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McDonnell Phantom in British Service

n by Rick Kent


McDonnell Phantom FG.1
892 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm
H.M.S. Ark Royal, 1970

The first British customer for the Phantom was the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, who ordered it as a replacement for the Sea Vixen in 1964. This version was known as the FG.1 in British service (its US designation was F-4K). As modellers will know, the British Phantoms were quite a bit different in shape and unique in having Rolls-Royce Spey engines. Also the FG.1 version had a considerably longer extending nose wheel leg so that it could operate from British aircraft carriers. It was originally intended that two operational Naval squadrons should be equipped, one each for HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle. However, for political reasons, the refitting of Eagle was cancelled so 892 Sqn was the only operational one formed, and operated these Phantoms from March 1969 to December 1978.

The Royal Navy colour scheme was Extra Dark Sea Grey on the upper surfaces with white undersides. 892 Squadron's badge is prominent on the fin in red, white and black; the black letter "Omega" was chosen for the marking as it is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and at the time it was thought that 892 would be the last fixed-wing Naval Squadron. This, of course, turned out to be wrong when the Sea Harrier appeared. The white letter "R" is the code for HMS Ark Royal and the white "007" on the nose is the individual aircraft ident - nothing to do with James Bond! The Squadron's Phantoms carried codes between 001 and 017.


McDonnell Phantom FGR.2
6 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Coningsby, Lincolnshire, 1970

Following on from the Royal Navy order for the Phantom, and after some considerable ineptitude on the part of the British Government which has been well-documented elsewhere, the type was also ordered in de-navalised form for the RAF as the FGR.2 (US F-4M), initially to be used for ground attack and tactical reconnaissance, and then, after replacement by Jaguars and Buccaneers in that role, in the air defence role, replacing Lightnings.

The first front-line RAF Squadron to equip with the Phantom FGR.2 was No 6 on 7th May 1969 (the Squadron had flown Canberras in Cyprus up to January 1969). 

The basic camouflage on the Phantoms as delivered to both the RAF and FAA was in a high gloss finish; matt finish was not applied until later in the 1970's. The RAF colours were Dark Green and Dark Sea Grey on the upper surfaces, with Light Aircraft Grey underneath, the upper surface camouflage wrapping around the leading edges of the wings and outer tailplanes. 

The underwing pylons were white at this time, with a Light Aircraft Grey leading edge on the inboard ones; underwing and centreline fuel tanks were sometimes white too, but often camouflaged as shown here. The roundels and fin flashes were still in the normal red/white/blue in all positions at this early stage. 

The white letter "A" on the fin is the individual aircraft ident, and the last three digits of the serial number were painted in black on the nose wheel door, the whole serial number also being painted in large black characters under each wing. 

The aircraft of 6 Sqn soon adopted both of their traditional markings on the Phantoms: on the tail is the zig-zag Gunners' Stripe, first used in WW I when the Squadron was an artillery-spotting unit, the stripe itself is red on a light blue background, edged at top and bottom with medium blue; on the nose is the unofficial badge first adopted by the Squadron in WW II of a winged can-opener in red on a white disc outlined in red, which commemorated their tank-busting role in North Africa with the Mk IID Hurricanes with 40mm guns, the Squadron being nicknamed the Flying Can-Openers

The Squadron kept the Phantoms at Coningsby until 1st October 1974 when it was disbanded. A new 6 Sqn was formed the next day with Jaguars, which are still flown from Coltishall in Norfolk.


McDonnell Phantom FGR.2
54 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Coningsby, Lincolnshire, 1972

The second RAF Squadron to equip with the Phantom FGR.2 was No 54 on 1st September 1969, also based at Coningsby alongside No 6 Sqn. The Squadron previously flew Hunter FGA.9's. The camouflage and national markings on 54's Phantoms was the same as for 6 Sqn so the only difference is in the Squadron markings. As can be seen the individual identification letters were in yellow rather than the white used by 6 Sqn. 

The Squadron markings on the nose are 54's usual blue/yellow checks with the Squadron badge of a blue lion rampant on a white disc in the centre. This is very similar to the markings carried on the unit's Hunters as shown in my very first profile article for this magazine.

54 was chosen to be the first RAF Jaguar Squadron from March/April 1974, giving up its Phantoms on 23rd April of that year. Just as 6 Sqn, it still flies its Jaguars from Coltishall today.


