Former USMC F-4 pilot tells story of when he and his wingman nearly shot down two Cuban MiG-17s flying over the Keys

“The flight only lasted about 25 minutes and we landed at base with only 800 pounds of fuel. Both Sidewinders came back with their homing heads fuzzy,” said MGen Mike “Lancer” Sullivan, Navy F-4 aviator with 5,000 hours on Marine Phantoms.

Built as a high-altitude interceptor, the F-4 (F4H) Phantom II quickly demonstrated that it was a special aircraft, setting more than a dozen world records for speed, altitude and time of climb. Unique in that it carried no internal guns, the F-4 relied on radar-guided missiles for attack and required a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) to operate its advanced sensors and systems. of weapons. The Phantom II has served in the front line of more Western air forces than any other jet aircraft.

The F-4 first flew on May 27, 1958, deliveries to US Navy and Marine Corps squadrons began in 1960 and entered service in 1961.

This print is available in multiple sizes at – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VMFA-333 Fighting Shamrocks, AJ201 / 155526 / 1972

As Peter E. Davies explains in his book Gray Ghosts, US Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms, in 1963 US Navy and US Marine Corps (USMC) F-4Bs deployed to Key West in response to the Cuban crisis and the Washington crisis. desire to have the most advanced interceptors in place to counter the threat from Russian and Cuban aircraft.

VF-41 had previously occupied this slot, and VF-102 on the USS Enterprise helped maintain the blockade of Cuba. VF-41’s move to base, according to former Phantom RIO Fred Staudenmayer, “was initiated by one of SecDef MacNamara’s child prodigies without going through the usual Navy chain of command, a harbinger of the micro-management that was to follow. With the most sophisticated and effective airborne weapons systems available, we assumed Alert status under the operational control of the Air Force to intercept anything that The MiGs never did, except to defect, but we intercepted an interesting assortment of Piper Cubs, transports, balloons and boats. ‘keep up the good work’ visit Just after the peak crisis period, President Kennedy visited the squadron lines of planes that hadn’t flown and circled us!

F-4N Phantom of VMFA-531

By the time the Gray Ghosts arrived the threat had diminished, but there were still actions against the Cuban MiG-17s which provided the Phantom crews with valuable first experience of a future adversary. MGen Mike “Lancer” Sullivan, who became the Navy’s F-4 Airman with 5,000 hours on Marine Phantoms during a 23-year career on the type, had such an encounter as he was assigned to VMF(AW)-531:

“CC Taylor, my RIO and I launched an airborne run, guided 120 degrees for a 47 mile bogie. We caught them before they ran dry on the Cuban Keys. During the intercept, we lost contact with the GCI, so our wingman climbed to an altitude where he could relay our instructions. We were at 800 feet doing Mach 1.1 in full afterburner at three miles with a passing speed of 470 knots and got a ‘Break X’ just when GCI said to hold a five mile runway on the bogies. I didn’t have a visual on them, so I reduced power to idle with the airbrakes out and did a high-speed barrel roll to avoid flying past the bogies. Luckily we leveled off on their tail at about half a mile, and I saw them slightly high at 12 o’clock.

F-4B from VMFA-531

“CC Taylor was shouting that GCI had said to maintain a five mile runway and seemed very nervous to be so close, with Cuba only a few miles away. I told him we should drop the hack, but at that point, both MiG-17s made a 60 degree port turn, I immediately thought they saw us and slid out of their turn, reconfirmed that I was “in Sidewinder ” and periodically, when at six o’clock from the bogies, I would hear this beautiful Sidewinder tone “Grrrrrr”. I thought it was tight, but then I realized that MiGs don’t pull g in turn. Watching them another few seconds it looked like the right winger was learning to fly in formation We were only seconds away from being over Cuba so I started a steep turn towards Key West with CC feeling arrogant and wanting me to get close to the MiGs so he could see them well. But it was too late, and he hung on down to the base. The flight only lasted about 25 minutes and we landed at the base with only 800 pounds of fuel. Both Sidewinders returned with their homing glass out of focus (low altitude, high Mach thermal friction). ”

Gray Ghosts, US Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms is published by Schiffer Publishing and can be ordered here.

Photo credit: US Navy and US Air Force

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