Between 1967 and 1994 the Royal Air Force operated four variants of the Phantom, although if it had not been for the Falklands War and World War three it is very likely that they would only have operated two variants. In this fact-file it is intended to discuss the four variants in brief detail.
Procured as a replacement for the Supermarine Scimitar and de Havilland Sea Vixen after the cancellation of the Hawker Siddely P.1154RN. An initial order of 140 aircraft was cut to 48 after the cancellation of the CVA.01, and of these aircraft 20 were diverted to the RAF, equipping 43 (F) Squadron, after the decision not to convert HMS Eagle to operate the Phantom, leaving HMS Ark Royal as the only Phantom capable aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy. In 1978 the remaining RN Phantoms were handed over to the RAF, allowing the re-equipping of 111 (F) Squadron, when HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned.
The RAF’s FG.1s spent their careers based at RAF Leuchars until they were replaced by Tornado F.3s in 1987. The remaining FG.1s were sent to RAF Wattisham and used as a source of spares to keep the FGR.2 (q.v.) fleet going.
The FG.1 had an extendable nose gear, needed for launching from smaller British carriers, was powered by the RR Spey 203, which was more responsive than the Spey 202 of the FGR.2 and used the AN/AWG-11 radar system.
Like its RN sister the FGR.2 was procured to replace several home grown programmes and the F-111K, which had all been cancelled, taking over the roles that the Hawker Hunter and English Electric Canberra had undertaken. The FGR.2 was initially used by the RAF in the strike and interdiction role in RAF Germany, its considerable air defence capabilities seen very much as being secondary.
When the SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 entered service it was decided that the FGR.2 should replace the majority of the English Electric Lightning fleet in the air defence role, both in RAF Germany and 11 Group.
The FGR.2 lacked the extendable nose gear of the FG.1, was powered by the similar RR Spey 202 and used the AN/AWG-12 radar system. Also like the FG.1 it was modified to carry the British Aerospace Skyflash in place of the AIM-7 Sparrow.
Two squadrons of FGR.2s, 19 and 92 Squadrons, served in Canada after the disbandment of RAF Germany between 1984 and 1986, at which point they were replaced by the F-4E(UK) (q.v.) and the aircraft returned to the UK.
The last two RAF squadrons equipped with the FGR.2, 56 (F) and 601 (City of London) Squadrons, re-equipped with the Tempest FGR.1 in 1994, bringing the era of British Phantoms to an end.
In the aftermath of the Falklands War the RAF deployed 23 Squadron and its FGR.2s to the islands. Combined with delays to the Tornado ADV programme this left the air force with a gap in its air defences; the solution lay in the purchase of 15 ex-USN F-4J aircraft, upgraded to roughly the same standard as the F-4S.
The aircraft were modified to make them compatible with RAF aircrew equipment and the Skyflash missile. They were eventually also repainted in the standard two-tone air defence grey after being delivered in a rather odd scheme which appeared to be an American attempt to recreate the RAF’s standard camouflage with paint that was not quite the right shades.
Operated by 74 (Tiger) Squadron, the F-4J(UK) was regarded by many RAF aircrew as the best of the British Phantoms, although their J-79s gave them a slower rate of climb compared to the Spey Phantoms they were faster. During World War Three the squadron was deployed to Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda to provide air defence for the colony. Three aircraft were destroyed on the ground during the Bermuda Insurrection, but were crucial in putting the rebellion down.
In 1987 the twelve remaining aircraft were returned to the USN to replace losses amongst Phantom squadrons, 74 Squadron re-equipping with the Tornado F.3.
For reasons never explained rather than designating them the Phantom F.3, the 15 aircraft were always designated F-4J(UK) in RAF service.
The F-4E(UK) was a rather unexpected variant, only procured because of the circumstances of World War Three. In 1986 it was realised that while the FGR.2s deployed to Canada had proven to be very effective aircraft they were at the end of a long logistical line and unable to use many Phantom parts being manufactured in the United States, Canada and Japan. Moreover UK based Phantom units were suffering from attrition.
The decision was taken to return the surviving FGR.2s in Canada to the UK and replace them with F-4Es, a mix of ex-USAF machines and new build aircraft manufactured by Mitsubishi in Japan. This decision also allowed additional Phantom units to stand-up in Canada without taking aircraft away from the defence of the UK.
The aircraft that equipped RAF Canada based squadrons were supplied on a similar basis to World War Two lend-lease, technically remaining the property of the United States Air Force. Indeed when most F-4E(UK) squadrons re-equipped with the Tempest FGR.1 in 1987/88 the surviving F-4E(UK) were returned to the USAF, although two squadrons, 88 and 104, took part in operations in support of the liberation of the Brownsville Pocket in 1989.
F-4E(UK) aircraft were delivered in standard USAF camouflage, the only change being to add RAF markings. Indeed the aircraft sent to support the liberation of the Brownsville Pocket retained USAF stars and bars with RAF fin-flashes and British serials.
Like the F-4J(UK) the F-4E(UK) was modified to make it compatible with British aircrew equipment and British weapons, such as the Skyflash and SNEB rocket pod, although as often as not they used American weapons, especially when deployed to the Southern Front.
FG.1 of 43 (F) Squadron in flight.
FG.1 of 111 (F) Squadron.
FGR.2 of 56 (F) Squadron.
F-4J(UK) of 74 (Tiger) Squadron.
F-4E(UK) of 92 (East India) Squadron.