One Vietnam Era F-4 Characteristic You're Probably Missing

The F-4 Phantom is an iconic aircraft, earning its renown not only through its unique aerodynamic properties but also through its distinguished service with the United States military and the air wings of eleven other countries. Despite its appearance which earned it such nicknames as "Double Ugly", "Rhino", and the "Flying Anvil", the Phantom smashed world records and soared into the hearts of admirers, proving that with enough thrust any thing can fly.

The F-4 remains a popular subject in scale modeling. Even I, the guy who struggles to complete anything lately, have finished Hasegawa's F-4E in 1/48. Though I painted mine in the two tone gray Hill scheme, the pattern that I think suits the Phantom best is SEA camouflage. Indeed, it is hard to separate the F-4 from the Vietnam war so its natural to see the majority of scale models of them built to depict the various green and brown MiG killers of the era.

But as I continue to waste countless hours of my life browsing the darkest corners of the web looking for the next great reference photo, I stumbled across a common feature of SEA Phantoms that modelers have seemed to neglect.


What? No. Chipping is reserved for World War II aircraft and armor, not sleek modern fighters! Right? Think again. It is time to examine some Vietnam era photographs of F-4 Phantoms and discuss how this oft overlooked characteristic could add some flair to your model.

Take it all in

Being stationed in South East Asia must wreak havoc on the surface of an aircraft. The constant exposure to the sun, sweltering humidity, and torrential rains would have put a beating on the paint. Phantom radomes appeared to have suffered immensely.

Though shocking to look at, it actually isn't that easy to find photographic evidence of radome chipping as extreme as this. However, what is easy to find are images of Phantoms with chipping along the intake lips and splitter plate - ranging from moderate to, well, insane. It appeared to be such a common occurrence that it stood out to me as an aspect most modelers do not address with this airframe. Because of this, we're missing out on some interesting finishes that we'll explore below.

You can see the splitter plate in front of the intake is starting to show wear on this 35 TFS F-4 stationed at Da Nang, 1972.

This F-4C of the 433 TFS on the other hand shows extensive paint loss on the splitter plate. Don't worry, I used all of Ron Picciani's photos with expressed permission.

This Phantom parked at Da Nang exhibits chipping along the splitter and an interesting wear pattern on the radome.

Robin Olds. You may have heard of him. Never the less, the chipping is clear in this glamour shot.

It does not take long to notice the wear on this Phantom's splitter plate.
 You will notice that so far all those examples are of USAF versions. That isn't to say the Navy did not suffer the same fate, however, it may not have stood out as much against the gray.

This Navy Sundowner shows some corrosion control efforts applied throughout the aircraft's surface, including the splitter plate.
Though you can see clearly in this photo the intake lip is showing signs of wear.

This should be enough to keep most modelers intrigued, wait, there's more. The common wear patterns on Vietnam era F-4s are fascinating but what is even more fascinating was the effort to remedy them.
Naturally if you have a section of aircraft with chipped paint you would assume a spot touch up here and there would do the trick. But that wasn't always the case and what we are left with are surprisingly contrasted finishes that would make any model stand out.

Note the large section of intake and entire splitter plate has been painted on this 433 TFS F-4C out of Ubon. The shade of brown stands out compared to the lighter, perhaps more faded, tan.

An even better example shows the newly applied brown and green extending even further down the fuselage and forward toward the radome - which also looks fresh I might add.

This F-4C of the 497 TFS could use a whole new coat of paint but it looks as though it was only touched up on the splitter and in an awkward splotch around the intake.

An excellent close up of an F-4C of the 555 TFS showing the comparatively new paint on the intake and splitter and some touch ups along the fuselage.

A 497 TFS F-4C with fresh paint on the splitter.

A repainted splitter plate on a 435 TFS F-4C.

Most of the area of the splitter has been touched up on this Phantom.


It has not been lost on me that the majority of the photographs depicting the repaints are from once source, and at least one base in all of South East Asia so perhaps the evidence isn't as common as I would like to think. However, according to the dates on the photos, one can assume the practice of repainting intakes and splitter plates covered a span of possibly ten months and four squadrons. It would seem reasonable to believe the finish was maintained in a similar manner throughout the conflict across multiple squadrons and locations.



  1. Even the ordnance on those partially repainted Rhinos is both fresh and faded. Interesting indeed!

  2. "Splitter Plate" is a modeler's term. The military referred to them as "Vari-ramps". Great shots and info, however. Thanks.

  3. The Vari-ramps are located behind the splitter plates, they are the hinged part with all the holes in them. The splitter plate and top of the vari-ramps got pretty beat up because this is where you would stand and walk. When using the crew boarding ladder you had a tendency to drag your foot across the top front of the splitter.

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  8. It may have been different before I worked on F-4Cs at Kelly AFB 1980-82, F-4Es at George AFB 1982-83, and Ramstein AB, 1983-86, or maybe it changed afterwards, but when I worked on Phantoms it was called a ramp, intake ramp or vari-ramp. Vari-ramp included the whole assembly, the fixed ramp in front and two variable ramps behind it.
    No one ever used the term "splitter plate" in my presence. I would have noticed if they had. Before I joined the military, I was an airplane nut and built lots of plastic models of F-4s. The model instructions called the part a splitter plate, my references did too. So after tech school when I first showed up for duty at Kelly, I asked a crew chief if any of our F-4Cs had red stars on the splitter plate. He had no idea what a splitter plate was. When I explained it, he said, "Oh, you mean the vari-ramp!"
    I felt like a poser (I was young) and embarrassed, so I never forgot that, and I definitely would remember if anyone who worked on F-4s with me had called it a splitter plate.
    As to the splotches of different colored paint used for touch-ups, we used what was available. At Ramstein we couldn't get FS 34102, 34079, or 30219 in spray cans. But we could get FS 14087, so that's what we used. Many of our jets had glossy olive splotches of paunt on them.
    As to the radomes, black radomes were painted with neoprene rubber which started out glossy and very black. The neoprene quickly weathered to flat black, and over time turned gray. Eventually if not repainted the neoprene would begin to come off in pieces, showing the off white fiberglass of the radome structure.


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