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.