAC’s nuclear mission. They thus focused on developing fighter/bombers and interceptors that emphasised speed (at the expense of manoeuvrability) to either quickly deliver a nuclear warhead, or to intercept an enemy bomber and shoot it down in one pass – not with guns, but with guided missiles. This approach was exemplified in their ‘Century Series’ of interceptors. [1]

The US Navy also came to the same conclusion – that maintaining their budget and relevance necessitated that they participate in the nuclear mission, especially once atomic warheads became small enough to mount to carrier-based aircraft. New US Navy aeroplane designs focused on delivery of tactical nukes and interception of enemy bombers, and although the US Navy did not abandon air superiority to the degree that USAF did, the role of US Navy fighters certainly diminished in the post-war period. For example, the Fleet Air Gunner Unit, which trained weapons officers on US Navy planes, closed in 1960 and new training syllabi excised air-to-air combat.[2]

These assumptions and trends are key to understanding the development of the F-4 Phantom, but one the other main factor was the system of the ‘Military-Industrial Complex.’ Few defence contractors existed in the early Cold War, and the vast sums involved in contract awards and losses could make or break companies quickly. To keep options open, the military had a strong incentive to maintain their contractors afloat, sometimes making purchases regardless of actual needs. The military also encouraged these companies to push the envelope of cutting-edge technology, at times guided by strict mission parameters, on other occasions without many guidelines at all. Thus, a strong paternal bond developed between the military and its industrial suppliers, creating an environment that encouraged companies to experiment and take risks without fear of a total company failure.[3]

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A U.S. Navy McDonnell XF3H-1N Demon on the elevator of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, in 1953. (Source: Wikimedia)

This bond came into play in September 1952, when the US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics invited proposals for a new fighter plane dedicated to the (redefined) air superiority and interception missions. The US Navy eventually awarded this contract to McDonnell’s rival firm Chance-Vought, whose entry became the F-8U Crusader. McDonnell’s losing design in this competition was a version of the F3H Demon upgraded with a dual-engine and a missile armament. In 1954, the losses from this project nearly destroyed McDonnell. The US Navy had much to lose if its weapons manufacturers closed and viewed these defence contractors as too big to fail.[4]

Next time, we will look at McDonnell’s response to this loss, and how it led to one of the most ubiquitous aircraft of all time.

Part Two of this article can be found here.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: The unmanned QF-4 target drone (Source: http://www.military.com/equipment/qf-4-aerial-target)

[1] Earl H.Tilford, Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993), pp. 20-22; Craig C. Hannah, Striving for Air Superiority (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), p. 28; Caroline F. Ziemke, ‘In The Shadow of the Giant: USAF Tactical Air Command in the Era of Strategic Bombing, 1945-1955’ (PhD Thesis, The Ohio State University, 1989), p. 7.

[2] George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U. S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), P. 334.; Robert W. Love, Jr., History of the United States Navy, Vol. 2 (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1992), pp. 375-6.

[3] Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 23.

[4] Bugos, Engineering the F-4, pp. 15-17.