NOTE- This article was originally written for the 74 Squadron Association newsletter in 2017 and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
Historically there are aircraft types that are synonymous with a particular unit. Spitfires of 19 Squadron, Lancasters of 617 Squadron or the Mosquitos of 633 Squadron. OK, so perhaps the last example might be pushing the boundaries a little bit, but the point still stands. The Phantom F-4J(UK), or just the ‘J’ as it became known to the air and ground crew, will always be inextricably linked to 74(F) Tiger Squadron, somewhat like the English Electric Lightning F.1 before it. So how did the RAF come to be operating this unique type? Tony Clay explains all.
Shortly after the last shot had been fired and the Union Jack had been hoisted above Port Stanley during the Falklands War, thoughts at the Ministry of Defence turned towards supplying the newly liberated islands with a permanent and lethal air defence type. Initial air defence cover of the Falklands was being provided by Sidewinder equipped Harrier GR.3s under the guise of ‘Har Det’ (short for Harrier Detachment) but this was only ever a stop gap measure. With the Tornado F.3 still a few years from entering service, the contenders for duty in the South Atlantic were the existing Phantoms and Lightnings of the UK`s air defence squadrons.
Whilst Lightnings were seen flying in and around the UK fitted with over wing tanks during the period of the Falklands conflict, realistically they were never going to deploy that far south with their short endurance and limited weapons fit. So, within a matter of days, the decision had been made to deploy Phantom FGR.2s of 29 Squadron, who immediately began toning down their aircraft and adding much needed war time modifications. Once the aircraft had arrived down south, the unit was simply known as ‘Phandet’ (short for Phantom Detachment) until late 1983. It finally achieved squadron status following the disbandment of 23 Squadron in the UK and the resultant transfer of its nameplate from RAF Wattisham to the unit at RAF Stanley.
However, with higher than average aircraft attrition and no sign of the Cold War thawing, the movement of 23 Squadron to overseas now left a hole in the UK`s air defence network. This had to be filled and plans were hastily drawn up to replace the lost squadron with other additional aircraft. Rumours were rife that a new squadron would reform with surplus Lightnings held in store at Binbrook. Indeed, the tail code ‘C’ had been left free in case this happened, with the two resident squadrons adopting codes ‘A’ and ‘B’ and the Training Flight allocated ‘D’. However, it was an alleged shortage of suitable pilots that prevented a new Lightning squadron reforming. The UK’s only option therefore was to look to the US for surplus fighters as a short term fix. A shopping list was drawn up that included both the F-14 and F-15 but both were dismissed on cost and logistical grounds before any serious enquiries were made. What was needed was something that had commonality with the existing infrastructure already in place at RAF stations. Only one such type existed in the RAF`s inventory and fitted the bill perfectly- the mighty McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom.
The F-4S, which at the time was the US Navy`s most modern incarnation of the Phantom, was originally the RAF`s preferred choice. The problem was that the US Navy couldn’t spare any S models, or at least not enough to equip a full squadron. So the RAF were forced to look at the next best option, which were surplus Navy and Marine F-4Js stored at the Military Aircraft Storage Distribution Centre at Davies Monthan AFB in Arizona (more commonly known as the `Boneyard`) and some examples in open storage at the Naval Air Rework Facility at NAS North Island, San Diego, in Southern California.
By the end of 1982 a team of RAF personnel, with the Vice Chief of the Air Staff Sir Peter Harding at the helm, were Stateside establishing the condition of the Phantoms on offer and evaluating their ability to meet the RAF`s requirements. Originally all the airframes offered had to meet a 5 year service life (although they ultimately remained in service for just under 7 years) and of the 15 chosen, a fatigue modification package would have to be incorporated in any deal. By September 1983 the US Navy received two letters of offer, one for the purchase and rework of the aircraft and the second for the support package. The overall total for the entire project was £125 million, which also included some extra funding for British Aerospace, Ferranti and Westinghouse for the part they would play in the programme. The latter two companies’ work consisted of updating the existing AWG-10 radar kits to 10B standard. The AWG-10B upgrade was expensive but considered far clearer and more reliable than the existing radars in the RAF`s Phantom FGR.2 fleet. It would become one of the F-4J’s ‘aces in the hole’.
While the purchase of the Phantoms was going through, talk within the RAF hierarchy turned towards the new aircraft’s designation. Obviously the FG.1 and FGR.2 were not appropriate as the J model was not going to be employed in the reconnaissance or ground attack roles. F.3 could cause considerable confusion once the Tornado ADV had come into service, simply because people find it quicker and easier to drop any particular type’s name and refer to it just by its designation only. So what about calling the new Phantom type by its standard designation, the F-4J? Well, that too could create confusion with regards to servicing manuals and any directives for modifications that may relate to the British version but not the American one and vice versa. In the end British Aerospace pointed out that a unique designation was required in order to quickly identify drawings and parts which would avoid any potential future problems. So the F-4J(UK) designation was confirmed and adopted, although in reality it too was a bit of a mouthful and the Phantom was mainly referred to as just `the J`.
The Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF) at North Island, San Diego, would be responsible for the F-4J engineering programme. All the airframes would undergo a Service Life Extension Programme (SLEP), which was the equivalent of an RAF major service. Despite the RAF’s rework order coinciding with the end of the US Navy Phantom F-4S modification programme, it was too late to refit the wings with slats due to the long order lead time. The aircraft would also not be re-engined either so they retained their original General Electric J-79s, albeit the updated smokeless versions, and were also given various fatigue modifications to beef them up. The J-79 engines were an improvement over the Rolls Royce Spey (as fitted in the UK’s FG.1 and FGR.2s) in as much that they retained much better thrust, were smokeless and gave a one and half second response in reheat, all of which gave the F-4J an advantage in combat. Along with the upgraded radar kits the F-4J (UK) would have an edge over the other Phantoms in RAF service as well as other aircraft types belonging to various NATO members. The Martin Baker Mk.7A ejection seat was also retained. While similar to the Spey powered Phantom’s ejection seat it did not have the `dial your weight` adjustment. Command ejection was retained so that either the pilot or navigator could initiate an escape. The American style flying helmets were found to be comfortable and lighter than the British counterparts and it must be said that there was great reluctance among the aircrew to give them up when they, and all the other US flying kit and escape systems, were eventually replaced in 1989.
Above- US F-4J airframes undergoing modification and upgrade to F-4J(UK) standard at NARF (Naval Air Rework Facility) at NORIS (North Island) San Diego, California
A team of engineers from the Central Servicing Development Establishment (CSDE) at RAF Swanton Morley had arrived in San Diego by August 1983 to monitor the progress of the rework. They had just twelve months to get a fleet of fifteen tired looking Phantoms back into front line service. The airframes selected had mixed histories (some being veterans of the Vietnam War) and all of the Phantoms had been built between 1966 and 1969. Some had served with famous units of the US Navy such as VF-101 Grim Reapers, VF-103 Jolly Rogers, VF-171 Aces, VF-74 Be-Devilers and most of the Marine aircraft had served with VMFAT-101 Sharpshooters, while one airframe was from the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-4 (the famous Black Bunny Phantom, Vandy 1). Many of the selected airframes were still currently airworthy and were able to make the short ferry flight to the NARF workshops while others were airlifted in by helicopter. The latter process was not without mishap- during one of the transfers the front canopy of an underslung Phantom detached and hit the main shackle of the webbing causing the airframe to fall away into the sea below. A replacement was soon found.
Once each Phantom had arrived at the facility it was completely stripped down allowing anti-corrosion treatment to be applied. The integrity of the airframe was also tested and fatigue meters fitted so that the fleet could be monitored in the future. Additional wiring was then incorporated to allow the carriage of British Sky Flash missiles as well as the Telescopic Sighting System (TESS) situated in the rear cockpit and used to visually identify targets.
With the work well under way Stateside, in the UK Squadron Leader Dick Northcote was working as a Staff Officer to the Director General of Organisation (DGO), whose responsibilities included the allocation of squadron number plates to new units. Historical precedent was usually invoked in such matters. However, there was at the time constant lobbying of the DGO office by ex-Lightning crews who rallied behind 74 Squadron’s cause when they heard that a new fighter unit was soon to stand up to replace No. 23. Therefore Sqn Ldr Northcote, knowing that he was in line to command the F-4J Squadron, viewed proceedings with considerable interest. It therefore came as something as a shock when the DGO recommended to his immediate superior- the Air Member for Support and Organisation- that 39 Squadron, a bomber unit, should reform on the F-4J. Fortunately, once the Chief of Air Staff heard about this, he intervened and decided that formal precedents should take a back seat on this occasion and instructed that the new squadron would take on the No. 74 number plate.
Now promoted to Wing Commander, Dick Northcote (whose experience on F-4s was vast, including a tour as instructor on F-4Es at McDill Air Force Base in Florida) set about organising the formation of the new squadron, which was to be based at RAF Wattisham. By now ground crews were in the US learning servicing and maintenance procedures for the F-4J and were scheduled to be ready by the time aircrews arrived to test the aircraft as they were released from NARF.
Before delivery from California to the RAF began (and while air and ground crews were being trained at the Marine Corps base at Yuma) the aircraft needed one final thing doing – painting. With the airframes stripped to bare metal the RAF had two options. Firstly, fly them back to the UK ‘as is’ for painting or let the Naval Air Rework Facility paint them using the closest shades to RAF colours as possible. The second option was chosen, no doubt due to the fact that the work would be part of the fixed price contract. Samples of the British Air Defence Grey (more commonly known as Barley Grey) were sent over to the US Navy so that they could mix and match their standard paints to the desired tone, but what emerged from the paint shops can only be described as ‘unique’. The first six aircraft emerged with what looked like a pale duck egg green/blue in certain light conditions. By the time the seventh Phantom had entered the paint shop word had got back to the Americans that they needed to review their colour tones. Accordingly, some aircraft were delivered highly glossed, but others had the radome in a two-tone finish, while yet others did seem to resemble more closely the RAF Barley Grey requirement.