McDonnell Phantom FGR.2
17 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Gutersloh, German Federal Republic, 1974

17 Squadron was one of four RAF units to operate the Phantom FGR.2 in the then West Germany in the strike/tactical reconnaissance roles between 1970 and 1976; it had previously flown Canberra PR.7's until December 1969. 17 Sqn flew the Phantoms from September 1970 until December 1975, having started to reform as a Jaguar Squadron in September of that year. 

Phantoms began to be painted with matt paint and red/blue only roundels and fin flashes from the middle of 1972, but it was a fairly slow process before they were all done. This particular aircraft still has the white in the underwing roundels and also white pylons (without the dark leading edge on the inboard one). Also, the fin flashes are in the later, more common, swept-back style. 

17 Sqn didn't use letter codes for its aircraft but painted the last three digits of the serial number on the fin in white as shown. The famous black zig-zag markings - which were first used on Sopwith Snipes in the 1920's - are painted each side of the roundel on a white arrow-head. The Squadron badge of an armoured gauntlet is in silver on a shield divided diagonally into black and white on the nose.


McDonnell Phantom FGR.2
41 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Coningsby, Lincolnshire, 1976

The third and last Squadron to form with the Phantom in the UK for strike/tactical reconnaissance was No. 41, also based at Coningsby, in April 1972. Up to September 1970 they had been a Bloodhound SAM unit. The Squadron concentrated mainly on the Tac/R role with the large external reconnaissance pod on the centreline pylon. 

As can be seen the basic camouflage and markings remain the toned-down ones introduced in June 1972, but even by 1976 as on this aircraft the underwing roundels retain the white and the pylons are also still white. Incidentally, these new matt paints were first applied with rollers, not spray-guns, and so the demarcation lines between the camouflage colours were quite sharp as there was no overspray. 

The badge of 41 Sqn, a red Cross of St. Omer, outlined in white, with yellow crown on top appears on the fin. This commemorates the fact that 41's first operational base in France in 1916 was at St. Omer. The same badge is repeated on the nose on a white disc over the Squadron marking of a red bar edged at top and bottom in white - first used on Snipes in the 1920's. The aircraft did not carry letter codes but had the last three of the serial number in black on the upper fin.

41 Squadron continued to operate the Phantoms until March 1977, but a new 41 equipped with Jaguars started to form in August 1976. It still operates the latter from Coltishall, and still alongside Nos. 6 and 54 Squadrons to this day.


McDonnell Phantom FGR.2
23 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Wattisham, Suffolk, 1982

From March 1974 the strike/reconnaissance Phantom FGR.2 squadrons began to re-equip with the Jaguar. This process released the Phantoms to replace Lightnings in the air defence role, the first squadron to so re-equip being No.111 at Leuchars. 23 Sqn reformed with Phantoms on 1st November 1975, having flown Lightning F.6's until the day before from Leuchars.

At first the Phantoms retained the same camouflage scheme in the air-to-air role as they had worn as strike aircraft, but starting in 1978 they were all gradually repainted in a completely new low-visibility finish, a process that went on well into the 1980's to complete. This Phantom of 23 Sqn in 1982 has the new scheme which consisted of Semi-Matt Grey (usually referred to as Barley Grey after the man who devised it) on the upper surfaces of the fuselage, tailplane and outer wing panels, Medium Sea Grey on the inner upper surface of the wings, and Light Aircraft Grey undersurfaces. The nose radomes were a slightly darker brownish grey. The upper surface colours on wings and tailplane wrapped around the leading edges slightly. 

At the same time as the new camouflage was introduced the national insignia was changed to a much smaller size in pink and pale blue. 23 Squadron's badge of a red eagle is on the nose outlined in white and the traditional Squadron markings of a red/blue band are painted across the top of the fin/rudder below the RWR housing. The individual aircraft ident letter "G" on the fin and the serial number are in white; serial numbers are no longer carried under the wings.

23 Sqn was disbanded at Wattisham on 30th March 1983 but at the same time the detachment of 29 Sqn Phantoms at RAF Stanley in the Falkland Islands was renumbered 23 Sqn. On 1st November 1988 this, in turn, was renumbered 1435 Flight, but a new 23 Sqn was reformed with Tornado F.3's at RAF Leeming back in the UK.


