Tinker History: The F-4 Phantom

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

One of the most important missions at Tinker Air Force Base is providing combat power to the warfighter. The F-4 Phantom II began sustainment here in July of 1970.

The Air Force Reserves’ 507th Tactical Fighter Group, now the 507th Air Refueling Wing based here, flew this “MiG Killer” until they switched to F-16 Fighting Falcons in 1988.

At first, U.S. Air Force pilots did not highly regard the F-4 as it was not a superior plane to the enemy’s MiG-21. Improvements were needed, and the Air Force decided the Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area should be the team to do it – thus the arrival of the F-4 Phantom II to Tinker AFB.

Team Tinker has always given the U.S military warriors the tools they need to win, and a good example of that superior air power came during Operation Bolo.

Operation Bolo, on Jan. 2, 1967, was born within the context of Operation Rolling Thunder which went on from March 2, 1965 until Nov. 1, 1968. Operation Rolling Thunder was the most intense air to ground battle waged during the Cold War period and was fought during the Conflict in Southeast Asia in Vietnam. During the last months of 1966 the MiG-21s of the Vietnam People's Air Force (deployed in the 921st Fighter Regiment) became very active and were successfully intercepting the F-105 Thunderchiefs or "Thuds" formations of the USAF which were flying missions for Rolling Thunder. The number of F-105 supersonic fighter-bomber planes lost to the MiGs worried the U.S., so the Air Force decided to make an important effort to neutralize the MiG threat: the effort known as Operation Bolo.

The idea and planning of this operation was the masterpiece of a living legend among the U.S. F-4 Phantom pilots in South East Asia, Col. Robin Olds. He was a P-38/P-51 Ace during WWII, credited with 12 kills against the German Luftwaffe in 1944 and 1945, and now - at 44 years old - he was the commanding officer of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. He was an old-fashioned fighter pilot: impulsive, rough, hard-drinking, but a natural leader and an intuitive tactician. It was said the sign over his door read, "Peace Is Not Our Profession," in mocking reference to Strategic Air Command's motto.

Colonel Olds’ vice commander was Col. Daniel "Chappie" James who went on to be the Air Force's first black general and the first black four star general in any American military service. In those less-inhibited times, the men of the 8th TFW openly referred to this great duo as Blackman and Robin.

Colonel Olds realized that the F-105 and F-4 formations used the same approaches, time after time, and the SIGINT analysts in Hanoi became expert in identifying the more vulnerable F-105s from the F-4s from their radio frequencies and call signs. Colonel Olds decided to fly a large F-4 formation using the same routes, altitude, and call signs as the F-105s hoping the MiG-21s would be guided towards them expecting to find slower Thunderchiefs, and when they realized the truth it would be too late. To further convince the enemy, the wing modified its aircraft to carry electronic countermeasures pods previously used only on the F-105s.

The operational plan was presented to Gen. William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force commander, Dec. 22, 1966. General Momyer approved the plan, which was assigned the code name Bolo after the cane-cutting machete which doubled as a Filipino martial arts weapon. Sharp and deadly, the Filipino bolo does not appear to be a weapon until the opponent is drawn in too close to evade. This was the intent of the plan - to draw the MiGs into the Phantoms' kill-zone and strike while the VPAF were still expecting to find the less-dangerous F-105s.

The D-Day of Bolo was Jan. 2, 1967. Colonel Olds presented the plan to his pilots as being one where they would be wolves in sheep's clothing. His last words to them were, "alright you Wolf Pack, let's go get'em." The attack was an unprecedented success and was the most successful aerial battle of the war. Flying with call signs derived from American cars of the period; Ford, Rambler, and (inevitably for the CO's flight) Olds, the 8th TFW caught them completely by surprise. Assistance was given by the 366th TFW who were covering possible MiG withdrawal routes. Between seven and nine enemy MiG-21s were shot down that day depending on who did the counting. The VPAF was grounded for several months for fear of losing all their planes while teaching their pilots updated tactics. Bob Hope while on tour referred to the 8th TFW as the "greatest distributor of MiG parts in the world." And the 8th TFW has been known as the Wolf Pack ever since.

The final flight of the F-4 Phantom II, one of the most versatile weapon platforms in the history of the Air Force, was on Dec. 21, 2016, at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.