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The Phantom Menaced

When I first read about the shooting down of a Turkish fighter aircraft by Syrian air defences I was amazed. Not by the act. Not by the fact that the Syrians were so on the ball. But by the fact that the plane involved was an F-4 Phantom.

I mean, who knew that anybody was still using those?

Designed in the late 50s, the F-4 Phantom II was the standard American fighter-bomber of the Vietnam era. Whether tangling with the MIGs over Hanoi or dropping napalm on villages in the Mekong Delta, the Phantom was the go-to aircraft for the US Air Force, Marines and Navy. Its distinctive cocked wingtips and down-swept tail were part of its unique look, as was the afterthought cannon stuck on under the nose.

An F-4 Phantom drops bombs at a test range. US DoD

The Phantom also saw service with air forces in the UK, Australia, Germany, Israel, Iran and a few other operators.

In the USA, the Phantom had been pretty much phased out by the mid-80s, though a handful did manage to fly some specialist missions in the Desert Storm campaign. But mostly they were to be found by the hundreds in those huge boneyards in the Arizona desert. The sort of place where Bon Jovi would go to shoot music videos.

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the Turks still had them in the air. And not only that, but probing along Syrian airspace with them. The cynic in me thought that if perhaps the Turks were trying to see how far they could go before the Syrians would shoot back, they were probably happier to risk an old Phantom than one of their newer and more expensive F-16s.

Phantom on a US carrier deck, circa 1970. US DoD

At this stage it seems unclear what happened when the Turkish Phantom became the target of the Syrian air defences. First the Turks said that the intrusion was accidental and the attack came without warning, but now it appears the actual shoot-down occurred when the jet was already retreating after having been warned off by Syrian authorities.

Whatever the sequence of events, it’s not surprising that the Turkish aircraft was blown out of the sky in such a situation, given that its capabilities are a generation or two behind what the Syrians would have been aiming at it. Indeed, being blown out of the sky is the Phantom’s current preferred role.

Mothballed Phantoms wait for potential re-use as targets. Wikimedia

Known now as the QF-4, the USA uses old Phantoms as remote-controlled target drones. That’s right, they have so many spare ones they let trainee pilots shoot them down for practice. More technically known as ‘weapons evaluation’, using the old warbirds as supersonic clay pigeons offers advantages in cost and outcomes for testing missiles.

Firstly, the Phantoms will behave like a real plane, so it’s a more realistic dummy opponent than some of the standard target drones in use, such as the Firebee. It’s also the size and strength of a real plane, which makes it more valuable in terms of assessing the damage that a missile warhead can do. And lastly, they’re expendable and just sitting round in the scrapheap anyway.

Except apparently in Turkey, where their continued usage may have generated the last ever combat loss of an aircraft type that first flew in 1958.

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