In effect, no F-4J coming out of the paint shop was the same. Most F-4J air and ground crew agree that the primary cause of the various strange shades of grey/blue was due to a combination of the bright yellow primer undercoat used on all the airframes plus the one thin layer of the aforementioned grey `guesswork` paint when applied over the top. In bright sunlight this caused the Phantoms to look almost light green, turning to light blue in standard daylight. Furthermore, in cloudy conditions the F-4J(UK)s tones almost reverted back to the standard Air Defence/Barley Grey. Over the years the various camera settings of individual photographers have also added to the mix of speculation about how the colour tone had come about. In any case, the tone of the finished Phantoms added considerably to the Tiger’s kudos and over time some of the Phantoms would go through deep maintenance at RAF St Athan and would be refinished in the correct RAF Air Defence paint scheme.
However, not all the F-4J(UK)s went through this process and some retained their `duck egg` scheme until retirement. Whether a J still had its original paint scheme could easily be seen by the presence of US type serial fonts and low visibility ejection seat triangle markings.
Back at Wattisham, things were gathering pace with new squadron members beginning to arrive and staff were working hard making sure administration and necessary equipment was in place. 74 Sqn’s Phantoms would initially use the flight line and allocated hangar space on arrival as the new Hardened Aircraft Shelters were still under construction. With everything as ready as it could be, Dick Northcote flew out to the United States West Coast to familiarise himself with the new aircraft and lead the first team bringing the Phantoms back to the UK. The original plan was to was to have all 15 of them back in the UK by December 1984 and this was to be achieved in a series of delivery flights dubbed ‘Tiger Trails’ where three aircraft would be flown at a time across the Atlantic to Wattisham, with a VC10K.2 tanker escort. It had been decided that only experienced personnel would be assigned to the 74 Sqn, with aircrew required to have at least 750 hours first-pilot time. They were being asked to fly a different mark of Phantom and it was felt that amount of experience would be needed to react to any unforeseen problems during both the air tests and work up sorties, not to mention the upcoming long transatlantic ferry flights.
As soon as the Phantoms were released from NARF the air testing began and many snags were soon identified. Most of the issues were minor and if it were not for the length of the scheduled ferry flights many may not have taken on such dramatic importance. Some issues were more serious however, one example being the hydraulic system. The piping had been changed from alloy to stainless steel and was proving to be troublesome. Another was the air bleed system. In one particularly disturbing incident, hot air had bled directly onto the airframe after the blanking plate had failed and burned a hole through the skin. This had taken many hours to repair.
Conversion to the J was reasonably quick for the crews, beginning with an eight week detachment in the USA. For the first two weeks they were based at San Diego where they were issued with flying kit and then given stringent US Navy medical tests and attended lectures and classes in order to gain clearance to fly US Navy aircraft. The next stop was Miramar, which not only was home to the `Top Gun` school but also to the Physiology and Water Survival Training Centre where lectures on medical matters were given. The final stop was the US Marine Corp station at Yuma in the Arizona desert. Here the aircrews would spend four weeks converting to the F-4J- or not doing so as was actually the case. With the absence of any F-4Js in Navy or Marine Corp service, the flying was done on the Phantom F-4S (in essence an upgraded F-J anyway) which was fitted with the leading edge slats, something the British J’s lacked. Following ground school, ten sorties were flown by each crew involving instrument, interception, low level and air to air refuelling training.
The official roll out of the first complete F-4J (UK) was at North Island on 10th August 1984. Once the ceremonies were over and more air testing had been completed, Dick Northcote and his back seater Pete Smith took off as the lead aircraft of Tiger Trial 1. Each subsequent Tiger Trial followed the same pattern. From San Diego they would fly to Goose Bay, Canada and there link up with their VC-10K.2 tanker escort for the 5,500 mile Atlantic crossing. A hundred miles from British shores and with enough fuel on board the aircrews would bid farewell to their tankers and continue alone. On arrival, Tiger Trial 1 was met by an escort of FGR.2s from 56 Squadron and all five aircraft streaked across Wattisham in a loose formation before breaking into the circuit to land. The Phantoms of Tiger Trail 1 were soon put to work. One was assigned to ground use so new ground crew could be trained by recent returnees from the States while another was used by a working party from Boscombe Down who were tasked with helping 74 Sqn reach operational levels with equipment and external stores fitted. As more of the new F-4J(UK)s arrived each was assigned a tail code, the first eight getting T, I, G, E, R, S, Q and N. The rest of the fleet had codes chosen at random. Three even had names assigned to them that referred to the favourite bars that the squadron personnel had frequented in the States.
On 19th October 1984 74(F) Tiger Squadron’s reformation parade took place. The squadron was declared operational 31st December 1984 and the F4-J(UK) served faithfully until mid-1991 when they were withdrawn from use.