Thursday, November 12, 2015

Monument of the Month: The Phantom (II) of the Naval Academy

By Jon Hoppe

On 28 June 1967 Commander (later Admiral) William P. “Bill” Lawrence was the flying the lead plane of the flight of 36 aircraft from VF-143 of the USS Constellation. Theirs was an attack mission on transshipment points in the city of Nam Dinh in North Vietnam. His F-4B Phantom II was part of group of 8 F-4s flying as flak suppressors for the other aircraft. As he he streaked in at over 500 knots, Lawrence remembered thinking “Boy, I won’t have to sweat the missiles today, because we’ll be outside the missile zone.”

F-4A Phantom II. The Naval Academy Fire Station is at left.

As he was rolling on target, VADM Lawrence recalled in his oral history interview with the US Naval Institute in 1990, he felt a “real jolt” in his aircraft. “Hey, skipper, I think you’ve been hit,” his wingman radioed to him. Lawrence wasn’t hit by a missile, no — he was right about that — but by a WWII-era 85-mm shell. “A darn good shot,” he later opined, “for a guy to sight on you from ground level.”

F-4A Phantom II painted for CDR William P. Lawrence and LTJG James W. Bailey.

In spite of the damage, CDR Lawrence still continued to guide the aircraft to the target and release his bomb load. But soon it became all too clear the Phantom was too badly damaged to fly. Hydraulics failed, and it fell into a flat spin. CDR Lawrence told his rear-seat man, radar-intercept officer LTJG James W. Bailey, to eject. CDR Lawrence did so himself shortly after. Both men got out in one piece, and Lawrence radioed to his wingman as he floated that they were both alive. But they were soon captured by the North Vietnamese. They would spend the next six years as prisoners of war in Hỏa Lò Prison — the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

F-4A Phantom II with Naval Academy quarters in the background.

The F-4 Phantom just inside Gate 8 of the U.S. Naval Academy, situated behind the Observatory and in front of the Naval Academy Fire Station, though it is painted (mostly) in the livery of VADM Lawrence’s F4-B Phantom II of VF-143, is not that plane. But it is a plane that VADM Lawrence had seen before. In fact, it isn’t even a F-4B at all, as should so have it, but the last F-4A Phantom II produced.

Three F-4A Phantom IIs of VF-121. USNI Archives.

F-4A-5-MC (F4H-1F) Phantom II, builder’s number 148275, was manufactured in 1961 by the McDonnell Aircraft Company, St. Louis, MO. It was the forty-seventh and last F-4A made and had accumulated 1,527 flight hours in 1,012 flights before its retirement for exhibit purposes in April 1968, when it was donated to the Naval Academy. It served its entire operational life, 1961-68, with VF-121, the “Pacemakers,” out of Miramar, California.
VF-121 was the first Navy squadron to received the F-4 Phantom II all-weather fighter. Its primary mission was flight crew training; while it had been instructing combat-ready replacement pilots in the F3H Demon and the F-111 Tiger, the new Phantom soon demanded the squadron’s full attention.

Logo of VF-121, the “Pacemakers.” USNI Archives.

Training of the Navy’s first radar-intercept officers began in the Phantom II in 1962. VADM Lawrence was among those who were handpicked as test pilots for the new aircraft. Prior to his stationing at Miramar, he had been a test pilot with the Phantom II at Patuxent River NAS and helped develop the tactical part of the syllabus for the fleet-introduction course for that aircraft. After learning the ropes himself at Patuxent, Lawrence’s mission at Miramar was to teach others. “[T]he F4H was really the first two-place fighter,” VADM Lawrence recalled. “We had to develop immediately, high priority, these radar intercept officers.” And so in 1963, VF-121 was equipped solely with the new Phantom II.

F-4A Phantom II from the gazebo above the Naval Academy Fire Station

Among the other pilots of VF-121 who tested the Phantom II were two future astronauts, the-CDR Charles “Pete” Conrad and then-LT Richard F. “Dick” Gordon of the Apollo 12 mission. VADM Lawrence had himself been a candidate for Project Mercury, but had been disqualified for a heart murmur.
After his release from the “Hanoi Hilton” in 1973, VADM Lawrence would go on to serve as Superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1978-1981.
A close inspection of the Phantom II at the Naval Academy will show one side of the aircraft painted with Lawrence’s rank of VADM together with another F-4 pilot and later-USCINCPAC Admiral Huntington “Hunt” Hardisty. Hardisty (misspelled as “Hardesty” on the aircraft) had set the low-level speed record for the F-4 in 1961, a record that went unbroken for 16 years.

Right side of the Phantom II, painted for VADM Lawrence and ADM Hardisty.

Sticklers may notice that the serial number painted on the aircraft does not belong to that which then-CDR Lawrence flew in 1967. The number actually belongs to an F4-J Phantom II that flew with VF-84 aboard the USS Roosevelt.

F-4J-32-MC Phantom II (BuNo 154783) of Fighter Squadron 84 (VF-84) “Jolly Rogers” is launched from the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). VF-84 was assigned to Carrier Air Wing 6 (CVW-6) aboard the FDR for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea from 29 January to 28 July 1971. US Navy.

The Naval Academy’s Phantom once sat outside Ricketts Hall, painted in the livery of Squadron VF-171. Owing to its proclivity to “spontaneously” move from its stand to go to T-Court or up against the steps of the Commandant’s Quarters during Army-Navy week, the plane was relocated first to outside of Isherwood Hall (later replace with Alumni Hall) and then, along with the A-4 Skyhawk that also sits at the Naval Academy to the Fire Station in 2003, where it has sat ever since.

The Phantom II painted in the livery of VF-171 outside of Isherwood Hall, 1981. Library of Congress.

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