United States Air Force
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In USAF service the F-4 was initially designated the F-110 Spectre prior to the introduction of the 1962 United States Tri-Service aircraft designation system. The USAF quickly embraced the design and became the largest Phantom user. The first Air Force Phantoms in Vietnam were F-4Cs from the 555th "Triple Nickel" Tactical Fighter Squadron, which arrived in December 1964. Unlike the Navy, which flew the Phantom with a Naval Aviator (pilot) in the front seat and a Naval Flight Officer as a radar intercept officer (RIO) in the back seat, the Air Force initially flew its Phantoms with a rated pilot in the back seat. This policy was later changed to using a navigator qualified as a weapon/targeting systems officer (later designated as weapon systems officer or WSO) in the rear seat. However, because they originally flew with pilots in the rear seat, all USAF Phantoms retained dual flight controls throughout their service life.
On 10 July 1965, F-4Cs of the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 15th TFW, on temporary assignment in Ubon, Thailand, scored the USAF's first victories against North Vietnamese MiG-17s using AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. On 26 April 1966 an F-4C from the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron scored the first aerial victory by a U.S. aircrew over a North Vietnamese MiG-21 "Fishbed". On 24 July 1965, another Phantom from the 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron became the first American aircraft to be downed by an enemy SAM, and on 5 October 1966 an 8th Tactical Fighter Wing F-4C became the first U.S. jet lost to an air-to-air missile, fired by a MiG-21.
Early aircraft suffered from leaks in wing fuel tanks that required re-sealing after each flight and 85 aircraft were found to have cracks in outer wing ribs and stringers. There were also problems with aileron control cylinders, electrical connectors, and engine compartment fires. Reconnaissance RF-4Cs made their debut in Vietnam on 30 October 1965, flying the hazardous post-strike reconnaissance missions. The USAF Thunderbirds used the F-4E from the 1969 season until 1974.
Although the F-4C was essentially identical to the Navy F-4B in flight performance and carried the AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, USAF-tailored F-4Ds initially arrived in June 1967 equipped with AIM-4 Falcons. However, the Falcon, like its predecessors, was designed to shoot down bombers flying straight and level. Its reliability proved no better than others, and its complex firing sequence and limited seeker-head cooling time made it virtually useless in combat against agile fighters. The F-4Ds reverted to using Sidewinders under the "Rivet Haste" program in early 1968, and by 1972 the AIM-7E-2 "Dogfight Sparrow" had become the preferred missile for USAF pilots. Like other Vietnam War Phantoms, the F-4Ds were urgently fitted with radar homing and warning (RHAW) antennae to detect the Soviet-built SA-2 Guideline SAMs.
From the initial deployment of the F-4C to Southeast Asia, USAF Phantoms performed both air superiority and ground attack roles, supporting not only ground troops in South Vietnam but also conducting bombing sorties in Laos and North Vietnam. As the F-105 force underwent severe attrition between 1965 and 1968, the bombing role of the F-4 proportionately increased until after November 1970 (when the last F-105D was withdrawn from combat) it became the primary USAF tactical ordnance delivery system. In October 1972 the first squadron of EF-4C Wild Weasel aircraft deployed to Thailand on temporary duty. The "E" prefix was later dropped and the aircraft was simply known as the F-4C Wild Weasel.
Sixteen squadrons of Phantoms were permanently deployed between 1965 and 1973, and 17 others deployed on temporary combat assignments. Peak numbers of combat F-4s occurred in 1972, when 353 were based in Thailand. A total of 445 Air Force Phantom fighter-bombers were lost, 370 in combat and 193 of those over North Vietnam (33 to MiGs, 30 to SAMs, and 307 to AAA).
The RF-4C was operated by four squadrons, and of the 83 losses, 72 were in combat including 38 over North Vietnam (seven to SAMs and 65 to AAA). By war's end the U.S. Air Force had lost a total of 528 F-4 and RF-4C Phantoms. When combined with U.S. Naval and Marine losses of 233 Phantoms, 761 F-4/RF-4 Phantoms were lost in the Vietnam War.
On 28 August 1972, Capt Steve Ritchie became the first USAF ace of the war. On 9 September 1972, WSO Capt Charles B. DeBellevue became the highest-scoring American ace of the war with six victories. and WSO Capt Jeffrey Feinstein became the last USAF ace of the war on 13 October 1972. Upon return to the United States, DeBellevue and Feinstein were assigned to pilot training (Feinstein was given a vision waiver) and requalified as USAF pilots in the F-4. USAF F-4C/D/E crews scored 107½ MiG kills in Southeast Asia (50 by Sparrow, 31 by Sidewinder, five by Falcon, 15.5 by gun, and six by other means).
On 31 January 1972, the 170th Tactical Fighter Squadron/183d Tactical Fighter Group of the Illinois Air National Guard became the first Air National Guard unit to transition to Phantoms when their Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks were found to have corrosion problems. The F-4's ANG service lasted until 31 March 1990, when it was replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
On 15 August 1990, 24 F-4G Wild Weasel Vs and six RF-4Cs were mobilized to Shaikh Isa AB, Bahrain, for Operation Desert Storm. The F-4G was the only aircraft in the USAF inventory equipped for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) role, and was needed to protect coalition aircraft from Iraq's extensive air defense system. The RF-4C was the only aircraft equipped with the ultra-long-range KS-127 LOROP (long-range oblique photography) camera, and was used for a variety of reconnaissance missions. In spite of flying almost daily missions, only one RF-4C was lost in a fatal accident before the start of hostilities. One F-4G was lost when enemy fire damaged the fuel tanks and the aircraft ran out of fuel near a friendly airbase. The last USAF Phantoms, F-4G Wild Weasel Vs from 561st Fighter Squadron, were retired on 26 March 1996. The last operational flight of the F-4G Wild Weasel was from the 190th Fighter Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard, in April 1996. The last operational USAF/ANG F-4 to land was flown by Maj Mike Webb and Maj Gary Leeder, Idaho ANG.
Like the Navy, the Air Force has operated QF-4 target drones, serving with the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall AFB, Florida. It is expected that the F-4 will remain in the target role with the 82d ATRS until 2013–14, when they will be replaced by early versions of the F-16 Fighting Falcon converted to a QF-16 configuration. Several QF-4s are maintained in historical color schemes, being displayed as part of Air Combat Command's Heritage Flight at weekends, while serving as target aircraft during the week.
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