Courtney: The F4 Phantom II, FGR2
Courtney: Vox Clamantis in Deserto - the F4 Phantom FGR2

  Links to chapters:

RAF F4 Phantom FGR2

RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 - The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

AN/AWG-11 / AN/AWG-12 RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 / FG1 RAF F4 Phantom Radar Controls

AN/AWG 12 F4 Phantom Radar Controls
The RAF F4 Phantom, FGR2

Courtney's Journal - Man's Flight Through Life is Sustained by the Power of his Learning. 43 Squadron, F4 Phantom FGR2

On this page: The F-4 Phantom,     228 F4 Phantom OCU,     The End of a Phantom.

The McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom - "The World's Leading Distributor of MiG Parts"

The 1950s and 60s were very active times in the history of aviation.  The Cold War presented such a potent perceived threat to western security that governments wanted ever more capable and effective aircraft - and in large numbers. It sometimes seems that Air Forces were bought virtually anything that the engineers and designers could conceive - although the RAF was woefully under-funded in the 60s. Wonderful advances were made in technology and the limits of aerodynamics were pushed back to reveal ever-greater opportunities. One of the greatest aircraft to emerge from this fruitful era was, without a doubt, the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom II. Purposeful, powerful and potent, the F4 Phantom was a demanding mistress who was as unforgiving as she was rewarding.  She was respected by those who flew her and those who fought against her. With over 5,000 F-4 Phantoms built and an impressive combat record, she became a legend in her own time.

RAF F-4 Phantom FGR2

The Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy) F4K Phantom FG1 and the RAF F4M Phantom FGR2 were derived from the F-4J, but featured the Westinghouse AN/AWG-11/12 Pulse doppler radar, Rolls Royce Spey 202/203 turbofan engines (replacing the J79s of the US versions) producing 20,515 lbs of thrust each (12,250 lbs each in static dry power - non-reheat - 17,500 in flight) and significantly different British avionics including a Ferranti INAS in the case of the FGR2. The UK was the first overseas customer to buy the F4 Phantom from the United States. The AN/AWG-11 fire control system was installed in the F-4K and the AN/AWG-12 in the FGR2 in place of the AN/AWG-10 of the F-4J. The AWG-11 differed from the AWG-10 mainly in having a radar dish that folded sideways with the nose cone (radome) to reduce the aircraft's length to 54 feet so that it could fit on the smaller deck lifts of British aircraft carriers. A little more on the radar later. Fifty F-4K Phantom FG.MK 1s were built and 116 F-4M Phantom FGR.Mk2s (plus two prototypes of each). The RAF later acquired 15 second-hand F4Js to augment the UK's Air Defence fleet after the Falklands war, but they dont really belong in this part ofthe story.

In replacing the original General Electric J79 engines with the larger Rolls Royce Speys (RB 168-25R Spey Mk 202/203s), the fuselage and the air intakes needed to be enlarged; the installation of the Speys gave an increase of 10% in operational range, 15% increase in ferry range and better low-level acceleration, however the increased drag of the engine installation resulted in slightly reduced performance at high altitude.

Now, recently promoted to Flying Officer, it was my turn to get my hands on her. The F-4 Phantom Operational Conversion Unit (228 OCU) was at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.  Throughout my training to this point, each course had been, in a way, an extension of the previous one.  TWU had involved far more tactical, applied skills than the preceding courses, but still shared many features with them. Furthermore, at Brawdy we had been flying the Hawk, which, despite its tactical livery, was still essentially a training aircraft. The F4 Phantom was altogether different; at last we were flying a real front-line jet fighter.  Its looks said it all. Here was an aircraft built for business. It was resolute and mean. What's more, the Phantom OCU was about to teach us things that we really hadn't even touched upon before. This was a whole new ball game.

A Bit About The Phantom Radar - AN/AWG12                                         Skip this section on the F4 Radar (AN/AWG12)

Radar and intercept theories were totally new subjects for everybody on my OCU course.  On paper it soon began to make sense, but in the air it was to prove to be more of a black art.  Most people understand the idea of sending out a pulse of radio energy in a known direction and measuring the time an echo takes to return from a target.  This is basic pulse radar (ping-pong divided by two).  In other words, the distance to an object is calculated by measuring the time a pulse of radio energy takes to travel to the object and to be reflected back (ping-pong - transmission and echo), dividing it by two (to get the distance one way) and then multiplying that time by the speed of light (3x108 ms-1).  The problem with this is that it only works where there are no other big radar reflectors around to confuse the signals. The earth, for example, is very big and forms a huge radar target.  However, scientists and engineers had solved the problem of detecting targets moving at low level in the ground radar clutter (the multitude of large echoes from the earth and things upon it); they had invented Pulsed Doppler radar (PD), which works on target closing speed and blanks out anything moving towards the fighter at the same speed as the ground.  The Phantom was one of the first fighters in the world to receive this technology and it gave her the ability to detect enemy aircraft in the one regime in which, hitherto, it had been regarded as near impossible - low altitude.

The F4 Phantom radar pack was carried in the nose of the aircraft, behind the 'radome', the aerodynamically shaped nose cone, and produced a nominal transmitter power of 1,525 watts - that's one big microwave oven. The antenna was hydraulically driven, slewable from 60° left to 60° right (azimuth) and 60° up and down (elevation). The antenna could be operated 'gyros in' where the scan pattern was stabilized in space regardless of the aircraft's pitch or bank angles (attitude) or 'gyros-out' where the scan pattern was relative to the aircraft's orientation. The radar controls were in the rear cockpit, operated by the navigator, with the exception of the Pilot Lock Mode (PLM) button, which allowed the pilot to lock onto a visual target at close range.

The RAF F4 Phantom Radar (AWG-11 and AWG-12) was an X Band airborne intercept radar operating in the 9.6 - 9.9 GHz range. It had 5 operating modes:

Pulse doppler (PD) - very powerful and with good 'look down' performance as is measures closing velocity (Vc - called "v sub c") rather than range. All ground returns were compressed into a single, curved band across the scope (called Main Beam Clutter or MBC). While this removed the ground clutter from the scope, it also meant that targets closing on the fighter at the same speed as the ground (side-on to the fighter) couldn't be detected. It is also a useful mode against certain ECM, most notably chaff. 1.45 µ-second pulsewidth.

Short pulse - short range (10 nm), but very accurate and used by us to close to visual range on a target at night or in poor weather to visually identify it ('vis ident' or VID). The pulse length was 0.65 µ-second.

Chirp - a longer range mode using pulse-expansion/pulse-compression - don't worry about this, it's just a clever bit of signal processing that greatly improved radar performance in the F4 Phantom. Very good for detecting targets that were beam-on (side-on) to the fighter and, therefore not visible in pulse doppler mode (see above). 40 µ-second pulsewidth.

Mapping - 'high map' and 'low map' were air-to-ground modes used for navigation and weapons aiming. 40 µ-second pulsewidth.

Air-to-ground ranging - used 'doppler bean sharpening' to produce a very narrow beam capable of very accurate distance measurement with the antenna locked to the aircraft's boresight - we used it for strafe (air-to-ground gunnery).


RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 Under-wing fuel tank Under-wing fuel tank AIM9G Sidewinders AIM9G Sidewinders AIM7E Sparrow III AIM7E Sparrow III AIM7E Sparrow III AIM7E Sparrow III Radome SU23 Vulcan Cannon
RAF F4 Phantom (FGR2) of Number 29 Squadron, RAF Coningsby

RAF F4 Phantom FG1 / FGR2 - AN/AWG11 / AN/AWG12 - Radar Pack
RAF F4 Phantom AN/AWG12 Radar Pack


Now, I'm going to introduce a friend of mine now because you'll be needing this in a few chapter's time. He's called the Radar Range Equation and gives the maximum range at which a radar is likely to detect a target:

Radar Range Equation


Rmax = maximum detection range

Pt = Transmitter power

G = Antenna gain

λ = Radar frequency

σ = Target radar cross section

Smin = Minimum detectable signal strength


Don't worry about that now; you don't even need to understand it. Just be aware that it exists and all will become clear (or a bit clearer, anyway) later. Once the Radar Range Equation has worked its magic, the picture ends up here...


