First USAF Vietnam Victory: the Phantom F-4C

Jul 10

First USAF Vietnam Victory

McDonnell Douglas F-4C


The Vietnam War is where the Phantom gained its reputation. On July 10, 1965, two F-4C crews scored the USAF’s first kills of the Vietnam War when they destroyed two MiG-17s over North Vietnam with Sidewinder missiles. In time, the F-4C took over the bulk of the heavy fighting over both North and South Vietnam.

On a typical mission over the North, an F-4C would carry four Sparrows, four Sidewinders, and a load of eight 750-pound bombs. At first, the bombs were dropped from medium or high-altitudes, but as SAMs became more dangerous, a shift was made to lower altitudes. Unfortunately, this technique also exposed the aircraft to small-arms fire from the ground.

For air-to-air combat, the F-4C relied on Sparrow semi-active radar homing or Sidewinder infrared-homing missiles. The AIM-7D/E Sparrow was carried in the ventral trays. In principle, the Sparrow gave the Phantom a beyond visual range capability at distances of up to 28 miles. However, such launches were very rarely permitted under the terms of the rather restrictive rules of engagement in Vietnam, lest a friendly plane be hit by mistake. When used at closer ranges, the Sparrow turned out to be virtually useless against fighter-sized targets, especially at low altitudes. The AIM-9B/D Sidewinder was usually the weapon of choice. The AIM-9D had a range of up to 12 miles, but it was generally effective only in close stern engagements in good weather and at high altitudes. In bad weather or at low altitudes, the results were less impressive, the Sidewinder often losing its lock on its target due to interference from rain or from clouds or having a tendency to lock onto the Sun or onto reflections in lakes or ponds. Ultimately, the Sidewinder scored more aerial victories in the Vietnam War than any other weapon.

sidewinder missile phantom

On July 24, 1965, F-4C 63-7599 of the 47th Tactical Fighter Squadron was downed by a surface to air missile, becoming the first American warplane to be downed by a SAM. SAMs actually claimed only 5.7 percent of all US aircraft shot down in the Vietnam war, but they forced American aircraft down to lower altitudes where ground-based AAA and even small arms fire were much more lethal.

In the first two years of combat in Vietnam, the casualties among the first F-4C squadrons had reached almost 40 percent, for a total of 54 aircraft. Most were lost to AAA, but a few were lost in stall/spin accidents at low altitude. During close-in dogfights, when pulling high-gs or when at steep angles of attack, it was very easy to lose control of an F-4C, especially if it was carrying a centerline store. Recovery from a spin at an altitude below 10,000 feet was essentially impossible, and the only option for survival was generally for the crew to eject.

The F-4C lacked the guns of a complete fighter system, which was found to be a serious deficiency in close-in air-to-air combat. The addition of a SUU-16A gun pod on the underfuselage centerline compensated for the lack of a gun, but it seriously degraded overall performance and in addition made the aircraft somewhat unstable and difficult to recover from a spin.

First USAF Vietnam Victory Phantom F-4C

Early F-4Cs had problems with leaking wing fuel tanks, these problems being so serious that the tanks had to be carefully resealed after each flight. The radar had a tendency to malfunction far too easily, the humid air of Southeast Asia being a persistent problem. Early F-4Cs also had problems with cracked ribs and stringers on the outer wing panels. Later F-4Cs were equipped with a heavier stringer and an additional wing rib. These modifications were retrofitted to earlier F-4Cs.

During the Vietnam War, F-4C crews claimed the destruction of 22 MiGs with Sidewinders, 14 with Sparrows, four with gunfire, and two by causing the MiGs to crash while maneuvering.


Source: Phantom Service with USAF