McDonnell Douglas RF-4B Phantom II


RF – Type (Reconnaissance Fighter); 4 – (Numerical Designation); B – (Version or Variant)

The McDonnell Douglas RF-4B was the photo reconnaissance version of the versatile F-4 Phantom II. It first flew on March 12, 1965 with the first delivery going to Marine Composite Utility Squadron Three (VMCJ-3), based at MCAS El Toro, in May of 1965. The RF-4B also served with Marine Composite Squadrons VMCJ-1 and VMCJ-2, and entered combat in October 1966, equipping VMCJ-1 at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam.

All 46 RF-4Bs produced by the McDonnell Aircraft Company went to the Marine Corps with the last RF-4B delivered on December 24, 1970. The last twelve of these RF-4Bs were built on RF-4C frames with larger tires, wheel wells and reinforced wings. Differing from the fighter version of the F-4, the RF-4B had a longer nose that housed forward and side oblique cameras, and featured photoflash cartridges for night photography. Film could also be developed in flight and film cassettes could be ejected at low altitude so that ground commanders could get aerial intelligence as rapidly as possible. The large AN/APQ-72 radar was also replaced with the much smaller AN/APQ-99 forward-looking J-band monopulse radar which was optimized for terrain avoidance and terrain-following, and could be used for ground mapping.

Initially each active duty Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) had operational squadrons that supplied separate photo reconnaissance and electronic countermeasure aircraft. In 1975, the entire photo reconnaissance mission of the Marine Corps was assigned to VMCJ-3 of Third Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW) and the squadron was soon redesignated as Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three (VMFP-3). The squadron then supplied detachments to the users, both Navy and Marine. The last RF-4B in Marine Corps service was retired in 1990, prior to Desert Storm.

The RF-4B Phantom II on display was initially accepted on 15 October 1965 and delivered to VMCJ-3 at MCAS El Toro, spending its entire service with that squadron and its predecessor, VMFP-3. It was retired on April 25, 1990 with 5,364 airframe hours and presented to the Command Museum. It is painted in the colors of Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three, (VMFP-3), while based at MCAS El Toro. This aircraft is on loan from the National Museum of the Marine Corps.


8 thoughts on “McDonnell Douglas RF-4B Phantom II

  1. Semper Fi, served VMCJ-3 and VMFP-3, 1974-79 radar shop. Noticed typo in last paragraph, first sentence where “predecessor” should be “successor” or equivalent. VMCJ-3 was the first, therefor VMFP-3 could not precede it. I was there when they made the change. I hated to see the EA-6B’s go. Thanks for the awesome website.

  2. Dear Sirs, I was a pilot just out of flight training with VMCJ-3 at El Toro. It is my recollection that we had one RF-4B when I arrived in July of 1965. We didn’t fly it and the ones that were delivered slowly after that period, because there were no trained pilots and we didn’t have simulators. We didn’t fly them for some time, since the USMC didn’t have many qualified pilots. We didn’t have simulators, either. I actually started flying the RF-4B in March of 1966. I doubt of any of the pilots in our squadron flew the RF-4B until the fall or winter of ’65, for, there were no instructor pilots. Eventually, a Capt. Scarborough who, I think, had been with the first USMC squadron in Vietnam, was transferred to our squadron after six months or so in Vietnam. Basically, us “nuggets” trained each other and, of course, the various maintenance divisions gave us lectures and tests on the various systems. I didn’t start flying the RF-4B until March of ’66. Capt. Scarborough was eventually assisted by Capt. Doxee. But, basically, we got a ride in the back seat with Capt. Scarborough, or, Capt. Doxee flying as pilot, and then our second flight was with Capt. Scarborough or Capt Doxee riding in the back seat. After that flight “we were plane commanders of the RF-4B”. It is hard to believe, but that is how it went. We all did well; US Navy/Marine flight training was truly remarkable to change us from “wet behind the ears” college graduates (biology for me) to flying the fastest jet up to that time with such minimal training. I had 100 hours in the RF-4B Phantom II when I went over seas to Danang. I flew 150 combat missions, for 9 months at night, since I had a day job, too.

    Unfortunately, Capt. Doxee was killed taking off at Yuma. It was a familiarization training flight for the guy in the back seat and it was a flaps-up take-off: part of the syllabus. The Phantom had tons of power, but it was very hot, especially on the blacktop runway. I remember when entering the cockpit in such weather I couldn’t touch the aluminum skin of the plane since it was so hot. On rotation, the plane basically, mush-stalled and rolled right (I think). The pilot in the back seat ejected before Capt. Doxee and his seat trajectory was proper enough for his chute of open and he lived through it, but had numerous injuries. Capt. Doxee was killed in that crash. Good Guy, for sure. Later, Lt. Longo doing a zoom climb and then “0” G recovery at about 40,000 ft. stall-spun and both he and the Reconnaissance Systems Operator (forgot his name) ejected o.k., but the plane crashed in San Diego Bay. There is an article about it on the web. I did the same maneuver on familiarization flight 4 and I remember it was a bit strange for me, being such a low-hour pilot, but if a person was gentle on the controls going over the top in the “0” G portion of the flight (engine at idle, I think) and gently guiding the nose down to assume a normal acceleration attitude it was an easy maneuver. But, it was a slowly evolving maneuver and a pilot had to be patient and fly the angle of attack and keep appraised of the horizon on both sides of the cockpit. I personally think that the maneuver should have been scheduled later in the syllabus.