RAF F-4 Phantom FG1 / FGR2 AN/AWG11 / AN/AWG12 Radar Scope

RAF F4 Phantom Radar Scope

F4 Phantom Radar Display
And the radar picture

RAF F4 Phantom PD Display A Scope F0 notch Nav's acquisition markers El Strobes MBC Notch Target return
Here's a quick sketch of the PD search display. The vertical position of the target return is determined by its closing velocity, not its range - a target at the top of the scope is closing at about 1,600 kts, one at the bottom is opening at about 500 kts. I've left the horizon bars off for clarity; you can see them in the top image.

The Suu-23 20mm Vulcan canon, The RAF F4 Phantom gun (FG1/FGR2).
The F4 Phantom Suu-23 20mm Vulcan cannon (Duxford Imperial War Museum).

The F4 Phantom also carried weapons that could reach out and 'touch' people – that was the point of flying her.  Her arsenal included the Raytheon Sparrow III (or AIM7-E2), a semi-active, radar-guided, medium-range missile that was guided by following the radar energy reflected by its target from the Phantom's own powerful radar. As I arrived on the Phantom, the AIM7 was being replaced by the more advanced and more reliable British Aerospace Skyflash AAM. Effectively, both these weapons used the F4's radar as a giant flashlight to illuminate the target for the semi-active missile to home on - the radar had a separate transmitter that shone continuous wave ('CW', not pulsed) radar energy at the target for this purpose.

We also carried the AIM-9G Sidewinder infrared (IR) guided, short-range missile. The old AIM-9G homed on hot CO2 in the target's exhaust gasses and, therefore, could only be employed from behind the target (a 'rear hemisphere' weapon); these were soon to be upgraded to AIM-9L, which could be employed from all round the target (an 'all-aspect' weapon).

Technically, all air-to-air missiles (in fact any guided weapon that uses external cues) can be jammed or decoyed or their guidance can be affected by other, external factors such as sun, cloud, target aspect, target manoeuvre or terrain masking to name a few. Having the choice of two types of missile, each using different methods of guidance (radar and IR), made it less likely that one single countermeasure or environmental factor would defeat both.  However, to back them up and for close range work we also carried the 20mm M61-A1 Vulcan cannon; a six barrelled Gatling gun capable of firing 6,000 high explosive rounds per minute extremely accurately. The M61 was first fitted to the Starfighter back in 1959.

Being unguided, bullets are not susceptible to Electronic Counter Measures (ECM - although the radar used to aim the gun, of course, is) and the gun has no technical minimum range, although there are some practical reasons (e.g. arming of high explosive rounds) why you wouldn't choose to fire from too close to the target. Also some pilots didn't like the idea of large aircraft blowing up in their face. In my day, the closer you got to a target, the bigger it looked in the windscreen making it easier to hit! I say 'A kill's a kill!!'

RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 - Courtney, 29 Squadron
A great picture of a RAF F4 Phantom showing its weapons for the Air Defence role:
The 20mm Vulcan cannon (also left), AIM9L Sidewinder (infrared guided missiles) and Skyflash (radar guided missiles),
on the outboard pylons are the Sargent Fletcher underwing fuel tanks (Sargent Fletcher is a subsidiary of Cobham plc,
that manufacture refueling equipment and external fuel tanks).

It was usual to increase our fuel load (and, therefore, range and airborne time) by carrying external fuel tanks. The tanks on the outboard wing pylons in the photo above were called Sargent Fletchers (after the company that made them) and contained 370 US gallons each. We could also carry a 600 US gallon tank on the centreline station. Each of the available fuel tank fits had a designation. The F4 with no tanks was called 'Alpha Fit', centreline tank only was 'Bravo Fit', wing tanks only 'Charlie Fit' and all three, the heavyweight 'Delta Fit', useful for QRA, long ferry flights and operations (as long as you didn't need the gun, which also attached to the centrline station.

Courtney: 228 Phantom OCU RAF Conningsby - The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
So do eggs

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II - FGR2 (F-4M). F4 Altimeter.
F4 Phantom Altimeter

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II - FGR2 (F-4M) - Standby Attitude Indicator
F4 Standby Attitude Indicator

The F4 Phantom was more powerful and far more complicated than any training aircraft I had flown to date. I can remember, so vividly, my first close-up view of her sitting in a hangar at RAF Coningsby.  Looking up at her, I wondered 'How can I ever fly anything that big?'  It was exciting and I was desperate to get my hands on her.  But, as usual, there were several weeks of ground school, the simulator and, learning how to conduct intercepts in the Air Intercept (AI) trainer before getting any closer to her. But my love affair with the f4 Phantom had begun.

Many people had remarked to me that the Phantom was a difficult aircraft to fly; she certainly did have some interesting handling characteristics.  In fact, it was a popular myth that, because the Hawk was so much easier to fly than the Hunter had been (fewer bad habits) that it did not properly prepare students for the rigours of flying the RAF's three principal fast jets of the day (the F4 Phantom, Lightning and Buccaneer).  However, I was happy to discover that I found the F4 an honest aircraft with which I rapidly formed an affinity.

Among her handling characteristics there are a couple worth mentioning, just to give you an idea of what she was like. She does have a bit of a stability problem, partly overcome by the three channel (roll, pitch, yaw) stability augmentation system (the Stab Augs), which we'll meet again later. The most important aspect of this instability is the aircraft's tendency to depart from controlled flight if the maximum angle of attack is exceeded (pulling back too hard on the stick, basically). She can 'depart' in a heartbeat, ending up in a spin. Whilst the Phantom can be recovered from most spins (given plenty of altitude), there is always the possibility of inducing a non-recoverable, flat spin. So we don't practice spinning in the Phantom and, although we sometimes operate close to it, we try not to exceed the maximum angle of attack. Well maybe we just sneak over it occasionally, but we're very careful what we do with the stick and rudder in this regime of flight.

Here's another thing. The outer section of the wing, outboard of the wing fold, is cranked up by 12°, known as dihedral (the opposite is anhedral, like the Phantom's tailplane or 'stabilators'). The wing does not have conventional ailerons, but instead a down-going aileron (i.e. it can only move from level to down) and an up-going spoiler on the top of the wing. These control the aircraft in roll and this arrangement works well in normal flight. Try to follow me through on this. Moving the stick to the right causes the left aileron to move down, increasing the lift on the left wing; and the spoiler on the right wing extends dumping lift from the right wing - both these actions cause the aircraft to roll right (exactly what we asked for). But at high angles of attack (such as manoeuvring hard) the effect of the spoiler is masked and the main effect of the down-going aileron is to increase drag on that side of the aircraft. So moving the stick right extends the right spoiler, which has virtually no effect as it's masked, and lowers the left aileron. But the wing is already working as hard as it can and cannot produce any more lift; the aileron just increases drag on that side making the aircraft yaw left. Because of the dihedral wing tip, the angle of attack of the right outer wing section is increased, so more lift there, causing the aircraft to roll left (the opposite of the control input). So, when manoeuvring hard, we roll the Phantom by keeping the stick central (in roll) and using the rudder instead. Not altogether intuitive to begin with, but fine once you're used to it.

But, I quickly came to feel at home in the Phantom cockpit, for all her interesting ergonomics and idiosyncrasies.  She demanded respect and, in return, was capable of visiting terrible destruction on her enemies.  Mistreat her and she could do the same to her friends.

We could go a long way in the F4 Phantom; 1,750 miles if you were trying. We could carry 13,000 lbs of fuel internally plus a further 5,000 lbs in the underwing (Sargent Fletcher) drop tanks and 4,000 lbs in the centreline tank; a total of 17,400 lbs. We would normally fly with the under-wing tanks on (known a 'Charlie fit'), which gave us easily enough fuel for a transit to and from our 'play' area, an hour of intercept training and then some practice instrument approaches and circuits back at base. For air combat practice - high 'g', high angle of attack manoeuvring - we would normally fly without the tanks ('Alpha fit') as this gave us higher g limits to work to. With less fuel and a lot of our time in full burner, we could end up with a sortie of less than half an hour - enough for a couple of fights and then straight home to land.

