Cold War Era

The story of the RAF Phantom that made an emergency landing at Tonopah AFB and was stenciled with an “F-117 DON’T ASK” zap

The diversion took place on Nov. 9, 1989, and the aircraft was Phantom FGR.2 serial XV476.

As we have reported in a previous article, on Apr. 9, 1990 a RAF Tornado GR1 participating in a Red Flag exercise in the US made an emergency landing at Tonopah Air Force Base (AFB), then home of the top-secret F-117 Nighthawk (CLICK HERE to read the story).

A Nighthawk silhouette was applied to the fin of the Tonka as a result of the emergency landing. “The guys at Tonopah had a sense of humour after all, for the silhouette of an F-117 had been stencilled on each side of our tail fin,” Squadron Leader Wally Grout, former RAF Tornado navigator, said in Ian Hall’s book Tornado Boys.

But, as military aviation author Mike Crutch explained in that article, another RAF aircraft made an emergency landing at Tonopah a few months before the Tornado.

“A RAF Phantom FGR.2 (F-4M in US speak) diverted there during RED FLAG 90-1, arriving back at Nellis with an F-117 sticker and legend DON’T ASK. The diversion took place on Nov. 9, 1989, and the aircraft was Phantom FGR.2 serial XV476 (coded ‘S’ with No.56 Squadron, based at RAF Wattisham, UK but was part of a mix of airframes from UK and RAF Germany bases. So it was 56 Squadron-owned aircraft based at RAF Wattisham, UK, flown at that stage by a 92 Squadron crew based at RAF Wildenrath, West Germany. The zap was applied to the starboard engine intake,” Crutch told us.

Further details were added by Keith Hillsmith, former RAF Phantom crew member and wingman of XV476 during the mission that saw the aircraft diverting to Tonopah: “The F-4 crew that diverted to Tonopah were from 94 Squadron RAFG. I was the wingman. Single hydraulic PC failure. Which was a land ASAP.”

Unfortunately back then we couldn’t find any photo of this aircraft. But a few days ago Peter Rolt, a reader of The Aviation Geek Club, sent us the pictures of a Phantom with an F-117 zap that turned out to be the photos of the exact aircraft we were looking for.

As Rolt explained to us the photos were taken on Jun. 9/10, 1990 at A&AEE Boscombe Down, during IAT 1990 airshow (officially titled the Battle of Britain Airshow). “56 Squadron had several jets at IAT at MoD Boscombe Down, they conducted a ‘scramble’ as it was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain themed airshow.

“The pictures have been sitting in my study since then, recently I have been submitting photographs to a Facebook group for British Phantoms and I have been going through my images, having a little bit of a tidy up there were these strips of transparencies that I had not looked at for thirty years, obviously I noticed it on the day but with so many images from such a large event, they were forgotten until now.

“I asked the Phantom group and it was mentioned one diverted to Tonopah so I Google the specifics and your webpage came up, isn’t technology great.”

The Phantom formed a major part of the Royal Air Force’s combat aircraft strength for over twenty years and provided the Service with one of the world’s most capable strike fighters.

Two versions of the Rolls Royce Spey-powered Phantom entered service with the Royal Air Force. The FG1 (the version also used by the Royal Navy) in the interceptor role and the FGR2 in the ground attack and tactical reconnaissance role in Germany. From 1977, all the Royal Air Force Phantoms were used exclusively as interceptor fighters over United Kingdom air-space.

Great Britain bought fifty two Phantom FG1s and 118 Phantom FGR2s.

The RAF also purchased 15 ex-US Navy F-4J models, referred to as F-4J(UK) by the USN, they were to become Phantom F.3 in RAF service but it was determined that it would be confused with the Tornado F.3 (by people sat behind RAF desks!) so they were colloquially referred to as F-4J or F-4J(UK) by the RAF also.

Mike Crutch is author CVW: US Navy Carrier Air Wing Aircraft 1975-2015. You can purchase his book here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

Photo credit: Peter Rolt

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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