To me, the F-4 Phantom II is the greatest jet fighter, and possibly the greatest combat aircraft, ever. A development period of just a few years (compare that to current project such as the Eurofighter, F-22, or JSF) yielded an aircraft that, from its first flight in 1958, set new standards. It outperformed every other aircraft then available (illustrated by the many records set in the Skyburner and Sageburner projects), was adapted not only by the US Navy, but also the Marines, Air Force, and eleven other countries. 5,195 were built, more than the successful F-16.
Originally built as interceptor, the Vietnam War quickly turned the Phantom into a fighter bomber that, later in the conflict, pioneered the use of “smart” bombs. Other roles taken on were those of reconnaissance and suppression of enemy air defense (Wild Weasel), with dedicated versions for these tasks. The two-man crew was a big advantage for any role. As such, the Phantom was the first true multi-role combat aircraft, and dominated the USAF inventory in the 1970s in a way that is only now matched by the role of the Hornet in the US Navy.
Important lessons were learned in Vietnam, too: The importance of fighter training (“Top Gun” was born out of Vietnam experience), that a fighter needs a gun (rectified in the F-4E and F models), and that dogfighting and thus maneuverability remain important, a lesson that directly influenced the follow-up F-14, F-15, and F-16 fighters. It is interesting to notice that, while it’s Navy successor, the F-14 Tomcat, is now retired, the Phantom is still in service – more than 600 aircraft in 2008, 50 years after its maiden flight. Just 187 F-22 Raptors will be built…
There is one book that covers the history of the Phantom from its beginnings to (in the version I own, bought in London in 1997) the early ’90s, when it had just been taken out of active service in the US and UK: The Phantom Story by Anthony Thornborough and Peter Davies. I can keep the review quite short: This is THE comprehensive work about the F-4 Phantom II. Here is information that you probably won’t find anywhere else. The appendix includes a list of all US MiG kills in Vietnam and all US and UK units that ever flew the Phantom. I can only think of one point of criticism: All pictures inside the book are in black & white.
In other words: If you’re interested in the F-4’s (hi)story, get this book.