(Image: Mark Carlisle. F4H-1F BuNo. 143388, the oldest surviving Phantom F-4A)
I’ve often wondered what became of many of the earliest McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs, the A models, of which just 45 airframes were built and three are on public display. Originally designated F4H-1F, these early F-4A jets followed on from two older XF4H-1 prototypes built for the US Navy and first flown in 1958. The F-4A designation was first applied in 1962, and subsequent Phantom models followed the same system, with the F-4D and E models being the most numerous. The Navy’s small F-4A fleet were mostly used for evaluating and training (a small number were converted specifically for this latter role and designated TF-4A) and it wasn’t until production of the F-4B model for the Navy and US Marine Corps that the first “definitive” Phantom had arrived. Only a small number of F-4As have survived the decades, and one of them – the oldest survivor of all (BuNo. 143388) – sits in a storage hangar at Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico pending restoration for eventual display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Airframe 143388, the third Phantom built,Â looks like a dusty, faded ghost of a warplane, but will make for a superb museum exhibit once she’s been cleaned up and restored to her former glory. Alongside her in the storage facility are a number of other retired airframes, including an early model McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet.
(Image: USN. An F4H-1F (F-4A) onboard USS Independence in 1960)
What would become the F4H-1F (F-4A) was first conceived in 1952 as a twin-seat all weather carrier-based fighter aircraft for the US Navy, and went on the become one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time. An impressive 5,195 Phantoms were built in total, including a healthy series of export variants that in some cases remain in service to this day.
One notable, and tragic, record attempt involving the McDonnell F-4A was known as Operation Sageburner and took place in August 1961. As the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum writes:
With the final design set, the F4H-1, now called the Phantom II, was ordered into full production. Because of its exceptional performance the Bureau of Weapons (BUWEPS), successor to the BUAER, assigned several F4H-1s to attempt to set speed, altitude and time to climb records. For the most part, the high altitude record-breaking attempts were conducted in “Skyburner”, while the low altitude records were conducted in “Sageburner”. The attempts were spectacularly successful. “Skyburner” set records for speed and climb, including altitude, 98,557 ft., sustained altitude, 66,443 ft. and maximum speed over a closed 500-kilometer closed course, 1216.76-mph. Sageburner established the low altitude record.
There were two “Sageburners.” The first one crashed from a combination of factors. The principal causes were the excessive sensitivity of the F4H-1 pitch control and pitch damping system and pilot error. Cdr. J. L. Felsman was killed when he caused a Pilot Induced Oscillation (PIO) which, combined with high speed and extremely high aerodynamic pressure caused the airframe to distort to such a degree that it disintegrated. The engines, which had been at full power, broke loose and, maintaining the relative separation they had in the aircraft, continued down range for several miles, streaming smoke and fuel vapor before crashing.
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