If the Phantom F-4K/FGR.2 was the aircraft that the Royal Air Force initially didn’t want, then the F-4J(UK) must certainly be the one it didn’t expect. The procurement of this unusual UK/US hybrid was an unplanned result of wartime hostilities and even though the in-service period of the variant was originally intended to be short, it actually ended up in a situation where it was withdrawn early but only after having it service life extended. This curious outcome is characteristic of the F-4J(UK) story and the fact that only two complete examples of the type survive certainly adds to its appeal. The British Phantom Aviation Group has embarked on a preservation effort of the second of this pair, ZE360, which is currently in a dilapidated state on Ministry of Defence grounds at the site of the former RAF Manston.
ZE360 began its life as F-4J BuNo 155574 at McDonnell Douglas’ Lambert Field facility in St Louis, USA. Its maiden flight was on 6th April 1968 and it was subsequently accepted by the US Navy on 9th April, then issued to fighter squadron VF-31 ‘Tomcatters’ on 22nd May. Over the next 13 years it was based primarily on the east coast of the USA, its shore home being NAS Oceana, Virginia. It served aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, Independence and Saratoga, embarking on cruises of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Time was also spent with other units, including VF-41 ‘Black Aces’, VF-101 ‘Grim Reapers’, and VF-103 ‘Sluggers’ before ending its days in US service with a Marine Corps squadron, VMFAT-101 ‘Sharpshooters’ at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona in August 1981. Some of the US inventory of F-4Js were scheduled to be upgraded to the new F-4S standard but the rest were moved into storage. In the case of BuNo 155574, this was at North Island, California and the story might have finished there were it not for the UK’s victory in the Falklands conflict in June 1982.
In the aftermath of the Argentinian surrender on June 14th, the UK immediately looked to bolster the Falkland Island’s defences against further aggression. In order to contribute, the Royal Air Force’s only real option was to move a squadron of aircraft from the UK to take on air defence responsibility. This initially fell to Phantom FGR.2s of 29 Sqn before 23 Sqn/1435 Flight arrived permanently in October 1983. But with one problem solved, a second issue needed to be addressed, as moving a number of aircraft to the South Atlantic now left a squadron sized hole in the UK’s own air defence network. With the Panavia Tornado program undergoing numerous delays that continually pushed back the projected service date, the decision was made to order more Phantoms, off the shelf, from the USA as a temporary measure.
So, fifteen F-4Js with low hours, which included BuNo 155574, were delivered to the Naval Air Rework Facility at North Island for refurbishment and upgrades. This turned the aircraft into a hybrid mix of components from the J and S models, with extra modifications to accommodate the RAF’s own requirements. The F-4J(UK) was born.
Once officially transferred to the RAF, the reconditioned jets were assigned to the newly reformed 74(F) ‘Tiger’ Squadron, based at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk. Deliveries began in summer 1984 and former BuNo 155574, now assigned the serial ZE360, arrived on 5th October and shortly afterward obtained the individual tailcode ‘O’. The squadron was declared operational on 31st December 1985 and for rest of the decade the F-4J(UK) and 74(F) Sqn served with distinction, protecting UK airspace from incursions and taking part in many exercises across Europe with NATO allies. The expected service life of the model was increased from five years to ten in 1988 but the end of the Cold War and the UK government’s subsequent ‘Options For Change’ defence review in 1990 changed that forecast.
Part of the drawdown of forces recommended in the review was the retirement of the UK’s Phantom force and the F-4J(UK) contingent was one of the first to go. By the end of January 1991 all the F-4Js were in short term storage at Wattisham. Most were eventually scrapped or ended up on the fire dumps and only a small number escaped- ZE359 to IWM Duxford to be preserved in its original US Navy colours and ZE353 & ZE360, both of which were transferred to the RAF’s fire fighting school at RAF Manston, Kent, to be used as training aids. ZE360 arrived at Manston, in the hands of pilot Ian ‘Hagar’ Hargreaves and navigator Flt Lt Ray Jones on 22nd February 1991. Stripped of usable parts and made safe, ZE360 was towed across a public road from the airfield to the fire school where it was mainly used for aircrew extraction training. ZE353 was scrapped during 2001, leaving just a pair of complete examples of the F-4J(UK) remaining. However, of the two, ZE360, which was stored outdoors at the mercy of the elements was the one that was suffering.
By 2015 there was an obvious and considerable deterioration in the condition of the aircraft. Many major components were now missing and the cockpits were completely stripped. It had also been moved to the burn pits, presumably to await its turn to suffer a fiery demise. Fate had other ideas, however. The act of burning aircraft had become a controversial topic and the associated environmental concerns related to this put an end to the practice at Manston. ZE360 was therefore moved once again, to an adjacent area of rough ground, now safe from flames but left to its own devices.
Above- ZE360 at DFTDC, Manston, Kent during September 2019
The aircraft may now have been alone and neglected but it was far from forgotten. Historic aviation enthusiasts all over the country were still aware of its existence and among their ranks was both the British Phantom Aviation Group and the 74(F) Squadron Association, the latter also being the official guardians of the squadron’s history and legacy. Representatives of 74SA had inspected the jet late in 2017 and had considered it not beyond saving. The BPAG, although occupied with XV582 and XV490 through 2017-2018, were beginning to consider options for future projects and the rarity of ‘J’ model survivors meant that ZE360 held great appeal. A restoration effort therefore took its first steps in January 2019, when a combined 74SA/BPAG work party made an initial on site assessment of the aircraft, to determine how viable trying to save it actually was. The conclusion, by BPAG Technical Director Paul Wright, was that “…the aircraft is in very poor condition but certainly not beyond saving. The group is under no illusions that this is anything other than a major restoration project. It is estimated that it could take anything from five to ten years for a full restoration to be completed”. An official approach to DESA (Defence Equipment Sales Authority) confirmed that the aircraft was surplus to MOD requirements and a bid by BPAG (supported by the 74SA) was accepted in May 2019 and ownership was transferred in June. The last complete F-4J(UK), the only one in existence in RAF colours, had been thrown a lifeline.
The mobilisation of BPAG volunteers began soon after, first duties being to wash away as much of the dirt, moss, foam residue and salt deposits as possible then PX-32 preservative was applied to limit further weather damage. Despite corrosion of parts, panels and fasteners being a major obstacle, further working sessions over the autumn and into the new year yielded more results including partial disassembly of the tailcone and brake parachute mechanism, outer wings returning to folded positions for the first time in almost 30 years, ailerons removed and access gained to leading edge actuators. A landmark moment was also reached in March 2020 when both the main wheels were removed and replaced with new old-stock. At the time of writing, work has been hindered due to the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the British Phantom Aviation Group are still making progress, with the aircraft recently moving back to Manston airport itself, in order to be prepared for engine removal. There are no doubts that this will be a long restoration and the path ahead will be challenging, with limited funds and manpower available. However, the will, knowledge and aptitude are there to restore this unique Phantom variant to its former glory.
If you would like to support the ZE360 restoration campaign, donations can be made in the following ways. Any amount, however small, will be much appreciated and really will make a difference. Bank transfers can be sent to the following-
Account Name – Tiger360
Sort Code – 30-96-26
Acct. Number – 53212368
Alternatively, donations can be sent via PayPal to the BPAG merchandise address- firstname.lastname@example.org Please include a note that your donation is for ZE360.
Finally, we are always looking for volunteers, help, parts or additional information for the project. If you would like to assist with any of these aspects, please feel free to contact the BPAG at email@example.com