For those that like numbers, here are the leading particulars for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II:


  Wing span                   38' 5" / 11.70m

  Length                        57' 7" / 17.55m

  Height                         16' 1" /  4.90m

  Empty mass            31,000lb / 14,061kg

  Max T/O mass         56,000lb / 25,402kg

  Combat range     1,000 miles / 1,609 km

  Max range          1,750 miles / 2,816 km

  Max speed             1,386mph @ 40,000'

  Service ceiling           60,000'

It's odd seeing metric (SI) units in a piece on the F4. The Phantom
was most certainly designed and built in imperial units.

AIM7E Sparrow - The F4 Phantom      

RAF F-4 Phantom, AN/AWG11 / AN/AWG12 Radar - F-4M/F-4K
RAF F-4 Phantom, AN/AWG11 / AN/AWG12 Radar Pack


F4 Phantom conversion course

The only other person on my OCU course who had been on my basic flying training course was a buddy of mine called Matt.  He had, somewhat unluckily, been chopped from pilot training at Linton and had gone off to train as a navigator instead.  Now we met up again and, by a strange coincidence, we were to be crewed together for the F4 Phantom OCU course.  We worked hard to prepare ourselves for whatever was to come and, generally, things went well.  The term 'generally' is, quite clearly, secret code for 'the following phrase is not entirely true'.  We did have two, minor snags early on in the course, which I'll come to now.

F4 Phantom, 25 AD Long Course, 228 OCU, RAF Coningsby
The 'Official' course photograph for number 25 AD Long Course, 228 OCU (F4 Phantom). Flying Officer Paul Courtnage: front row, 1st left.

228 F4 Phantom OCU, 1980, FGR2 (F-4M)

RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)
RAF F4 Phantom (FGR2)

RAF F4 Phantom Radar Warning Receiver display.
F4 Radar Warning Receiver (RWR)

The F4 Phantom Aircrew Manual adds,
"It is impossible to list all combinations of malfunctions and it is for the crew to decide which emergency has occurred from the symptoms experienced."

The F4 Phantom Aircrew Manual should also have mentioned:
"Good luck with that!"


Our first 'snag' was during one of our AI Trainer sorties.  This machine was driven by a huge analogue computer and was used to teach new Phantom crews how to operate and employ the F4's radar and how to understand the geometry of intercepting target aircraft, basically the procedure I've just described.  There was a long desk with positions for the student pilot, the instructor and the student nav.  The instructor would set up a target that the computer would 'fly'.  The nav had a full set of Phantom radar controls and display that he would use to detect the target and analyze its height, heading, speed, etc. He would command the pilot to fly certain parameters (height, heading, speed, etc) in order to execute an intercept.  It was an effective, although slightly archaic, means of teaching a complex concept.  After each exercise, the instructor could replay the intercept and bring out the learning points so that both students could master this dark art. 

Now, on one particular session, Matt and I were waiting for our instructor to arrive.  We were getting the hang of this quite well (you may presume I mean the intercepts rather than the waiting).  Our instructor arrived, sat down and set-up the first intercept.  He said nothing, not even a greeting or an introduction until a rather brusque, 'Right, get on with it'.

For the next hour, we did all the good things, flew the intercepts, carried out all our airmanship checks (fuel, oxygen contents, weapons selections, pre-attack checks, etc) and conducted ourselves in the manner that had been prescribed during previous sessions.  At the end, our benevolent mentor simply stood and walked out, having said nothing at all about any of our work.  Well, we thought, that was that.  However, the following day, we looked at the programme in the Squadron and were surprised to find that we were scheduled to do the same AI trainer exercise again.  We pointed out that we had completed that exercise yesterday, only to be informed that we had failed it, why, I have no idea to this day.  When we mentioned that we had conducted the session under the caring guidance of whom we had now identified as "Tony", nobody seemed at all surprised that we had not enjoyed the degree of success that we might have expected.  The F4 Phantom OCU was obviously a hard school.

Our other problem occurred in the simulator.  The training syllabus called for seven sorties in the 'sim' prior to our first flight in the actual jet. The first six of these were instructional 'flights' and the seventh a test.  As well as practicing the normal drills and general handling, each of the instructional simulator sorties dealt with emergencies in a particular aircraft system or phase of flight.  For example one sortie would cover engine emergencies and aborting the take-off while others would delve into the intricacies of the Phantom's bleed air, fuel, hydraulic or electrical systems and, of course, the failures, emergencies and drills associated with them - of which there were quite a few.

During 'Sim 7' we would receive a (large) selection (often more than one at once) of all the emergencies that we could possibly expect to see in the Phantom (as I said, there were quite a few) and we would be tested on our ability to diagnose these emergencies and conduct the correct drills while safely flying the stricken aircraft to a suitable safe landing location.  Well, we weren't too smart.  We went at each emergency like male bovines in the fine porcelain department of Harrods.  Pilot training had taught me that when an emergency occurred (real or simulated) the correct drills should gush forth promptly and the jet diverted to wherever was required.  The key word here was 'promptly'.  That technique was fine for a small, simple trainer, but a fighter of this complexity could easily lead her crew to misidentify the symptoms, misdiagnose the problem or misperform the drills.

One such emergency was the dreaded Bleed Air Duct failure. Small pause here for a short technical description. In order to improve her handling characteristics during approach and landing on an aircraft carrier and to reduce the actual landing speed, the F4 Phantom had a system called Boundary Layer Control (BLC) - as did the Blackburn Buccaneer. BLC blew high pressure air over the upper surfaces of the wings when the flaps were down. This energized the flow of air close to the top surface of the wing (known as the boundary layer) and helped prevent it from separating from the wing at low airspeeds (or, more correctly, high angles of attack). Don't worry too much about this, just know that the system is there.

This air came from the engine compressors (7th or 12th stage depending on configuration and the position of a switch in the pilot's cockpit) and was ducted around the inside of the aircraft by Bleed Air Ducts. The air was very hot and under high pressure - 12th stage bleed air can be around 410°C. I should add that bleed air is also used for other purposes such as cockpit pressurization, so is not peculiar to the F4 Phantom, but the need for BLC meant that the bleed air system had to produce a lot more air than in many other aircraft types.

So, should one of those Bleed Air Ducts fail, there would be a lot of hot, high pressure air escaping inside the airframe, which could do a lot of damage to equipment, ignite fuel, burn structure, etc. Not good. There was no Bleed Air Duct Failure warning caption that would indicate such a problem, but one could expect to see a number of failures associated with anything the hot Bleed Air got to.

So, the possible symptoms of a bleed air duct failure are shown in the pilot's flight reference cards:

F4 Phantom Bleed Air Duct Failure Drills

Bleed Air Duct Failures from the Flight Reference Cards.

In other words, the indications could be almost anything, depending where the duct(s) had broken. This was an emergency that could start out looking like a simple generator failure (for example) and end up with multiple, seemingly unrelated emergencies. Of course, the Simulator staff also loved to give us multiple, unrelated failures, just to see how we coped or if we might mistake them for a bleed air duct failure.

As the failures started to appear on this particular sim sortie, we initially diagnosed unrelated failures and actioned them accordingly. Later, we cottoned on that they were related - Bleed Air Duct Failure - and then acted accordingly.

So, although our actions had all been technically correct to begin with (we actioned what we saw), we failed Sim 7 for acting too hastily.  The lesson here was this, the first action in any emergency is to sit on your hands.  This would prevent you from touching anything you shouldn't touch and leave you with nothing else to do but fly the jet and analyze the problem.  Actually, one should only sit on one's hands metaphorically because it's a bit difficult to fly the jet whilst actually sitting on them, but you guessed that.  Having learnt this lesson, we went on to repeat and pass Sim 7 and, thereafter, the rest of the course went well. But this was a really valuable lesson, as we shall see later.

RAF F4 Phantom (F4M/FGR2) cockpit RAF F4 Phantom  Pilot's radar display F4 Phantom Clock F4 Phantom Radar Altimeter F4 Phantom Airspeed Indicator / Machmeter F4 Phantom Attitude Direction Indicator F4 Phantom Main Altimeter F4 Phantom Fuel Gauge F4 Phantom RPM Gauges F4 Phantom Turbine Gas Temperature Gauges F4 Phantom Fuel Flow Gauges F4 Phantom Reheat Nozzle Position Indicators F4 Phantom Nav Mode Selector F4 Phantom Standby Attitude Indicator F4 Phantom Rate of Climb and Decent Indicator F4 Phantom Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) RAF F4 Phantom ILS (Instrument Landing System) RAF F4 Phantom Accelerometer (G-Meter) RAF F4 Phantom Weapons Control Panel RAF F4 Phantom Missile Status Panel RAF F4 Phantom True Airspeed Indicator RAF F4 Phantom Weapons Selector RAF F4 Phantom Left Rudder Peddal RAF F4 Phantom Right Rudder Peddal
RAF Phantom F4M (FGR2) front cockpit. Click here to enlarge.
Hover over objects to identify them.

