For the last time, an unmanned US Air Force QF-4 Phantom II has flown a mission as a Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT). Operating as a target drone, the QF-4E Phantom II (serial 72-166) was taking part in the F-35 Lightning II program in the skies above New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range on August 17. The historic mission was announced by the Air Force on August 29.
During the August 17 mission, the unmanned Phantom was shot at by an F-35 flying from Edwards Air Force Base, California. A photo release showed the QF-4 returning to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, unharmed.
‘Our mission is to provide those airplanes as targets for our Department of Defense and foreign military sales customers to test the next generation of weapons’, said Lt Col Ronald ‘Elvis’ King, the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS), Detachment 1 commander. ‘Sometimes, that is a missile, sometimes a surface-to-air missile. For the final unmanned flight, we flew in support of an F-35 mission.’
Retirement of the unmanned QF-4 is all part of the USAF’s transition to the new QF-16. Boeing has been contracted to convert 126 F-16 Fighting Falcon airframes into QF-16s for use by the 82nd ATRS over the coming years.
However, the Phantom will continue to fly manned sorties until the end of December. The move will bring the illustrious US military career of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 to a close after almost six decades. While the QF-4 is now based exclusively out of Holloman, the 82nd ATRS has been flying QF-16s at Tyndall AFB, Florida, since September 2014.
In response to the final unmanned QF-4 flight, one former F-15E Strike Eagle pilot took to Twitter to quip: ‘It was so much fun blowing these out of the sky at WSEP’ — a reference to shooting down Phantom drones during the Weapon System Evaluation Program — ‘But QF-16s will be much more fun.’
‘The aging fleet of QF-4s and their limited capabilities against modern fighters have rendered the aerial target workhorse, Phantom II, at its technological limit’, said Lt Col Ryan Inman, the former 82nd ATRS commander. ‘The QF-16 initiates the next chapter in advanced aerial targets, predominately in support of more technologically superior air-to-air weapons test and evaluation programs. The QF-16 will enable our leaner and more efficient Air Force to continue operations at maximum mission effectiveness while maintaining air superiority and global reach for decades to come.’
BAE Systems converted a total of 314 Phantoms to full-scale target drones at Mojave, California, with the aircraft used to fly target profiles and mimic enemy fighters — both manned and eventually unmanned when it was time for them to meet their fate in a live missile shot. Initially the FSAT role favored QF-4Gs, which were last in and first out of storage at the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The program then moved towards the QF-4E before finally transitioning to the QRF-4C from 2008.
BAE Systems delivered the last QF-4 to the USAF in November 2013. ‘The QF-4 has been flying for about 15 years, and it has been instrumental in testing next-generation weapons and radar systems’, noted Lt Col King.
On June 3, 2015, Lt Col King flew solo for the first time in the QF-4, making him the last pilot in the USAF who will ever learn to fly the Phantom.
‘It’s certainly bittersweet’, King reflected. ‘The F-4 served faithfully in Vietnam and as late as the Gulf War. So, for it to be pulled out of the boneyard to continue serving its country is a testament to this airplane — to the designers, the test pilots who first flew it, to the maintainers who’ve worked on it all these years — what a testament to what they’ve been able to do, and what a great airplane it was.’
For more on the QF-4, see the June 2016 issue of Combat Aircraft.