    Also, much later talking to the “then XO” Major Percival, he told me that all of the pilots just out of flight training were personally selected by himself or the CO Lt. Col. Fink, since they knew that the RF-4B was a highly complicated plane, a great quantum leap over the RF-8, for instance, and also since usually VMCJ pilots were second tour due to the fact that all flying were solo missions. So, those two checked flight grades and academic grades during flight training and selected the “nuggets” who would come to VMCJ-3.

    The Navy ferry squadrons were over-taxed and so I volunteered to ride in a Navy Saberliner to Lambert Field and pick up a new RF-4B. Think of it for a minute: a Phantom II pilot with only about 55 flights in the plane going to Lambert Field to pick up a new RF-4B with only flight test hours on it. I remember after leaving the tower frequency and requesting from departure control: “Departure Control, Marine Jet 153089, request, present position, direct to El Toro Marine Corps Air station, Flight Level 430.” After a long pause I received that clearance. INS enabled such a clearance and such procedures had just recently been added to the FAA procedures book. I had three tanks, a little over 1000 gal of JP-5 underneath so it was a non-stop trip from Lambert Field, St. Louis to El Toro MCAS.

    At the initial time squadron members started flying the RF-4B, a few more experienced pilots flew all four aircraft in the squadron: RF-8, RF-4, EF-10B, and the EA-6A. Could that happen nowaday?? …. obviously not.

    Thanks for the memories. I transitioned, after getting back from Vietnam to be a physician and I had a 30 year career as a small-town doctor. I own a Globe Swift and a Piper Comanche 250.

    Phantoms Forever

    Yours, Lance Christiansen, DO, Former Marine, Semper Fi

  3. I worked on RF-4B Radar & IR Mapping systems at El Toro from late 73 to late 1977.
    The Side Looking Radar was an AN/APQ-102. The system had 11 components and was quite complex. It was hard to get many of the pilots to turn the Radar on, as it required flying a very straight (no quick maneuvers) to enable the mapping to provide a high resolution image. At one of our HR sit-downs sessions with the Officers/Pilots, one of the pilots said at one meeting, “I want to know what you guys are concerned about, what bothers you, you know….?” So I asked him; “How come you guys never turn on the SLR system? I work on them and get very infrequent downloads of film. He looked a little surprised, but then said very straight forward and honestly, “I’m not really sure how you’re supposed to operate the system properly.”. He then said “I will get smarter on it and start operating the system when I can.” I did see somewhat more film after that.
    Enlisting in the Marines in Dec 71 was the smartest decision I made in my life. The path it set me on and the people I worked with and still know, (work with some still today) have really made all the difference in where I am know. Semper Fi!!!!!!!

    • Dear Honorable Marine Bieber, I was with the first group of Marines to fly the RF during 1966 at El Toro. We more or less trained ourselves because there were no experienced pilots. We had a ‘hurry-up” training program and never once did I use the SLR. But, in Vietnam I was tasked to fly a few missions using it. I remember the first one: It was during the winter of ’66-67. I was tasked with flying at 5000 ft., using straight-line flying segments, along the coast from, about 100 miles south of Chu Lai to Chu Lai itself. That means about eight straight-line flight segments that were flown wings-level, at 5000 ft, and the segments varied between 15 to 40 miles long, approximately. What made the flight challenging is that when we flew at 5000 ft we were IFR throughout the flight. So, there we were (I forgot who my RSO was at the time, maybe Mike Mino) flying the level flight lines, slightly off the coast, at 5000 ft in the “soup” and accomplishing them we had to transition from one flight line to the other. When we finished one flight line, we had to perform an IFR steep turn of about 270 deg. more, or less, and then quickly align the RF to pass over the initial fix, and in the correct heading, for the next flight line. I had not experienced any training flying in prolonged IFR conditions in California, so flying for 2.5 hours, in the soup, making repeated relatively high-banked level turns, and quickly adjusting the plane’s direction and positioning, so we intersected the next initial point of the next flight line via INS positioning, was an activity that took a great amount of concentration and coordination between the pilot and the RSO. I think I flew three SLR missions during the time I flew in Vietnam.

      • I was in VMCJ-1 with you in late 66 and all of 67. I was a sgt in the photo lab right next to planning and briefing where my friend Ray Mausling laid out your mission maps. I am very familiar with SLR – HAP and LAP – forward firing film stock. We also processed film with images taken from radar screens on a Super Constellation plane. Glad to see you did well.

  4. The RF-4B also was configured with a Fairchild high-speed panoramic camera in the fuselage camera bays that took 5 inch film and a nose model that took 70mm film. The eject film mentioned in the article was (at least when I worked with it at VMCJ0-2 from 64-67) was a custom style of polaroid device that was more a prototype than functional feature.

    As mentioned by the aviators above the bird could also make use of SLAR (side looking RADAR technology that produced some amazing images. That technology was introduced around 1966, and was classified for quite a few years after that. The RF-4B was a great photo recon plane and I’ll never forget the afternoon we got the first one at Cherry Point. Semper Fi.

  5. I was in planning and briefing at El Toro VMCJ-3 Late 69 to early 71 then to Iwakuni in 71 -72 VMCJ-1. Anyone there with me-would love to hear from you. Especially Capt. Fitz who took me for an unforgettable ride. Semper Fi!

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