228 OCE F4 Phantom
228 OCU F4 Phantom on the line and ready for the crew to walk.

228 OCU F4 Phantom
228 OCU F4 Phantom in Air Defence grey

F4 Phantom Nosewheel

F4 Phantom Cockpit

RAF F4 Phantom RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)
A 29 Squadron RAF F4 Phantom getting
airborne from Stanley Airfield, 1982.
Photo by Courtney (Paul Courtnage).


Flying the F4 Phantom

Time to go flying. After briefing all aspects of our sortie, crews are allocated aircraft, are authorized, 'out brief' and 'walk' for the aircraft. We review the engineering documents in the line hut (the Squadron Engineers' base) and sign for the aircraft having reviewed any limitations or known faults on the aircraft. Out on the flight line, I (as the pilot) carry out my external checks, known as the 'walk round', whilst my nav climbs up into the front cockpit to carry out safety checks and to get external AC power applied to the jet. He then climbs into the rear cockpit to get on with his own checks and to start aligning the INAS - a process that takes some 12 minutes (for a normal align).

I climb into the front cockpit, check that the appropriate pins are in place to make the escape system safe before doing my ejection seat checks. I sit on my seat and my groundcrew helps me to strap in and then, on my signal, removes the face screen handle (top ejection handle) pin and passes it to me to stow. I quickly run through the internal checks (known as the 'left-to-rights') and check the radio with the Ground Controller in the Air Traffic Control Tower. We're now ready to start.

I signal to the ground crew who tells me I'm clear to start. I select the left engine start switch to 'START' and the sequence begins. An electric starter motor spins up the GTS. Once running correctly the GTS engages the left engine and starts to rotate it and at 8% rpm I select the left throttle to idle, watching for fire warnings and making sure the turbine gas temperature remains within limits as the rpm rises steadily to ground idle. The air around me is filled with the characteristic howl of the Rolls Royce Spey. I start the right engine and switch over to internal power so that the groundcrew can disconnect our ground power and do up the external panels.

Everything is ready to go and as soon as my nav tells me the INAS is ready to go, I check that my wingman is ready and call for taxi clearance.

"Coningsby Ground, Scarab 1 and 2 taxy."

"Scarab 1 and 2, clear taxy, Runway 26, QFE 1011."


I wave away the chocks and apply a few percent of power to get the aircraft rolling forward, engage the nosewheel steering and briefly check the brakes. As we make our way along the northern taxyway to the threshold of Runway 26 (the westerly runway, roughly on a heading of 260° magnetic) we go through our pre-take-off checks. The numerous checks I've carried out already were done from memory, but these are done as 'challenge-and-response'; my nav reads out the check and I reply with the appropriate answer. They go like this:

F4 Phantom Take Off Checks

The take-off brief is my plan for dealing with emergencies on take-off and would go something like this:

Below VSTOP of 115 knots, we'll abort the take-off for any emergency; you call it on the radio and I'll action it.

From VSTOP to lift-off we'll abort only for major emergencies such as fire or a catastrophic engine failure. You call aborting, I'll action it remembering to lower the hook.

If I lose control of the aircraft on the ground or immediately after take-off and it looks like the aircraft will crash, I will eject, which is your signal to follow.

In all other circumstances we'll fly away from the ground and action any emergency from the FRCs.

If you decide to eject at any time, call it first so that I don't eject at the same time.

I call the formation across to the Tower frequency,

"Scarab, Stud 2, Stud 2, go."

We switch to channel two on the radio.

"Scarab check."


"Tower, Scarab take-off."

"Scarab, clear take-off, surface wind 240, 10 knots."


As the wind is slightly from the left, I position myself in the centre of the right side of the runway and my number 2 crosses behind me to line up on my left and slightly behind me in an echelon position. As we're lining up, my nav and I complete the Runway Checks:

F4 Phantom Runway Checks

I signal to wind up the engines and advance the throttles to give me 80% rpm on both engines. I check that the brakes are holding and that all the cockpit indications are normal. My number two signals that he is ready and I give a head nod to indicate brake release. I increase power to 100% (military or 'max dry' power), check that the engine nozzles are fully closed, I select reheat and then throttle back slightly to give my number two a bit of power in hand. The deafening roar of four Speys are rattling every window on and around RAF Coningsby. I hold the control stick fully back and wait for the nose to rise. I hold 10° nose up and the old girl climbs away from the runway.

As soon as we're safely airborne, I raise the gear and flap and at 350 knots I cancel the burner. My wingman is comfortable in close formation on my left wing as I start a climbing turn to the right onto 070° to head out over the North Sea to our play area. We change radio frequency again to the Coningsby Approach Controller who gives us radar surveillance until we're clear of his airspace. Once clear of any cloud, I send my wingman out into battle formation, a mile or so line abreast on my left hand side. Each crew carries out its weapons checks and ensures that the radars are set up and working correctly.

We change to the GCI frequency to talk to our fighter controller at RAF Neatishead. Today we are practicing medium level intercepts, each of us taking turns to act as target and fighter.

F4 Phantom Weapons Control Panel

RAF F4 Phantom Missile Status Panel - FGR2 (F-4M), 29 Sqn
RAF F4 Phantom Missile Status Panel
showing the' Ready' lights

RAF F4 Phantom Nav's radar hand controller, FGR2 (F-4M)
RAF F4 Phantom Nav's Radar Hand Controller


Let's talk about intercept training for a moment. In these early days of learning to fly intercepts we were taught to use a table - memorized - of intercept keys, which is reproduced below. I include this for two reasons: to show the sort of mental gymnastics required when we were using a radar that doesn't display all sorts of target parameters in a digital format (like all modern radars) and as a piece of nostalgia for those that had happily forgotten all this.

There are lots of different ways of flying an intercept, but everyone has to start somewhere. Here's a very basic procedure for a stern intercept in pulse mode, the idea being to position ourselves relative to the target so that we can turn in behind him and roll out of our turn at 1½ miles. From here we could either close to identify him or we could simply blow him away. Let's imagine we're airborne and ready to start our intercept. We're about 50 miles from our target and we need to ensure all our weapons are set up, ready to use. The Flight Reference Cards prescribe the following drills:

RAF F4 Phantom Weapons Checks
RAF F4 Phantom Airborne Weapons Checks

My navigator operates the radar in search mode, scanning the skies for targets with the antenna sweeping from 60° left to 60° at about 120° per second. Once he detects our target, he commands the radar to lock to it by placing the range markers over the target blip using his hand controller (left) and squeezing the trigger. At this range with Sparrow (Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) selected the radar displays the target (showing its range and azimuth) and a collision dot. With the collision dot centred on the scope we had established a collision with the target and it is now possible to calculate the target's heading from its azimuth on the scope. The difference between the target's heading and our heading is called the Track Crossing Angle or 'TCA'. We need to know this when we come to the table in a moment.

In lock mode, the radar automatically tracks the target, but is not able to detect any other targets or potential threats. Also, running an intercept whilst constantly locked to one target does rather give him the idea that we're showing a lot of interest in him - we were here to shoot him down, not just scare him away! So, once we'd determined his parameters from the initial lock, the nav breaks lock so that the radar returns to search mode, allowing us to continue to scan for other targets whilst continuing to 'paint' the designated target.

