Friday, January 12, 2018

USAF F-4's and Their Perplexing Lack of Sidewinders...

Several days ago, I took to the Facebook page to post about United States Air Force F-4 Phantoms in South East Asia. Within the post, if you haven't read it yet, I pointed out that over the years I have seen many a USAF Phantom model built representing an F-4 that saw service during the Vietnam War. Further, those models tend to show the aircraft loaded with bombs and AIM-9 Sidewinders on the inboard pylons. Though this seems like an innocuous observation, I also pointed out that I have never seen photographic evidence to suggest the United States Air Force ever loaded their Phantoms with AIM-9's and bombs on the same pylon.

Box art depicting what so many modelers build. Note the AIM-9's above a TER full of Mk82 500 lb bombs.
Generally, my modeling mantra is "never say never" as there is usually at least one image a person can dredge up from the bowels of the internet to prove their case. In this instance, however, I have run into a brick wall. If you scroll through the responses on my Facebook page, you will read a number of former maintainers and operators who say with much certainty that their Phantoms were, indeed, loaded with Sidewinders and bombs. Given so many responses, I returned to the internet and applied the strongest Google-fu techniques I learned from a Shaolin Monk in Central China...and still came up empty.
Now, far be it from me to deny or argue with the accounts of service members who were actually there but still, something does not seem to add up. At this point, I feel like I have seen just about every photo of an F-4 that flew during the Vietnam War era and while I did not find exactly what I was looking for, I found some interesting images and some thoughts to go with them.

Can the comments be wrong?

I hesitate to say that that many guys are incorrect, regardless of whether or not their memories are from events that took place over fifty years ago. As a service member myself, and one who manages a combat-history related blog, I rely heavily upon the knowledge of my fellow brothers who have experienced what I have not. 
Several weeks ago, I posted an image of a TA-4J loaded with Rockeyes and AIM-9's. One reader commented that I was incorrect, that the aircraft was an F model, not a J seeing as how it had five weapons stations. So again, I turned to the knowledge of the group and the response was that it was, in fact, a J model TA-4 and that the TA-4J's out of VC-10 did operate with such loads. With that account in mind, it would be hypocritical of me to have believed the collective for one instance, but disregard it in this case.
So what is the deal? If so many guys say their Phantoms were loaded in such a way, where are the pictures?

Maybe they misunderstood?

Perhaps I did not phrase the question appropriately. Many of the responses simply referenced Sidewinders and bombs being used together but made no mention of them being on the same pylon. Of note is this picture I found during my hunt.

In this photo you can see the F-4 has a pair of AIM-9B's on the right wing's pylon and an ECM pod below them. On the left wing, you can make out a Triple Ejector Rack with at least one M117 750 pound bomb attached but there are no AIM-9's or even launchers on that pylon.
So, in this case perhaps my question was misunderstood. As you can see, yes, USAF F-4's did integrate Sidewinders and bombs during operations over Vietnam. But these are not on the same pylon. 
To make matters more interesting, I even found photos of USAF Phantoms with bombs loaded on pylons and empty LAU's mounted above them.

Is it even possible?

Of course it is, integrating bombs and Sidewinders was a configuration the Navy and Marines used quite often in SEA. Images of which are easy to find...

We know that the USAF, early on, used the Navy style pylon and TER adapter making this configuration possible for their Phantoms as well. Never the less, I have yet to see it.

M117 bombs on Navy style pylon, TER and adapter but no launchers.

Napalm on Navy style pylon, sans launchers.

AIM-9's on Navy style pylon, but no bombs...

The best I have...

Out of all the searching, the best I could come up with are several photos of USAF F-4 loaded with bombs and carrying AIM-4's on pylons rather than AIM-9's.

So we know in the very least that it was acceptable, at some point, to operate Falcon missiles on the same pylon as air to ground ordnance during the Vietnam War.

So is this a conflict of USAF vs USN doctrine?

It could be. There appears to be no logical reason based on equipment or photographs to suggest there is any difference between what Air Force Phantoms and their Navy counterparts were capable of. Perhaps this boils down to technical regulations or service-based preference.  
Both the Navy and the Air Force extensively test weapons and specific configurations on their aircraft before they are ever fielded in combat. Programs like Seek Eagle ensure the safe carriage and employment of ordnance used by USAF aircraft. There is a possibility that during testing, personnel discovered scenarios where operating AIM-9's on a pylon loaded with bombs did not meet the tolerances enforced by the Air Force. Of course, I don't know, this is merely conjecture.
However, while writing this post I discovered evidence supporting this suggestion. 

From The Aviation Forum comes this quote from user Transall:
 ...there may have been a different SOP in the USAF compared to the USN. A look in Don Logan's book about the 388th TFW in 1972, reveals that if the TER's were on the underwing pylons there were no Sidewwinders or their launch rails.


I do not own Don Logan's book though I suspect I will be hunting in down in the not too distant future. Though I cannot verify the veracity of the statement, it does explain the issue that I have come up against here. The fact that it plays into direct conflict with the claims made on my Facebook page means that more research is going to have to be done on my part before I can say anything with certainty. Perhaps a photo of such a configuration simply does not exist but I would not count on that being the case. The Vietnam War was well documented and if such a load were quite common, as it was in the Navy, the probability of an image coming to the light proving its existence is great...I just haven't found it.

If you have anything to add to this quest, I implore you to do so. Start a discussion in the comments section below and let's all figure this thing out.


  1. Have you been able to find any pictures of NATO, ROKAF or IRIAF C-, D- or E-models (the same models as the USAF) with a bomb/TER and AIM-9 load-out at the same time?

    1. To be honest, I haven't searched outside of US examples since I'm currently only concerned about their involvement in Vietnam.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this article and your evidence-based discussion for the findings you have to date. As a modeller it is refreshing to see this kind of question being reasonably examined and supported (or not supported) by empirical evidence. I suspect that other modellers reading this will be going to their display shelves to inspect their USAF F-4s. Thanks!