Fighters For The Missile Era
F8U-3, F4H-1 (F-4A)
The expanding power of nuclear weapons, land-based bombers, and cruise missiles during the Cold War threatened the Navy’s carriers and assault ships. Instead of fighter guns, a more certain defense seemed to be the Sparrow III semi-active radar homing missile, capable of destroying a target 30 miles away with one shot. That missile’s first full guidance flight on February 13, 1953, at Point Mugu, was followed by operational evaluation and deployment with VF-64’s F3H Demons in December 1958. When launched from an all-weather, Mach 2 fighter, such Sparrows would provide the long-range fleet air defense essential to the Navy
Chance Vought designers offered the single-seat F8U-3 as such an interceptor. The fuselage was enlarged to accommodate the Pratt & Whitney J75, the chin intake was raked forward, and blown flaps obtained boundary-layer control on the variable-incidence wings. Three Sparrow III missiles were semi-submerged in the fuselage, APQ-50 radar was provided, retractable ventral fins aided stability, and push buttons engaged an automatic flight control system.
Two prototypes were ordered on May 3, 1957, plus 16 F8U-3s on January 16, 1958, and the first prototype flew June 2, 1958, just six days after rival McDonnell’s Phantom. A modified J75-P-6 credited with 29,000-pounds thrust powered the first F8U-3, the next was flown September 27 with a 24,500-pound thrust J75-P-5, and a J57-P-8 was scheduled for production aircraft. A proposed auxiliary rocket to be mounted at the tail fin’s base was tested on two FJ-4F Fury conversions, but was cancelled before the F8U-3 was flown.
During flight tests a speed of Mach 2.39 (1,600 mph) was obtained, and only the windshield’s heat limitation prevented higher speeds. Full performance data is not available, but test pilots reported the F8U-3 a very maneuverable, superior fighter. By December 1958, however, the Navy had chosen the more versatile rival F4H-l for the mission, the Vought contract was canceled, and only the third F8U-3 was flown before termination.
The F-4 Phantom II
Two prototypes had, in fact, been ordered in an October 18, 1954, letter contract as twin-engine AH-l attack aircraft, but on May 26, 1955, they were redesignated F4H-l all-weather fighters, and a second crewman, the radar intercept officer (RIO) was added.
The first F4H-l (X prefixes were no longer used on prototypes intended for production) flew May 27, 1958, at St. Louis, piloted by Robert C. Little. Two General Electric J79-GE-3A engines had variable area intakes with flat ramps to shear away the boundary layer from the forward fuselage. The 45-degree swept wing had 12-degree dihedral on the folding outer panel, and 23-degree anhedral on the one-piece stabilator aided stability. Four 400-pound Sparrow III radar missiles recessed under the fuselage had a ten-mile range, while four 200-pound heat-homing Sidewinders (two-mile range), or two more Sparrows, could be added under the outboard wing pylons.
The Navy chose the reliability and weapons potential of the twin-engine, two-seat Phantom II over the single-place F8U-3, so competitive tests resulted in a developmental contract for the St. Louis company by December 17, 1958. Eighteen aircraft delivered by November 1959, with 16,500-pound thrust J79-GE-2 engines and APQ-50 radar with a 24-inch dish in the nose, were followed by 29, accepted from May 1960 to June 1961, whose APQ-72 radar had a 32-inch dish. These aircraft were used for tests and training, joining VF-121 at NAS Miramar in December 1960.