The idea now is to turn to convert the intercept geometry to one of the 5 ideal intercepts in the table below. We have to calculate when to turn onto one of the given TCAs to make the intercept work. Here's the table; it assumes the target is flying at 0.8 Mach and the fighter at 0.9 Mach:

TCA COLLISION 30 nm 25 nm 20 nm 15 nm 10 nm Turn Key Cross the nose @  
60° 55° 50° 49° 48° 45° 40°

-10° / 2½ nm

3 nm  
90° 42° 37° 36° 34° 32° 26° 0° / 4 nm 4 nm  
120° 28° 21° 19° 17° 14° 6° -10° / 6 nm 8 nm  
150° 14° 4° 2° -1° -7° -18° -25° / 9 nm 22 nm  
180° 0° -16° -20° -24° -32° N/A -40° / 12 nm N/A  

The TCA is the difference between the fighter's heading and the target's heading. The collision angle is the azimuth (how far left or right) of the target for a given TCA that will make us collide with it. The Turn Key is the azimuth and range of the target when we start a standard rate final turn. The final column is the range at which the target crosses our nose (centreline).

Once on one of the ideal profiles we watch the target range close and continue to check that the geometry is working and making sure that the target hasn't evaded - changed some or all of his heading, altitude or speed. If he turns or if we find that the geometry isn't quite right, we adjust the resulting geometry by converting to a new TCA to put ourselves back onto an ideal profile; the trick with this is calculating when to turn to achieve the new profile.

Let's say we're on a 150 left to right (the TCA is 150° and the target is crossing in front of us from left to right). We watch the target cross the nose (cross the radar centreline) at 22 miles. At 10 miles it's 18° right of the nose. Remember that these ranges and azimuths are only estimates made by looking at a slightly fuzzy, quite large blip on the scope. There are no digits or symbols anywhere.

At 9 miles the target is 25° right of the centreline on the scope and my nav commands me to "come starboard", meaning start a turn to the right using 45° angle of bank - a 'standard rate' turn. I roll into the turn and start calling out degrees to go to target heading. Half way round the turn it looks like the geometry is a bit tight so the nav commands me to tighten the turn by calling 'harder'. I increase the bank to 60°. The target starts coming back towards the nose as I call '30 to go', and my nav calls 'ease' - back to a standard rate turn - and as I call 'target heading' it's on the centreline at 3,000 yards and he calls 'steady'. We have 50 kts of closure on him and the all I need to do is to pitch up slightly and fire a Sparrow, calling 'Fox 1, complete'. The intercept is a success.

I'll tell you about the 'grown-up' way of doing this on a front-line squadron when we get to that stage of the story. For now, have a look at the diagram I've drawn for you just to give you an idea of what the picture looked like with the radar locked to a target - it's from my memory, so may not be absolutely spot-on. But it should give you the right idea. Click here.

F4 Phantoms in Echelon Starboard
Two F4 Phantoms in echelon Starboard about to break into the circuit

Between intercepts, we check our position, fuel, oxygen, make sure the INAS is giving us good information and update it if necessary. Today we need to plan to have 2,400 lbs of fuel on the ground, enough to reach our diversion airfield in case we are unable to land at Coningsby. So I calculate how much fuel we need to recover to base from here, carry out a run a break and our circuit to land with 2,400 lbs remaining.

Once we're approaching recovery fuel, I tell our fighter controller that we're RTB (return to base). He gives us a heading for Coningsby, which we check against our nav kit. There is a little broken cloud between 3,000 and 5,000 feet so I call my wingman into fighting wing formation, 200 yards swept on my right side, so that we can manoeuvre easily and let ourselves down through gaps in the clouds. My nav keeps scanning the sky ahead of us with the radar to make sure we're clear of other aircraft. I navigate us to point 'Foxtrot', which is on the Lincolnshire coast, 20 miles on the extended centreline on runway 26 (just north of Skegness). Our fighter controller hands us over to Coningsby Approach who passes us the airfield details and clears us for our visual recovery. Once I have the field in sight, I bring my number two into close formation (echelon starboard), call the formation across to Tower frequency and check in with the controller,

"Tower, Scarab, initials"

"Scarab runway 26, QFE 1010, cleared to break, surface wind 250 16 knots."

We fly parallel to and slightly to the north of the runway at 500 feet and 450 knots. Abeam the middle of the runway I roll rapidly left, close the throttles and extend the speedbrakes. My wingman breaks five seconds after me to give us sufficient separation for him to land behind me.

"Scarab on the break to land."

The very hard left hand turn positions us downwind in the visual circuit and bleeds off the speed to below 250 knots for lowering the gear and flap. I calculate our 'on speed' (by adding 2 knots per 1,000 lbs of fuel we have left to 150) and run through the landing checks. At the end of the downwind leg I lower full flap and start a left hand descending turn, aiming to roll out at 300' and 1/2 mile on the runway centreline. I adjust the throttles to control the rate of descent and pull on the stick to achieve 19.2 units angle of attack. A 'unit' in this case is an arbitrary measure of angle of attack, not a degree.

"Scarab 1 finals, gear down."

"Scarab 1 clear to land, surface wind 250, 15 knots."

As we roll out of the finals turn I reduce the power slightly to maintain 19.2 units aoa and to adjust my aim point on the runway. I make a final check that the gear is down, the flaps at full and that my toes are clear of the brakes. We have 9,000 feet of runway available and a reasonable headwind so I brief my nav that if we lose the brake shoot we'll stay down. As it was built to land on aircraft carriers, the Phantom does not need to be flared onto the runway; the correct technique is to check the rate of decent and land firmly. As we touch down, I close the throttles and pull the brake chute lever by my left side. My nav checks his mirrors and calls "good chute" as soon as he sees it. Once we slow to around 100 knots I start gentle breaking. My number two is landing behind be so I'm in no hurry to slow down in front of him.

Once we turn off the runway I quickly do the after-landing checks and shut down the right engine so that I don't have to keep using the brakes to slow down as we taxy in. We make our seats safe and unstrap, opening our canopies to get some cool, fresh air.

We're on the ground now, but the sortie isn't over. Even once we've parked the jets we still have to sign in the aircraft and write up and debrief any snags; the F4 always had snags. Once we'd made coffee we still have to debrief the formation on the sorties and then our fighter controller by telephone. An hour or so later, I'm ready to go and do it all again.

RAF F-4 Phantom G Meter, FGR2 (F-4M)
F4 Phantom G-Meter        
  RAF F-4 Phantom Nozzle Indicator, FGR2 (F-4M)
Nozzle Position Indicator
RAF F-4 Phantom Fuel Gauge, FGR2 (F-4M)
F4 Phantom Fuel Gauge
RAF F-4 Phantom Engine RPM Gauge, FGR2 (F-4M)
F4 Phantom RPM Gauge
RAF F-4 Phantom Turbine Gas Temperature (TGT) Gauge, FGR2 (F-4M)
F4 Phantom TGT Gauge
RAF F-4 Phantom Oil Pressure Guage, FGR2 (F-4M)
F4 Phantom Oil Pressure Gauge
RAF F4 Phantom II - FGR2 instruments and displays


Type 84 Radar at RAF Neatishead
The Type 84 Radar at Neatishead

Flying the Phantom meant being a part of 11 Group, in RAF Strike Command, responsible for the defence of the United Kingdom. I should mention that, later, in the 1990s, 11 Group and 18 Group were combined into a single headquarters (imaginatively called 11/18 Group) and, later, in April 2000 the UK's fighter force transferred to 1 Group with the rest of the RAF's fast jets (and some of the not-so-fast ones). 

In its day, 11 Group's operational tasks were to provide warning of aircraft and missiles that threatened the UK, provide the air defence force with its own control system and to control the UK's airspace in peace and war. 

The UK Air Defence Region (UKADR) covered a vast four million square miles, stretching from the southern most tip of Iceland to northern France. The United Kingdom was declared one of the 4 NATO air defence regions in 1960 under SACEUR. The principal defensive components of the UKADR were early warning radars, surface to air missiles (SAM) and a long and short-range fighter component. The radar system was based on the United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment (UKADGE), augmented by airborne radars (more on that later). Ground radar detection was provided by sites at Neatishead (near Norwich), Boulmer (north of Newcastle), Buchan (Peterhead, Scotland), Saxa Vord (Shetlands), Ash (on the Channel coast), Portreath (Cornwall) and Benbecula (Outer Hebrides).


Sketch map of the United Kingdom Air Defence Region (UKADR). I've drawn the UKADR boundary in red,
the theoretical land-based radar coverage (at 30,000') in blue and the radar sites in green as it was in the 1980s.
You may notice that there is no site marked at the centre of the northern radar circle. That part of our coverage
was provided by 'Pole Star' Radar on the Faroe Islands (Danish) and not strictly part of the UKADGE.

