Military Aviation

The U.S. Air Force prepares to bid farewell to the last Phantoms in its inventory as the QF-4 mission is nearly complete

QF-4 Phantoms mission is nearly complete

Oct. 25, 2016 has been a bittersweet day for Hill Air Force Base (AFB).

On that day in fact as the QF-4 Aerial Target mission is winding down, two of the aircraft visited the airfield, to give supporters of the F-4 Phantom IIs the chance to see them one last time.

Hosted by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s F/QF-4 System Program Office, the visit was touted as the ‘Phinal Phantom Phlight.’

Lt. Col. Ron King and Jim Harkins, pilots from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, after having performed two flybys, landed at Hill AFB, where they were greeted by Airmen and civilians.

“I felt like we had an opportunity and an obligation to get this aircraft on the road one more time because so many people have this connection with it,” King explained. “It’s just been absolutely amazing for me to do this.”

Basic F-4s reconfigured

QF-4s are basic F-4s reconfigured for unmanned flight and are used in full-scale aerial target missions (FSAT), providing aerial targets for all Defense Department weapon systems. When flown in threat representative configuration, QF-4s were oftentimes shot at and destroyed during live fire test and evaluation missions and Air Combat Command’s Weapon System Evaluation Program.

Noteworthy the F-4 Phantom II, which flew for the first time in May 1958, originally was developed for U.S. Navy fleet defense and entered service in 1961. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) evaluated it as the F-110A Spectre for close air support (CAS), interdiction and counter-air operations. In 1962, USAF version was approved. First flown on May 27, 1963, the Air Force Phantom II was designated F-4C and its deliveries began in November 1963.

The F-4 was the U.S. Air Force primary fighter-bomber aircraft throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore the Phantom II performed extremely well in reconnaissance and “Wild Weasel” anti-aircraft missile suppression missions. Its production ended in 1979.

The modified F-4 became the QF-4 and it was chosen as the QF-106 successor in the Air Force aerial target inventory.

The QF-4 program stood up in the 1990s after that the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309 AMARG) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, had begun regenerating F-4s.

USAF to bid farewell to QF-4 Phantoms

The program is now in the ’sundown’ phase of its lifecycle. In fact in May 2015, all remaining QF-4s were transferred to Holloman AFB for final operations. The last unmanned mission in a threat representative configuration was flown on Aug. 17, 2016, and unmanned operations ended in September, while the last manned QF-4 flight is planned for Dec. 21.

The current fleet of QF-4s at Holloman AFB consists of 13 aircraft. At the end of the program, those still remaining will have their engines and hazardous materials removed and will be towed to the White Sands Missile Range for use as ground targets.

The QF-16 will replace the QF-4 in FSAT mission.

Unmanned aircraft flown by pilots

During the program’s lifecycle, it was not unusual for these ‘unmanned’ aircraft to be flown by pilots. Indeed, as told by Scott Johnson, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center F-4 system program manager “The majority of QF-4 missions are flown in the manned configuration to support manned presentations (validation tests of nonlethal weapon system components), unmanned flight chase missions, and pilot proficiency training.”

He also remarked that each QF-4 had to be checked out with a human inside before becoming operational. “One of the checks was to fly the aircraft with a pilot in the cockpit while it was controlled from the ground station in what’s called a ‘manned-coupled mission.’ It then became part of the local QF-4 fleet and remained in a manned configuration until it was needed for an unmanned flight to support an FSAT mission.”

Source: Paul Holcomb, 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs and U.S. Air Force; Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney, Tech. Sgt. Javier Cruz and Sara Vidoni / U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

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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