Nov 12

The Phantom (II) of the Naval Academy

Thursday, November 12, 2015 12:01 AM

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On 28 June 1967, Commander (future Vice Admiral) William P. “Bill” Lawrence was the flying the lead plane of the flight of 36 aircraft from Fighter Squadron (VF) 143 off the USS Constellation (CV-64). Their target: transshipment points in Nam Dinh, North Vietnam. Lawrence’s F-4B Phantom II was part of group of 8 F-4s flying as flak suppressors for attack aircraft. As he he streaked in at more than 500 knots, Vice Admiral 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.

F-4A Phantom II. The Naval Academy Fire Station is at left. (U.S. Naval Institute)

As he was rolling on target, Lawrence recalled in his oral history interview with the U.S. 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 World War II–era 85-mm shell. “A darn good shot,” he later opined, “for a guy to sight on you from ground level.”

cockpit

F-4A Phantom II painted for Commander William P. Lawrence and Lieutenant (junior grade) James W. Bailey. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Despite the damage, Commander Lawrence 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. Lawrence told his rear-seat man, radar-intercept officer Lieutenant (junior grade) James W. Bailey, to eject. The commander did so himself shortly thereafter. Both men got out in one piece, and Lawrence radioed his wingman as he floated down that they were both alive. But they were soon captured by the North Vietnamese and 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.

F-4A Phantom II with Naval Academy quarters in the background. (U.S. Naval Institute)

The remains of Commander Lawrence’s plane, if any still exist, are in Vietnam, but the F-4 Phantom just inside Gate 8 of the U.S. Naval Academy, honors Lawrence, Bailey, and their ill-fated aircraft. Situated behind the Academy Observatory and in front of the Fire Station, it is painted (mostly) in the livery of Lawrence’s F4-B Phantom II of VF-143. However, it isn’t a F-4B; the Academy’s Phantom is last F-4A produced.

Vf-121 phantoms

Three F-4A Phantom IIs of VF-121. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

F-4A-5-MC (F4H-1F) Phantom II, Bureau Number 148275, was manufactured in 1961 by the McDonnell Aircraft Company, St. Louis, Missouri. It was the 47th 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 to 1968, 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.

pacemakers logo

Logo of VF-121, the “Pacemakers.” (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Training of the Navy’s first radar-intercept officers began in the Phantom II in 1962. 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,” Vice Admiral 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.

F-4A Phantom II from the gazebo above the Naval Academy Fire Station. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Among the other pilots of VF-121 who tested the Phantom II were two future astronauts, Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Lieutenant Richard F. “Dick” Gordon of the Apollo 12 mission. Lawrence had been a candidate for Project Mercury but was disqualified for a heart murmur.

Released from the Hanoi Hilton in 1973, Lawrence would serve as superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1978 to 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, 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.

Right side of the Phantom II, painted for VADM Lawrence and ADM Hardisty. (U.S. Naval Institute)

Sticklers may notice that the serial number painted on the aircraft does not belong to that which Lawrence flew in 1967. The number actually belongs to an F4-J Phantom II that flew with VF-84 from the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42).

A U.S. Navy McDonnell 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.

F-4J-32-MC Phantom II (BuNo 154783) of the VF-84 “Jolly Rogers” is launched from the Franklin D. Roosevelt. VF-84 was assigned to Carrier Air Wing 6 on board the FDR for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea from 29 January to 28 July 1971. (U.S. Navy)

The Naval Academy’s Phantom once sat outside Ricketts Hall, painted in the livery of 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, 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.

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

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