The UK Air Defence Force was a layered system including the F4 Phantoms (based at Leuchars, Coningsby and Wattisham), either on CAP (combat air patrol) over the North Sea or on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) and the Lightning F6s, with a much shorter range but impressive performance (based at Binbrook). Bloodhound medium-range surface-to-air missiles were sited along the east coast to defend London and the Midlands (based at Bawdsey, North Coates, Wyton, Barkston Heath, West Raynham and Wattisham). Point defence of RAF and USAF airfields was provided by the Rapier SAM. From the late 1970s onwards, Hawk T1A trainers armed with AIM9L Sidewinder missiles were to supplement the system in times of war - the Phantoms would lead the Hawks to the targets, which the Hawks would then engage visually.

RAF F4 Phantom XV424(FGR2, F-4M)
RAF F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M) carrying four Sparrow (AIM-7E), four Sidewinder (AIM-9G), Vulcan Cannon (Suu23) on the centreline
station and two Sargent Fletcher drop tanks on the outer wing pylons.

Airborne Early Warning

Shackelton AEW of 8 Squadron RAF Lossiemouth - 1980
Shackleton AEW of 8 Squadron, 1980

   The one thing that had been missing since the demise of the RN's carrier-borne Gannet aircraft was an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platform to extend the low level radar coverage of the UKADR. Many years of work on AEW was abandoned in 1970 because it was considered to be a technologically high-risk area.  And so a massive hole was left in our defences, particularly in our ability to defend the fleet.  In order to plug the gap, 12 Shackleton Mk2 aircraft were fitted with AN/APS-20 radars and pressed into service as our AEW fleet.  These were operated by 8 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, which was, at that time commanded by my brother-in-law, Wing Commander Phil Burton (OC 8 Squadron, 1 Apr 78 - 7 Jun 80).

Carrying the callsign 'Anyface', the old Shackletons could be a bit unreliable, but when they did work, they were surprisingly effective - especially considering their age.  Flying in the AEW Shackleton as I was lucky enough to do on a couple of occasions, its age quickly became abundantly obvious.  Remember, these were the aircraft that my Dad had flown maybe 25 years earlier (and they weren't new then). The radar sets originally came to the UK when we bought AD-4W Skyraiders from the USA to operate from our carriers. In the late 1950s, when the Skyraiders were being retired from British service, the Royal Navy decided to adapt the Fairey Gannet carrier-based anti-submarine aircraft to the AEW role, fitting them with the AN/APS-20 sets scavenged from the Skyraiders to create the "Gannet AEW3". The Gannet AEW3 served well into the 1960s. When it was retired we, once more, scavenged the AN/APS-20 sets and fitted them to our Shackleton Mk2s, making them Shackleton AEW2s. There was nothing new about this kit and it frequently stopped working properly (or at all). But the crews made the most of it and, seemingly against all odds, were able to provide an amazingly good service to the fighters they controlled. These guys were not fighter controllers, they were tactical navigators (tac navs) and they did a bloody good job.

Shackleton AEW
As you can see, the kit in the Shackleton AEW was so old.

Nimrod AEW prototype
Nimrod AEW prototype. Doomed to
failure and it didn't even look right.

Boing E3D Sentry
Boeing E3D Sentry AWACS

English Electric Lightning
English Electric Lightning

Vulcan Bomber
Avro Vulcan


The Shack was not going to serve us forever and, so, a longer-term solution had to be sought.  The choice, it seemed, was between the proven, US built E3 Sentry AWACS (based on the Boeing 707) and the UK's Nimrod AEW (based on the Nimrod, itself based on the Comet, the world's first jet airliner). Unfortunately, the MoD went for the Nimrod option, despite warnings that it was going to be mind-bogglingly difficult to develop. Eleven were to be built (3 existing airframes and 8 new), modified to AEW3 standard by British Aerospace at Woodford, Manchester. It was to be fitted with GEC Marconi radars in its greatly enlarged nose and tail. This was always going to be a tricky configuration to make work, especially for a company with little recent experience of building airborne radars, even less with AEW radars. This was a technologically difficult job even for engineers and designers experienced in this field. What was worse was that we effectively handed the contractors a blank cheque by signing a contract that gave them lots of room for delays and that would make it cripplingly expensive to cancel. We need to jump ahead in time a bit here. Bear with me.

From the start of the first flight trials in 1982, the Nimrod AEW3 programme was plagued by technical problems and, before long, its costs were spiralling out of control and the programme was massively delayed.  There were critical problems with the GEC 4080M computer at the heart of the Mission System Avionics. The only people who seemed happy about it were the contractors who kept on being paid all the same. To cut a long story short - or at least less long than it would be if I didn't cut it shorter - the RAF decided to revisit the two systems, compare them and make recommendations.  The recommendations came down on the side of the E3.  But that wasn't the answer the MOD and the Government were looking for and so they tried to discredit and ignore the report.

But by 1986 the project was over five years behind schedule and had cost nearly a billion pounds.  There was little hope of ever getting the system to work and it was becoming prohibitively expensive to continue trying. So, seeing sense at last, the Nimrod AEW was finally cancelled and the order placed for 7 Boeing E3D Sentry aircraft.  This was a great relief to the RAF and long over-due. Right, back to the proper time and place (Coningsby, 1980).

In those days, there were several active RAF stations around the Lincoln area: Lightnings at Binbrook, Vulcan bombers at Waddington and Scampton, Jet Provosts at Cranwell and us at Coningsby.  Many of my fellow students from the courses I had attended over the past three years or so were now stationed at these airfields.  Lincoln, therefore, became the focus for social gatherings where old acquaintances were renewed, news exchanged and notes compared.

Things were so different from today in the RAF of the early 1980s and many of the amazing aircraft that were in service then have long since gone. Gone too are the roles played in the Cold War - thank goodness! Perhaps one of the most impressive of these aircraft and most sobering of roles was the Avro Vulcan bomber, which the RAF operated in our nuclear deterrent role. If these guys ever got airborne on their mission, we were in it up to our necks - to put it nicely - and they weren't coming home. Designed in the 1940s, it was in service from 1953 until 1984 and was also used as a flight refuelling tanker and in the conventional bombing role against Stanley airfield in the Falklands when it was occupied by Argentina.

Lincoln, 1981

Mrs Phyllis Courtnage, Mayor of Dacorum
Mrs Phyllis Courtnage, Mayor of Dacorum


Lincoln was an odd place, at the time.  I'm not sure whether time had stood still here or, perhaps, progress had just passed it by.  In the earlier part of the 20th century, it had obviously enjoyed the prosperity of a respectable engineering industry.  However, by the time I arrived here, it appeared to me to be in decline and so the town's livelihood was waning somewhat.

Historically, it has been a significant centre since the Romans identified its strategic importance.  It is dominated by its castle, which dates from 1068 (so you can probably guess who was responsible for erecting it) and its cathedral.  Unfortunately, all but the west front of the cathedral, with its impressive twin towers, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1185.  The rest was rebuilt by the Normans.

Under the castle lie the ruins of Lindum Colonia, the original Roman fortress that was founded around 50AD.  Today, Newport Arch, part of the original fortifications, represents the last standing Roman gateway in Britain.  Even more impressive, in its own way, is the nearby Fosdyke Navigation - a canal.  This waterway links the River Trent to the River Witham.  It is eleven miles long and is Britain's oldest canal.  Lincoln is also home to one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta.

Back, then, to RAF Coningsby, if not yet to the present.  The station was opened in November 1940 as a bomber base.  The station's most famous residents were the Dambusters, 617 Squadron, who moved to Coningsby in 1943.  In 1944 they moved just down the road to RAF Woodhall Spa and took over a large and beautiful country house in the town of Woodhall Spa as their Mess.  Today it is the well regarded Petwood House Hotel.

In the early 1960s, RAF Coningsby was home to three squadrons of Vulcans and was selected to be the base for the TSR-2 advanced bomber, which was later cancelled by the Labour Government of the day.  In 1967 the station was transferred to Fighter Command when the first F4 Phantoms arrived.  Perhaps if they hadn't cancelled the bomber, we wouldn't have got the F4.