McDonnell Phantom FG.1
43 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Leuchars, Fife, August 1986

When the refitting of HMS Eagle was cancelled and thus the Royal Navy no longer needed its second squadron of Phantom FG.1's, these aircraft were delivered to the RAF in the original glossy grey/green camouflage and issued to 43 Sqn for the fighter defence role at Leuchars from 1st September 1969.

This profile shows the Squadron commander's aircraft as it was specially painted for the unit's 70th anniversary in 1986. A lot more black/white check markings have been added over the basic low-viz camouflage than on the normal Squadron aircraft; namely on the top of the fuselage and on the fin. The normal Squadron check markings are also still carried either side of the roundel. The pink/light blue fin flash has been moved to a position at the top of the fin on the RWR housing. The other difference from the usual is the painting of the serial number in black instead of white and the black frames to the cockpit canopy. 

Worth mentioning is that the centre part of the canopy on the left side only has the late modification whereby the glazing was deleted in favour of other equipment (the glazing remains on the right side). Note also the addition of the rear-view mirror at the front of the rear cockpit. Beneath the front windscreen is a triangular Wing Commander's pennant in light blue with two pink stripes, outlined in medium blue, with the point of the triangle facing to the rear.

No 43 Sqn operated its Phantoms from Leuchars for twenty years, replacing them from September 1989 with Tornado F.3's.


McDonnell Phantom FG.1
111 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Leuchars, Fife, July 1989

111 became the first Squadron to convert to the Phantom FGR.2 in the air defence role on 1st October 1974. When 892 Sqn of the Fleet Air Arm disbanded with its FG.1's on the decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal its aircraft were transferred to 111 Sqn RAF. This was done in order to make Leuchars an all FG.1 base, with 43 Sqn already there, and thus simplify aircraft servicing, in view of the differences between the two marks.

The aircraft shown here is as specially painted for the Squadron Commander of 111 in 1989, with the extra areas of black and yellow, the Squadron colours, on the upper fuselage, fin and rudder. As with the previous 43 Sqn aircraft, the fin flashes were moved to the top of the fin above the yellow area. Also, at the front base of the fin is the individual aircraft ident letter "Z" in yellow; the serial number is in yellow over the black in its normal position. The Squadron badge of a yellow Cross of Jerusalem bearing three black scimitars all over two crossed red swords is on the black disc on the fin. The badge commemorates the Squadron's service in the Middle East in WW I. The badge is repeated on the nose over the Squadron's black lightning flash marking outlined in yellow. The overall finish of the aircraft is the usual low-visibility camouflage.

111 Sqn kept its Phantoms until 1990 when it reformed with Tornado F.3's, still alongside 43 Sqn at Leuchars, as it remains today.


McDonnell Phantom FGR.2
92 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Wildenrath, German Federal Republic, 1990

After their changeover to the air defence role the RAF maintained two Phantom FGR.2 squadrons at Wildenrath in Western Germany. These were Nos 19 (from July 1976) and 92 (from 1st January 1977), both of which had previously operated Lightning F.2A's from Gutersloh. 

This profile shows one of 92 Squadron's aircraft quite late on in their service in the low-viz camouflage; by this stage, when it was known that they were soon to disband, their aircraft were more brightly decorated with the red fins and rudders. On this on a large white disc was placed the Squadron badge of a yellow Cobra superimposed on two red maple leaves, the latter commemorating the large number of Canadian personnel with the Squadron in WW I. At the top of the fin on the RWR housing is the Squadron marking of a red/yellow checked band. The white letter "P" on the fin is the individual aircraft ident. All the other markings are as standard.

92 Squadron was disbanded with its Phantoms in January 1992.


McDonnel Phantom F-4J(UK)
74 Squadron, Royal Air Force
Wattisham, Suffolk, 1989

One other version of the Phantom served with the RAF, namely the F-4J(UK), which equipped 74 Sqn from October 1984 until 1991. The above profile of one of these aircraft, which were refurbished ex-US Navy and Marine Corps, is fully described in my previous article on 74 "Tiger" Squadron. There were fifteen of them which brought the grand total of British Phantoms to 185 purchased since 1967.

Rick Kent is a modeller, IPMS:er and a productive aviation artist. His speciality are computer-generated aircraft profiles.

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