The Battle of Key West

Phantoms v. MiGs over Florida in 1962

A USMC McDonnell F-4 Phantom II on base, probably in Vietnam. Squadron VMFA-232. Richard Rash/NASM

The U.S. Marines Corps recieved its first McDonnell F-4 Phantoms in 1962. In addition to the pilot, the F-4 had a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), which of course led to a lot of front seat/back seat banter. According to Jon Lake and David Donald, authors of McDonnell F-4 Phantom: Spirit in the Skies, the droopy-tailed fighter saw action near Key West in the early 1960s:

The Marines were just too late to see action in the Cuban crisis, but the “Gray Ghosts” did make it to Key West, where they flew scrambles against Mexican airliners, lost lightplanes and even the odd Cuban MiG-17. After Cuban MiGs strafed a fishing boat 50 miles southwest of Key West, Marine Phantoms were scrambled to investigate. Their crews soon discovered that the MiG-17 enjoyed a very short turn radius. As one of the MiGs closed onto the tail of his aircraft, one laconic RIO was heard to remark, “You’d better do some of that pilot sh-t, ’cause we’re losing!”

Check out our February/March 2012 issue for more on the F-4—and nine other aircraft—in “100 Years of Marine Aviation: A Salute to 10 Aircraft That Carried the Few and the Proud Into History.”

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