Shortly before I joined the RAF, my dad retired after 38 years of service, as a Group Captain.  Throughout his service, mum had done a fine job of being a mother of three, running various committees, moving house, making homes, etc.  Once Dad retired, however, they settled in Hemel Hempstead and she had the opportunity to chase a few ambitions of her own.  She became a Justice of the Peace (Magistrate) and went into local politics.  The first of these activities brought horror to the hearts of many a villain as they were led into the dock to her order 'March-in the guilty bastard!'  The latter led to a place on the Dacorum District Council (comprising Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted and Tring ) and, soon thereafter, the chairmanship (that's the Mayor, to you and me).

Two wonderful tributes to her were to be made an alderman of Hemel Hempstead and to have a new sheltered accommodation scheme named for her - Phyllis Courtnage House.

RAF F-4 Phantom II - FGR2.

Honda CB250N  

Between flying the F4 Phantom and regular visits to the Officers' Mess Bar or other local hostelries, I spent time riding my bike, a Honda CB250 'Superdream', which was enormous fun. My bike and I made a bit of a name for ourselves by making occasional appearances in places we probably shouldn't have been: in the Squadron, in the Officers' Mess Bar, etc. All part of my growing pains.

When I graduated from 228 OCU, I was ready to undertake the final stage of my long journey through training: my move to the front line.  I was posted to 29 Squadron, which was also at RAF Coningsby while Matt, my nav, was sent to 43 Squadron at Leuchars in Fife.  We had learned much, but even now, before we left the OCU, there was time for one more unscheduled, major lesson - or, maybe, a reaffirmation of one already (recently) learnt.

RAF F-4 Phantom Fuel flow meter
F4 Phantom Fuel Flow Gauge    
  RAF F4 Phantom True Airspeed Indicator
F4 Phantom TAS Indicator
RAF F-4 Phantom Master Caution Light
F4 Phantom Master
Caution Light
RAF F4 Phantom Stabilator Trim Indicator
F4 Stabilator (pitch) trim
RAF F-4 Phantom Wheels Caption
F4 Phantom Wheels Caption. Wheels down when they should be up.
RAF F-4 Phantom Hydraulic Pressure Gauge
F4 Hydraulic pressure gauge

RAF F4 Phantom XV436 crash

RAF F4 Phantom Telelight Panel - XV436
F4 Phantom Telelight Panel

RAF F4 Phantom hot topic - XV436

The F-4 Phantom's Ram Air Turbine
The F4's RAT

The Sad End of F4 Phantom FGR2 XV436

You will recall my mention of the importance of not doing anything hasty whilst sorting out an aircraft emergency - remember my first attempt at Sim 7 on the OCU?  Well, the wisdom of that lesson was forced home on the night of 5th March 1980 as I enjoyed a relaxing beer (or two) in the Officers' Mess Bar at RAF Coningsby.  A friend of mine, whom we shall call Bill, had completed the OCU a course or two ahead of me, gone on to 29 Squadron and was night flying that evening in FGR2, serial number XV436. Out there in the dark he encountered a problem. This is the story of how that problem developed into a disaster and may offer some small insight into the workings and complexities of these hurtling pieces of machinery.

The F4 Phantom had two turbines buried in the cockpit walls that produced cooling air, one for the cabin conditioning (pressurization) and the other for equipment cooling.  The equipment-cooling turbine had an occasional and distant history of developing an internal malfunction that could lead to it breaking-up.  Due to its location, it could then shed high-speed shrapnel through the side of the cockpit into the pilot's leg.  In order to overcome this hazard, the F4 Phantom's cabin conditioning turbine had been strengthened to stop the potential for break-up and then shrouded in steel to protect the occupant of the front seat should the first measure fail.  I might add that there was no cockpit indication of a malfunction in this unit and this type of failure was very uncommon.

The other turbine was much more benign.  It was possible for it to over-speed but, should it so do, it was not known to disintegrate and, therefore, posed no limb-threatening danger to the pilot.  There was a warning light (CABIN TURB OVERSPEED), on the pilot's telelight panel (left), which should prompt the pilot (after sitting on his hands or winding his wristwatch for a while) simply to reduce the engine power settings or, at worst, turn off the cockpit pressurization, thereby shutting down the cabin-conditioning turbine. It always struck me as odd that the virtually harmless turbine had a warning light (or caption) whilst the more threatening one had no visible warning. Anyway, you will have guessed by now that, on this particular night (5th March 1980), in Bill's particular Phantom (XV436), this warning light quietly illuminated.  A slight irregularity in the rate of rotation of a harmless turbine started a train of events that even Bill's very experienced and capable nav, whom we shall suddenly call Ben, was powerless to arrest.

Let's briefly peek at the emergency drills in the F4 Phantom Flight Reference Cards for these two malfunctions:

RAF F4 Phantom Turbine Overspeed Drills - XV436

Upon seeing the warning light, the crew could not immediately recall which of the turbines was the big, nasty leg-ripper and there may have been some confusion in Bill's head about exactly what emergency he was looking at. So, they decided to play safe by first ensuring that no angry turbine was going to hurt Bill and then sort out exactly what was going on in slower time.  You may think that the logical way of doing this would be to trip circuit breaker L8 on number two panel in the rear cockpit and, in principle, you would be right - especially if this had been an equipment cooling turbine malfunction.

Anyway, there were a sod of a lot of circuit breakers in the back cockpit of the Phantom, none of which was easy to see (let alone reach), tucked away between the rear seat and the cockpit wall. And of course it was night. So, to find and trip the relevant circuit breaker was going to take longer than Bill might have liked. Bill and Ben decided that the quicker solution would be to extend the Ram Air Turbine (RAT – in simple terms an emergency electrical generator driven by a little windmill), which would provide power to the aircraft's essential services (but not the equipment cooling turbine) and then turn off the generators. They would then have enough things working to fly the aircraft while Ben found the right circuit breaker and then they could reset the generators and retract the RAT. In the cold light of day, sitting here with a cool glass of wine, I can see how this was a sensible plan.

Now think back again to my Sim 7 on the F4 OCU and about doing things at a measured, careful pace. For some reason, possibly a bit too much haste, two things went wrong in carrying out this procedure. Bill's first action was to turn off both generators before extending the RAT, causing both of the F4's cockpits to be plunged into total darkness.  This was something of a surprise and a bit of an inconvenience to Ben who could no longer read his checklist or identify the necessary circuit breaker.  The cockpit intercom no longer functioned, so pilot and nav couldn't talk to each other now; Ben couldn't even express his surprise to Bill, which he may well have liked to have done. The good news was that the suspected errant turbine had now gone to sleep, even though it hadn't actually done anything wrong.

Bill, went on to carry the other part of their cunning plan, extending the RAT, which would rectify this situation by restoring light and intercom and all sorts of other goodies.  Remember that this F4 Phantom is still, at this point, perfectly serviceable.  A few desirable items aren't working right now, but everything could still be restored to its normal state of operation simply by turning the generators back on.

The lever to extend the RAT was on the left side of the cockpit.  Unfortunately, so was the emergency flap lever.  Now that I've mentioned this, I doubt it will surprise you to learn that, in the dark confusion of the front cockpit, Bill operated the wrong one.  Let me just point out that emergency flap and gear lowering are one-shot systems. Ben takes up the story for a moment:

I thought all was well until everything went very dark and quiet, with a few mechanical clunks coming from somewhere in the airframe. By this time I had pulled the CB and shouted that all was now well and, as the RAT had obviously failed or fallen off (not entirely unheard of in those days), to switch the gens back on. Once the electrics were restored we then found that a few more warning lights had come on and, after further analysis and discussion, realised that Bill had accidently missed the RAT lever and hit the emergency switch to blow down the flaps (the clunks were the flaps lowering and then being blown back up by the airflow).

The effect of operating the emergency flap lever was to close off the Phantom's normal hydraulic circuit to the flaps and force pressurised nitrogen into the actuators, thus lowering the flaps, albeit somewhat above their designed operating speed on this occasion.  Still, the Phantom was a tough old girl and her flaps bore this abuse with little complaint.  However, using the emergency flap lowering system while the utility hydraulic system was still operating correctly and having the flaps blow up again (due to their speed) introduced nitrogen into the entire utility hydraulic system, rendering it incapable of performing any of the tasks for which it had been designed.  Hydraulic fluids in aircraft systems do not enjoy sharing their environment with gasses.

