It hadn’t been the RAF’s first choice of type, but the Phantom moved from stopgap strike, ground attack and reconnaissance
jet to become a successful air defence fighter in a multi-role career spanning nearly 25 years. Dr Kevin Wright explains.
In April 1965 the British government struck a major blow to the RAF’s procurement programme that ultimately led to the service acquiring the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II.
Elected in 1964, the Labour administration under Harold Wilson had looked to save money after coming to power, and early casualties in the defence budget were the RAF’s proposed BAC TSR2 strike platform and Hawker Siddeley P.1154 supersonic V/STOL aircraft. Their cancellation was then followed by a decision to abandon a British version of the General Dynamics F-111.
It was only then that the F-4 Phantom was selected, effectively as a third choice. The initial order for an eventual 50 production FG.1s (F-4Ks) for the Royal Navy and 116 FGR.2s (F-4Ms) for RAF use was placed in February 1965. The first prototype for the Royal Navy undertook its maiden flight on June 27, 1966 and the RAF’s counterpart, XT852, on February 17, 1967.
The British selected the Rolls-Royce Spey 203 engine for the Fleet Air Arm FG.1s – and Spey 202/204 for the RAF’s FGR.2s – instead of the standard US General Electric J79. The turbofan Spey offered increased power with reduced fuel consumption over the American powerplant but necessitated substantial air intake and fuselage redesign.
The decision substantially impacted the performance of the British Phantoms, which achieved higher thrust at low level but less at altitude compared with the J79-powered aircraft. It also increased development costs and added nearly two years to the planned delivery dates – and when the Phantoms first entered UK service, the Speys presented major problems that curtailed training and operations until they were resolved.
The RAF’s FGR.2, intended for multiple roles, had a more sophisticated equipment fit than its naval counterpart. This included a Ferranti inertial navigation and attack system (INAS), an AD470 HF/SSB radio and internal 24V battery, providing a self-start capability – while omitting the extendable nosewheel undercarriage leg. The first 24 FGR.2s were fitted with removable rear cockpit control columns for dual-control training.
They also featured the Westinghouse AN/AWG-12 radar, an advanced pulse-Doppler system with look-down and air-to-air modes. Armament consisted of four AIM-7E Sparrow medium-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles carried semi-recessed under fuselage stations. They could be supplemented by four heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders mounted on two inner wing pylons.