End of a Legend

Norman Graf visited the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, the last F-4 Phantom II unit in the US Air Force

All photos Norman Graf

So dismal was the performance of American air-to-air missiles during the Vietnam War that legendary ace and F-4 Phantom pilot Colonel Robin Olds once exclaimed: “If you want to kill an enemy aircraft with an AIM-4D you must hit the pilot in the heart.” The combined probability of kill (PK) was somewhere around 10% of total launches. Some of this was attributable to pilot inexperience, which was later remedied with well-known tactical dogfighting training exercises such as Red Flag. However, deficiencies were also identified in the missiles themselves, resulting in another, lesser-known, project that continues to this day: the use of full-scale aerial targets (FSAT) to demonstrate the efficacy of missile systems under realistic conditions before they are deployed. Fittingly, in the last chapter of its long and well documented career, the F-4 Phantom II played a critical role in improving the lethality of modern aerial missiles, a problem that plagued it during its operational career.

Operational History

Developed in the 1950s by the US Navy as a fleet interceptor, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II became operational with the US Air Force in 1964 as a fighter-bomber. It was the dominant tactical aircraft of the 1960s and 1970s, the workhorse and symbol of American air power throughout the Vietnam War. It racked up an impressive total of 107.5 aerial victories with the US Air Force, and a further 57 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. All five US aces in Vietnam, three from the US Air Force and two from the US Navy, achieved their status in the F-4. There are innumerable stories about its performance and capabilities during that period and legendary tales of heroism surround the crews that flew them. Names like Sijan, Pardo, and Olds will live long in the history of the US Air Force.

Over 5,000 F-4s were built, with production ending in 1979. Although it continued operations into Operation Desert Storm, the F-4 was retired from active US Air Force service in 1996; but that’s not the end of the story.


January–April: US Army MIM-104 Patriot

February: US Navy F/A-18 AIM-120 AMRAAM

February: US Air Force F-15 AIM-120 AMRAAM

April: US Navy F/A-18 AMRAAM

April: US Navy F/A-18 AMRAAM live fire exercise from Point Mugu

May: US Navy F/A-18 AMRAAM at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake

July: US Army MIM-104 Patriot

July: High-energy laser

August: F-35 air-to-air weapons system evaluation

August: F-35 AIM-120 AMRAAM

October–December: Japanese HAWK/Chu-SAM Kai

FSAT Program

As a result of the low PK achieved by air-to-air missiles during the Vietnam War, laws were passed to ensure improved performance, rather than relying on manufacturers’ assurances or predicted behaviour. Title 10, section 2366 of the US Code states, in part:

… a missile program may not proceed beyond low-rate initial production until realistic lethality testing of the program is completed … The term “realistic lethality testing” means, in the case of a missile program, testing for lethality by firing the munition or missile concerned at appropriate targets configured for combat.

To fulfil this requirement, the Department of Defense instituted a programme of converting obsolete fighter aircraft into unmanned FSATs, dubbed drones, which would be shot down in live-fire missile tests. The programme began in 1974 with the PQM-102, based on the F-102 Delta Dagger. Between 1974 and 1985, 314 unmanned sorties were flown, with 87 drones destroyed. Between 1983 and 1991, 99 QF-100 drones, based on the F-100 Super Sabre, were destroyed in 314 sorties. The QF-106 programme based on the F-106 Delta Dart, lasted from 1990 to 1997, with 28 airframes destroyed in 114 sorties.

QF-4 Phantom

Since 1997, the target of choice to accomplish section 2366 has been 317 handpicked F-4 Phantoms. Candidate aircraft were drawn from storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, where programmed depot maintenance was done. Drone conversion itself was undertaken by BAE Systems at its facility at Mojave Airport, California. Conversion provided the QF-4 with a digital control system for remote operation of the aircraft and involved introduction of mechanical servos for the aircrafts’ control surfaces, throttles and landing gear. Antennas were threaded into the wings and fuselage to provide a proximity scoring system; GPS and data transponders were also installed. This complex process took approximately six months to complete at a cost of roughly $2.4 million per aircraft.

The QF-4s were operated by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron based at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida under the command of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group reporting to the 53rd Wing based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

One of the last QF-4E Phantom II Full Scale Aerial Target drones sits on the ramp at Holloman during the retirement ceremonies in December, 2016.

Missions were flown in support of new weapons system development and qualification, and the US Air Force air-to-air Weapon System Evaluation Program (WSEP), called Combat Archer.

The last Tyndall-based QF-4 soaked up three missiles before being destroyed in May, 2015. Detachment 1, 82nd ATRS based at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, is tasked to provide FSATs for Department of Defense and foreign military sales programme customers. The Holloman-based Detachment 1 is a small unit commanded by Lt Col Ron King, with two enlisted personnel and five civilians employed as pilots and remote drone operators. Contracted maintenance is provided by Pacific Architects and Engineers Inc. The unit flies its FSAT most missions over the White Sands Missile Range.

QF-4s flew 145 sorties from Holloman with 70 aircraft destroyed. Air-to-air weapons employed under the WSEP include AIM-120 AMRAAMs and AIM-9X Sidewinders fired from F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning IIs. Surface-to-air missiles include Patriot, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), Stinger and the Japanese MIM-23 HAWK (Homing All the Way Killer).

