Pharewell to a Phantastic Phighter

The Phantom QF-4

Soon there won’t be many F-4’s remaining. One of the more interesting discussions at Airventure was with U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Colonel Ron Miller who flew his Phantom (drone) to the festivities. Ron is attached to the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS). They fly the last active-duty Phantoms as full-scale aerial targets (FSATs) for weapons tests. For those who remember Vietnam era history, some air to air  weapons performed  horribly. To prevent this from happening again, missile systems undergo lethality testing. Fighter jet drones provide a full size combat-configured target.

Davis-Monthan Air Base in Arizona still has rows of obsolete F-4 Phantom II aircraft. Some 230 Phantoms have already been converted as drones since 1995. It’s not cheap at $800,000 each.

I asked Col. Miller how many Phantoms actively fly. There’s only eleven. Ten as part of the 82nd  and one owned by the Collings foundation. Another 50 are in inventory for use as drones. Pilots such as Col. Miller help train the ground crew how to fly ACM , land and take over if the plane departs. In fact the plane he flys is frequently under remote control. Imagine turning over the aircraft controls to someone on the ground saying “You have the plane”.  A good time to be on best buddy status with the guy on the ground. Ron is shown in the photo below describing one such event where the controller botched the landing. The mains hit hard and the aircraft assumed a nose low attitude with the Phantom wheelbarrowing down the runway on the nose gear before he could disengage the remote control with a paddle switch on the stick. He hit the blowers and made the go around.

Up to six QF-4 aircraft can be controlled in formation, using GPS to maintain each in position relative to the flight track. Robotic Blue Angels anyone?

Sad these great planes are routinely shot out of the sky but Col. Miller is philosophical. “It’s better that these planes serve an important purpose instead of rotting away in a bone yard.”  Once they’re gone there will be another victim: Earlier this year Boeing received the contract for the first 126 QF-16 drones to be delivered early 2014.

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4 responses to “Pharewell to a Phantastic Phighter

  1. Sometimes it is better to burn out rather than fade way.

    • Serving a worthy purpose but after building 5,000 of them, only a dozen or so will remain. Good time to buy! They’re sure to go up in value.

  2. virgil xenophon

    Makes me sick looking at that old E-model–looks like new to me! 🙂

    And I wouldn’t be too quick to call it obsolete. When they prematurely ret. the Wild-Weasel “Iron-Hand” SAM suppression G-model we lost the only platform capable of doing low-level WW work. ( The F-4 is a MUCH more stable ac on the deck at hi mach nos than anything in the inventory we now have. ) And while some justified it’s elimination by stating the belief that modern SAM systems are simply too lethal for this approach anymore, I demur. The most lethal Soviet variants aren’t yet in place everywhere, and
    there are times when such an asset must be sent in anyway even if it means sacrificing the maj. of the force. Such is the nature of war. As it stands now there are simply some attack msn profiles that we cannot use w.o either the F-4G and the EA-111 Raven which we also foolishly ret. early.

    Of course the real reason both were retired was dollar related–high maint costs–but in my book that goes with the territory. Better to have a 60% avail high-cost A+ capability than no capability at all or a low-cost C+ 85% avail capability. (YMMV.)

    • Hate to see beautiful planes with an honerable heritage being destroyed. Shouldn’t more of them end in in aviation museums all over the country? This is much the same as when so many Warbirds went into the smelter after WWII. What we wouldn’t give to have more of them around now.

      I believe the F-111 and F-4 were, in part, victims of the “Fighter Mafia” of the 1970’s which favored smaller aircraft. That, and the fact that the avionics were archaic by that time.

      Still, the F-4 had staying power. Israel kept upgrading them all the way through 1995.

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