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F-4 Phantom II - Flight Testing

The XF4H-1, a first version prototype, had its first flight on 27 May 1958. Designed for Mach 2 speeds, it actually achieved Mach 2.6 during its flight trials. The F4H-1 designation was subsequently changed to F4-A. The first true production model, the F-4B, appeared in 1961, three years after the first flight of the prototype, and six years after the initial specifications.

In 1958 the F4H-1, as the F-4 was then called, and the F8U-3 flew a side-by-side competition during a Navy Preliminary Evaluation (NPE) at Edwards Air Force Base. Navy pilots flew both aircraft and in direct competition decided in favor of the McDonnell product. The result was the award of a limited production contract for the F-4 Phantom 11 in December of 1958. In July 1959, the aircraft was formally christened the F-4 Phantom II in tribute to McDonnell's FH-1 Phantom.

The first Navy squadron began to train with the fighters on 29 December 1960, and the first F-4 aircraft went into operational squadron service with the fleet in October 1961. The F4H Phantom II boasted more than just brute power. It was the beneficiary of a nascent revolution in systems and sensors technology. It was configured with a sophisticated fire control radar system that could detect airborne threats at beyond visual range and direct Sparrow semi-active radar guided missiles against them. Subsequently redesignated the F-4B in 1962, this first model was developed directly from the prototype. The US Navy was the sole client, buying all 649 planes manufactured. The Navy deployed them aboard aircraft carriers, as missile-armed interceptors for defending the Navy's ships and supply convoys.

The Navy fighter garnered a host of world speed and time-to-climb records. On 06 December 1959 Commander L.E. Flint, piloting a McDonnell F4H-1 Phantom II powered by two GE J-79 engines bettered the existing world altitude record by reaching 98,560 feet over Edwards Air Force Base. On 05 September 1961 an F4H-1 Phantom II, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Miller, USMC, set a new world record for 500 kilometers over the triangular course at Edwards AF Base with a speed of 1216.78 mph. On 25 September 1961 an F4H-1 Phantom II, piloted by Commander John F. Davis, averaged 1390.21 mph for 100 kilometers over a closed circuit course, bettering the existing world record for the distance by more than 200 mph.

On 25 May 1961 three F4H Phantom II fighters competing for the Bendix Trophy bettered the existing record for transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to New York. The winning team of Lieutenant R. F. Gordon, pilot, and Lieutenant (jg) B. R. Young, RIO, averaged 870 mph on the 2,421.4 mile flight and set a new record of 2 hours, 47 minutes. A Phantom set a world absolute speed record of 1,606.505 mph at Edwards on 22 November 1961. In March 1962 new world climb records to 9,000 and 12,000 meters were established at NAS Brunswick, Maine, when an F4H-1 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel W. C. McGraw, USMC, reached those altitudes from a standing start in 61.62 and 77.15 seconds, respectively. The F4H-1 continued its assault on time-to-climb records at NAS Brunswick as Lieutenant Commander D. W. Nordberg piloted the Phantom II to 15,000 meters altitude in 114.54 seconds. -Lieutenant Commander F. Taylor Brown piloted the F4H-1 Phantom II at NAS Point Mugu, to a new world time-to-climb record for 20,000 meters with a time of 178.5 seconds.

The Air Force and the Navy expressed notable dismay over the relatively poor and unforgiving characteristics of the F-4 aircraft at high angles of attack. The F-4 exhibited a sudden directional divergence (nose slice) and other control-induced characteristics at high angles of attack that made the aircraft susceptible to loss of control and inadvertent spins. The two services lost a combined total of over 100 F-4's to accidents involving these characteristics during the operational life of the aircraft.

Test pilots wanted to look at first departure resistance and then be able to recover from an incipient spin rather than allowing or forcing the airplane to progress to a fully developed spin. It was a major cultural change to adopt the philosophy of spin avoidance and recovery during the incipient phase of departure. They finally recognized the need to emphasize departure resistance in design and testing. High angle of attack test programs needed to focus on exploring departure and incipient characteristics rather than applying full pro-spin controls for several turns. First priority was departure resistance and then recovery from incipient spins. Full pro-spin controls on a prolonged basis should be explored only on an exception basis and then only for trainers. It was a total change in the philosophy.

Overall, the experience with the F-4 substantiated the recommendation of the Commission on Government Procurement that "management layering, staff reviews, coordinating points, unnecessary procedures, reports, and paperwork on both the agency and industry side of major weapon system acquisitions" should be minimized.

More than 4200 F-4's had actually been manufactured by the end of July 1972.

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