In the words of 53rd WEG Commander, Col Lance Wilkins: “The Phantom is truly a special platform. It is both a terrible target and a phenomenal one. Terrible because it’s so rugged and resilient and a very hard airplane to kill. Phenomenal because it’s rugged and resilient and can take a little bit of everything with it. Transition of the F-4 from a combat fighter to full-scale aerial target was a logical and essential step toward continued American air dominance. In its new role, the Phantom was more than a mere target, it was a pickup truck. You could add infrared countermeasures one day, exotic jamming pods or a host of other classified capabilities to this old bird the next.

“This ‘Mr Potato Head’ concept started in the infancy of the FSAT programme and achieved its fruition in the glory days of the QF-4. It was this ability that allowed a third-generation aircraft to increase the lethality and survivability of all fourth and, as of today, fifth-generation aircraft. The Phantom provided American and allied air forces with a worthy target able to exponentially improve weapons systems performance. You may have a pod or something else hanging on there which is worth more than the entire aircraft. The pod or the algorithms or those formulas were used to improve our fifth-generation warfighting capabilities. This increased the lethality and survivability of our entire air force. There’s no way you can measure that. Without these Q-series aircraft, we would not be the air force we are today.”

Eight unmanned missions were flown between August 1 and 4, 2016 (the record for a week) during which seven of the QF-4 drones were destroyed. The last missiles shot at a QF-4 were two AIM-120s fired by an F-35 assigned to the 461st Flight Test Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base on August 17, 2016; the drone was recovered. On December 21, 2016, the mighty Phantom was finally retired for good by the US Air Force in ceremonies at Holloman.

The last QF-4E pilots pose in front of F-4E Phantom II 73-1167 AF-353 from left to right: Erik Vold, Lt Col Ron King, and Jim Harkins, Jim Shreiner.
Memorabilia crowd the office used by Detachment 1, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.
The final six flightworthy QF-4E Phantom IIs; 74-1043 AF-338 (c/n 4825); 74-0645 AF-336 (c/n 4796); 74-0643/TD ‘82 ATRS’ AF-351 (c/n 4794); 74-1638/TD ‘82 ATRS’ AF-349 (c/n 4874); 74-1625 AF-350 (c/n 4855); and 73-1167/TD ‘53 WEG’ AF-353 (c/n 4679) on the 82nd ATRS flight line before the final flight on December 21, 2016.
The final four QF-4E Phantom II Full Scale Aerial Target aircraft (74-0643/TD, 74-0645, 74-1043 and 74-1638/TD) performed a supersonic formation flyover to open the retirement ceremony for the type at Holloman Air Force Base on December 21, 2016.

With the final retirement of such an iconic aircraft looming, it was recognised a farewell tour was in order. By carefully husbanding resources and scheduling flights, Lt Col King and his team were able to make almost 20 visits to bases and air shows around the country between March and November. King insisted on having at least one Phantom on static display, so visitors could come up and share their stories.

Moving Forward

Retirement of the QF-4 does not leave a void in the FSAT programme; its replacement is based on the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The first QF-16 was delivered to Tyndall in September 2014. Air Combat Command declared initial operational capability for the QF-16 FSAT on September 23, 2015.

The fourth-generation QF-16 brings a number of improvements to the FSAT programme, including speeds of Mach 1.7 and turns up to 9g. Boeing won a contract for the modification of 210 airframes, comprising a mix of F-16A and earlybuild F-16C models that, like the F-4s, are all being sourced from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. A pair of F-16D models will be converted as trainers.

Because the F-16 is fitted with fly-bywire controls, conversion is much simpler and the cost has stayed the same as the QF-4, at roughly $2.4 million. The QF-16 FSAT also gains an advantage because it’s in active service, so obtaining spare parts is straightforward. With over 300 target requests already in the books, the programme has a bright future. Three QF- 16s were flown to Holloman to participate in the final flight and more will arrive at the New Mexico base in 2017.

As a consequence of its transition to the QF-16, Detachment 1, 82nd ATRS will see a number of changes to its ranks, with some of the F-4 folks retiring and some transitioning to the QF-16, two new pilots will arrive and Lt Col King will remain in post, because he maintained flying currency in the F-16.

Final Farewell

On December 21, 2016, the US Air Force formally retired the QF-4 Phantom II. Several hundred people showed up under cloudy skies and cold temperatures to participate in the events organised for the final flight and retirement. Ceremonies began with a supersonic four-ship flyby, after which the Phantoms made several passes, both in formation and singly. All too soon the aircraft landed, to be greeted by the traditional water arch formed by two fire trucks from the Holloman Air Force Base Fire Department. After the engines on the last Phantom had spooled down, various speakers shared their thoughts with the crowd.

QF-4 pilots assigned to Detachment 1, 82nd ATRS at the time of the final retirement ceremony were: unit commander Lt Col Ron King; pilots Jim Harkins, Jim Shreiner and Erik Vold; and controller Larry Pope.

The 13 remaining QF-4E Phantom IIs will be stripped of their systems and transferred to the resident 49th Wing based at Holloman for use as static ground targets at the White Sands Missile Range.

Jim Shreiner taxis 74-0645 AF-336 past the control tower at Holloman after the QF-4E Phantom II’s Fini Flight.