F4 Phantom Hydraulic Gauge
F4 Phantom Utility Hydraulic System
Pressure Gauge dropping to zero.
It should be reading 3000 psi.

XV436 was no longer serviceable.  It would still fly reasonably well (well enough to get them home), but Bill had now denied himself the benefit of all the services powered by the Utility Hydraulic System: normal landing gear lowering, any flaps at all, the rudder, nose wheel steering, brakes and a few other facilities that are useful to have, but not (at the moment) absolutely critical.  Bill still had some emergency systems and could use the rudder to try to keep straight on the runway after landing, but he would have to push really hard on the rudder pedals to make it do anything. This adds up to the fact that the ensuing landing was going to be quite interesting. In fact it was going to be even more interesting than either Ben or Bill were anticipating.  The only really safe way to stop this Phantom would be to engage the approach end arrestor cable with the aircraft's hook.

Bill and Ben no doubt spent some time discussing their situation and it was during this discourse that Ben discovered to his delight that Bill had never taken the cable or 'RHAG' before, not least at night.  He carefully explained what was required, how to achieve it and what actions to carry out if, by some misfortune, the Phantom's huge arrestor hook should fail to engage the wire.  Perhaps Ben was feeling that it was his night for misfortune for some reason.

F4 Phantom about to touch down and engage the cable.
F4 Phantom about to touch down with hook lowered to engage the cable.

RAF F4 Phantom eject light

Crash One
Crash One

Having lowered the landing gear using the emergency system, Bill lowered the arrestor hook (see photo left), flew a nice approach, touched down in the right place and awaited the desired deceleration as the Phantom's hook engaged the arrestor cable.  It didn't happen.  Later investigation revealed that an imperceptibly small lump in RAF Coningsby's runway had caused the hook to bounce over the wire and miss it completely - this can only be described as terribly bad luck.  Without nose wheel steering, but with a 10 knot crosswind, Bill found it very hard to keep the aircraft straight on the runway.  Under the influence of the crosswind, the aircraft started to deviate from its course, which would ideally have been straight along the runway centreline.  Recognizing that he was unable to prevent his mighty, but somewhat disabled, steed from leaving the side of the runway, Bill applied full power, in fact full burner, in an attempt to take-off, fly around a bit and then try the landing and cable engagement again.  Actually, this was a sound plan.

By the time the power took effect, the Phantom and its crew were racing along the grass, almost parallel to the runway.  Aircraft of this calibre were not designed for operation from grass strips; the gear tends to sink into the ground and detach from the jet with thoroughly undesirable consequences.  At this point it didn't look like the crew's prospects of long and fulfilling lives were being furthered by remaining in this jet any more. In Ben's words:

I had been looking over my shoulder during the landing to confirm that the hook had engaged the wire only to find, on looking forward again after it didn’t, that the runway lights were now well off to the left and it was all extremely dark again. Knowing that there were a few concrete plinths off that side of the runway (V Force stuff) I rapidly decided that I had had enough of the whole evening and would step outside.

In other words, Ben initiated ejection, closely followed by Bill, who had obviously reached the same, wise decision. Probably one of their best ideas all night.

Now, the unoccupied Phantom (although probably under no less control than shortly before its occupants departed), still with full burner selected, continued its journey undaunted.  It took out a power distribution unit (causing more unwanted darkness, this time on the airfield), crossed the airfield's perimeter taxiway, smashed through the airfield fence and sped across (without looking both ways) the Boston Road - I told you the Phantom was a tough old girl!  Traffic was, fortunately, light at this time of night. The jet then burst through the fence on the other side of the road before meeting the first obstacle she couldn't cope with; a bloody great ditch. This tore off the nose gear, bringing down the mighty charger, causing her to collapse to the ground (still at a great rate of knots) and burst into flames. Had enough yet? Well, there's just a little more.

The crash crews, desperate to recover the pilot and his navigator, raced across the now darkened airfield only to discover that the ground was not as hard as the Phantom had initially made it look. The lead fire engine sank into the wet, muddy ground and became stuck. The next fire engine smashed into the back of it and became mangled and stuck. The only vehicle to reach any of the desired locations was the fire chief's red Land Rover (callsign 'Crash One'). He arrived at the burning wreckage of XV436 (now a raging inferno) only to find that, without the help of either of his fire engines, his hand fire extinguisher was not man enough for the task he faced.

So, to recap. A perfectly normal night sortie had ended in disaster and the loss of a precious F4 Phantom. What had started as a fairly simple problem that could probably have been fixed by retarding the throttles a bit, had led to a sequence of actions that ended in the loss of the aircraft, two dangerous (fortunately successful) ejections and (I would guess) more than a few grey hairs for Bill and Ben.

Could they have taken more time over diagnosing the problem and Bill's initial actions? Probably yes, but then I'm not sitting in an old Phantom, at night, concerned that part of my leg's going to be ripped off by exploding machinery. Actually, I have recently discovered that there's more to this story. This sortie was Bill and Ben's second trip of that night. Their first trip that evening had also ended in an emergency, leaving Bill slightly unnerved - he was, after all, new to the F4 and pretty inexperienced. Ben had advised the Squadron Duty Authorizer that it would probably be wise to cancel the second trip - either he was being sensible or was keen to get to the bar early. But there was a lot of pressure from Group Headquarters in those days to chase night flying hours and so the authorizer instructed them to fly again. There's probably a flight safety message to consider there too, but I've gone on long enough about this incident for now. If you're interested, this was reported in Flight International the following year. Click here to read the article. Click here for the MoD Accident Summary.

Most important, Bill and Ben both survived. Sadly, XV436 did not.

XV436 'Echo' 29 Squadron
F4 Phantom XV436 "Echo" of 29 Squadron, RAF Coningsby after her crash on 5th March 1980

UK Units that Operated the F4 Phantom

Just for historical completeness, here's a list of UK units (RAF and RN) that operated the F4 Phantom over the years:

700 Naval Air Squadron (F4K),     767 Naval Air Squadron (F4K),     892 Naval Air Squadron (F4K),     Phantom Post-Operational Conversion Unit (F4K),     2 Squadron RAF (F4M),     6 Squadron RAF (F4M),     14 Squadron RAF (F4M),     17 Squadron RAF (F4M),     19 Squadron RAF (RAFG F4M),     23 Squadron RAF (F4M),     29 Squadron RA (F4M)F,     31 Squadron RAF (F4M),     41 Squadron RAF (F4M),     43 Squadron RAF (F4K),     54 Squadron RAF (F4M),     56 Squadron RAF (F4M),     64 Squadron RAF (228 Operational Conversion Unit, F4M),     74 Squadron RAF (F4J),     92 Squadron RAF (RAFG F4M),     111 Squadron RAF (F4K),     1435 Flight RAF (Falkland Islands, F4M),     Phantom Training Flight (F4K),     Phantom Conversion Flight (F4M),     Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE, test and evaluation, F4M).

If you're interested in reading more about the F-4 Phantom in RAF and RN service, you might be interested in Dave Gledhill's book, 'The Phantom in Focus: A Navigator’s Eye on Britain’s Cold War Warrior '.

Paul Courtnage - The F4 Phantom

Previous Chapter                         Next Chapter

Email Courtney           Project Ocean Vision           Top of Page


© Project Ocean Vision 2006 - ΩV
CSS Check   HTML Check

red line

red line

red line

red line

Help for Heroes Marine Conservation Society Red List Help for Heroes

red line

red line

red line

red line

Some of the images and videos in Vox Clamantis in Deserto have been obtained from openly available sources. In such cases it is our policy to make every reasonable effort to contact the copyright holder for permission to display the image or video. It has not been possible to do so in every case. All images and video on this site remain the copyright of their respective owners and no material on these pages has been used for profit or any commercial purpose. Under the conditions of the EU Copyright Directive (2001) if you wish us to remove an image or video for which you are the copyright holder, you may submit a Removal Request and we will investigate your request and take appropriate action. We would very much like to continue to use images and videos wherever possible and are very keen to give full credit to the copyright holders of all images and videos. If you wish to be acknowledged as the owner of an image or video, please submit an Acknowledgement Request.