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North Vietnamese MiG-17s cower behind bunkers between missions. Although the faster MiG-21 was available, many experienced pilots, such as Colonel Tomb, favored the nimble "Fresco".

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom

Marines at sea

It wasn't just the Navy that flew the Phantom from aircraft carriers. U.S. Marine Corps squadrons shared the load of shipboard deployments.

Top Guns of the 1960s

In the late 1960s the F-4 Phantom crew was considered the elite of the West's air forces. No service trained their crews better than the U.S. Navy.


The Phantom was best known as a MiG-killer, but it did its fair share of ground attacking as well. These aircraft are seen over Vietnam, dropping 500-lb. bombs from the relative safety of medium altitude.

Catapult launch

An F-4J thunders from the deck on an unarmed training sortie. The undercarriage was incredibly strong to absorb the pounding of carrier operations.


▶ Tests showed that pilots in Vietnam were more anxious about landing on the carrier than about fighting MiGs.

▶ Navy and Marine F-4B and F-4J fighters flew over 100,000 sorties in Vietnam.

▶ In early Vietnam combat, Phantom pilots were achieving only a 1:1 kill ratio.

▶ A Phantom weighs 4.68 times as much as the Hellcat carrier fighter of 1944.

▶ After the introduction of "Top Gun" training, the kill ratio improved to as much as seven MiGs for each F-4 lost.

▶ On May 10, 1972, Navy F-4s from fighter squadron VF-96 downed six MiGs.


Gulf War Strike

▶ Multirole strike fighter

▶ Dangerous low-level missions

They flew the most dangerous air missions of the Gulf War. Hurtling through the night, less than 200 feet above the ground, their targets were the heavily defended runways of Iraq's military airfields. And the perilous nature of their role is reflected in the fact that the Royal Air Force's (RAF) Tornado GR.1s suffered proportionally the highest losses of all the aircraft taking part in Operation Desert Storm.

Tornados are designed to fly very fast, very low. Just how low is evident in this view from the cockpit of a Tornado as it races a hundred feet up through a desert "wadi."

Gulf War spearhead

"It was a very, very black night; probably one of the darkest I have ever flown on. Over the desert, especially over Iraq, there are no lights. You are flying very low, and all you see is the odd Bedouin camp flashing by."

From the beginning of the Gulf War, British and Saudi air force Tornados made their trademark high-speed attacks. Passing low over their target, the huge JP233 containers beneath the fuselage dispensed runway-cratering munitions and area- denial mines, designed to prevent repair operations.

Low-level missions such as those employing the JP233 were among the most dangerous of the war. Five aircraft were lost to the full force of enemy antiaircraft artillery.

"It's absolutely terrifying. You're frightened of failure; you're frightened of dying. You're flying as low as you dare but not too low to drop your weapons. You put it over the target as low as possible, then you get away as fast as you can."

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