RF-4B Phantom II, TN-20, BuNo. 153090, was cleared out of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, AZ, for a Familiarization-4 flight. The aircraft shown here is rendered in the paint scheme for Marine Corps Composite Reconnaissance Squadron THREE (VMCJ-3).
Aircraft rendered by Gary Fabian.

F-4 Phantom II
San Diego, California

Less than two miles off the coast of Del Mar, California, lies the wreck of an F-4 Phantom II jet aircraft. The F-4 was discovered incidentally in 1994 during a sonar search for a downed plane carrying over $100 million in bank receipts. Bank of America hired Dave Miller to locate the plane and its contents in the waters off San Diego, CA.

When Miller was unable to locate the plane in shallow water he hired Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to complete the search. Off the coast of Del Mar, SAIC found the F-4 Phantom and a nearby P-38 Lightning. Both targets were later identified with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The plane carrying the bank receipts was eventually found between 400-700' off La Jolla Canyon. In late summer 1994, two San Diego area men were arrested for having the bag and contents in their possession. The bag is believed to have floated ashore where the two men found it.

*Background information provided by Steve Lawson.

Possible Identification

The identity of the F-4 has been the focus of speculation by local divers. Some claim the plane was intentionally pushed off of an aircraft carrier after a landing mishap. This explanation seems doubtful considering the shallow depth of the site and it's close proximity to shore. Another diver insists that it must be a Navy F-4 because he believes that no Marine Corps F-4 has ever crash off San Diego. It's possible that it is a Navy F-4, we don't know for sure, but we do know that at least one Marine Corps F-4 did crash in the same area off of Del Mar. Without locating the planes official Bureau Number or some other identifying markings we may never know, but we do have some very strong circumstantial evidence that we believe identifies this aircraft.

Following up on a newspaper lead that I received from Steve Lawson I was able to track down the accident report for a Marine RF-4B that crashed in the same area in 1966. The accident report follows. For privacy reasons I omitted the names of the crew members because I have reason to believe they may still be living.


May 6, 1966

VMCJ-3 - (Marine Composite Squadron THREE, El Toro, CA)

McDonnell-Douglas RF-4B



From: MCAS Yuma To: MCAS Yuma

295 Radial 10 NM NAS MIRAMAR

Zoom climb recovery procedure resulting in spin. Aircraft not recovered.


At 1208T, 6 May 1966, the pilot and his RSO (Reconnaissance Systems Officer) departed MCAS Yuma, Arizona in RF-4B, TN-20, for a Familiarization-4 flight. The flight proceeded to El Centro and San Diego, California, at approximately 15,000 ft.  Enroute the pilot practiced speed changes of 325, 400 and 500 KIAS (Knots Indicated Air Speed) and approaches to a stall in the landing configuration.  After "cleaning up" the aircraft, he proceeded into W-291 northwest of San Diego, approximately 130 N.M. from his take off point.  The pilot informed his RSO that he would enter a maximum performance climb to 40,000 ft. as briefed.  Starting at 15,000 ft. he accelerated in level flight to 400 KIAS, selected afterburners, and rotated to a 40 degree nose up, wings level attitude.  At 25,000 ft. he deselected afterburners, maintained 40 degrees pitch attitude and waited for the aircraft to decelerate to 250 KIAS to practice the 5-10 unit angle of attack zoom climb recovery maneuver.

As soon as the recovery was initiated, both crewmembers experienced large negative "G" forces followed by positive "G" forces.  The RSO felt moderate buffet, then both crew members felt the left wing drop and the aircraft entered a spin at approximately 32,000 ft.  The aircraft continued to spin and oscillate.  On the pilot's command the RSO ejected at 12,000 ft. followed by the pilot at 10,000 ft.  The aircraft continued in the spin and contacted the water approximately two (2) miles off the coast from Del Mar, California, on the 295 degree radial, ten NM, N.A.S. Miramar TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation).


RF-4B, BuNo. 153090, received ALFA (strike) damage on 6 May 1966, caused by collision with water, and consequently was lost at sea.


1. The cause of this accident was pilot factor in that he failed to control the aircraft properly resulting in a spin. He then failed to execute properly the spin recovery technique. His instrument scan and awareness of what his airplane was doing were also seriously deficient.

2. The removal of the pilot's helmet and injury to his ear during ejection were caused by improper routing of his over the shoulder oxygen/communications hose.

3. The cause for the loss of the lower half of the RSO's seat kit could not be determined.

RF-4B, 153090, in the skies over San Diego, California

The pilot entered a maximum performance climb to 40,000 ft.

The aircraft entered an uncontrollable spin at approximately 32,000 ft.
Both crew members ejected below 12,000 ft.

The 295 degree radial line from the Miramar TACAN tower. The line passes almost directly over the wreck site of the F-4 Phantom. Image from the USGS.

Side scan sonar image of the F-4 wreck site. A separate debris field is left of the main wreckage. Image recorded by Capt. Ray Arntz aboard the

The wreck of the F-4 Phantom lies upside down in approximately 150 ft. of water off the coast of Del Mar, California. Steve Lawson provided the following video still frames of the wreck. Visibility was limited and much of the plane was covered with large amounts of squid eggs.

Image 1

Image 2

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Image 4