Pharewell to the Phantom

 - December 27, 2016, 8:30 AM
A QF-4 flown by a single pilot was displayed at the EAA Oshkosh airshow last July. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

The U.S. Air Force has retired the F-4 Phantom after 53 years of service. The last flight of a pair of aircraft took place with due ceremony at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, on December 21. The aircraft were QF-4 full-scale aerial targets (FSAT) assigned to the 82nd squadron of the 53rd wing. The FSAT mission provides aerial targets for all weapons systems in the U.S. Defense Department. The QF-4s were converted to unmanned configuration by BAE Systems; they are being replaced with QF-16s converted by Boeing.

The QF-4s entered service in 1997 and were flown from Holloman over the White Sands Missile range, and from Tyndall AFB, Florida, over the Gulf of Mexico. Although more than 300 were converted, only about 70 jets have been destroyed, in about 145 unmanned sorties, according to a media advisory from Holloman AFB. The last unmanned mission in a threat-representative configuration was flown in mid-August. Limited manned flights have taken place since. 

“Ironically, the majority of QF-4 missions [were] flown in the manned configuration to support validation tests of non-lethal weapon system components; unmanned flight chase missions; and pilot proficiency training,” said Scott Johnson, the F-4 system program manager for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) last month.

Development of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 as a carrier-capable fighter for the U.S. Navy began in 1953. The first flight of an F-4A (then designated F4H-1) took place in May 1958. The Air Force adopted the design as a fighter-bomber, and the first F-4C flew in May 1963. Other versions for the U.S. services included the RF-4B and RF-4C for reconnaissance with the Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force, respectively; the improved F-4D and F-4E for the Air Force and F-4J for the Navy; and the F-4G “Wild Weasel” electronic warfare conversion for the Air Force. 

The Phantom achieved considerable export success. The UK received 170 F-4K/M versions with twin Rolls-Royce Spey engines instead of the standard Pratt and Whitney J79s. The air forces of Australia, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, Korea, Spain and Turkey all operated the type. A grand total of 5,195 F-4s were built from 1958 to 1981, including license production of 158 by Mitsubishi in Japan. The Phantom remains in service in Greece, Iran, Japan, Korea and Turkey.