Defense Media Network

Gulf War 20th: RF-4C Phantom II in Desert Storm

The RF-4C Phantom II was the last manned, tactical reconnaissance aircraft in U. S. Air Force inventory. The 1991 Persian Gulf conflict was its last war. Still, the RF-4C was in on the action in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm from the beginning.

“The Phantom has a roomy cockpit but this was a real challenge to comfort.”

When the build-up began following Saddam Hussein’s Aug. 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait, six RF-4Cs equipped with a camera upgrade called the HIAC-1 LOROP (Long Range Oblique Photography) deployed to Shaikh Isa Air Base, Bahrain. LOROP was capable of high-resolution images of objects 100 miles away and was carried in a centerline pod.

Col. James F. "Jim" Brown

Col. (later Maj. Gen.) James F. “Jim” Brown led a marathon flight by RF-4C Phantom IIs in the early days of Operation Desert Shield. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

The Phantoms belonged to the 106th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) of the Alabama Air National Guard (ANG) at Birmingham and were led by Col. (later Maj. Gen.) James F. “Jim” Brown. Their journey to the war zone may have been the longest nonstop flight made by operational warplanes until that time, requiring 16 air-to-air refuelings and spanning 8,000 nautical miles in 15.5 hours. “The Phantom has a roomy cockpit but this was a real challenge to comfort,” Brown said later.

Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Stephen L. Vonderheide was one of the fliers from the 192nd TRS, Nevada ANG, who relieved Brown’s troops in November but kept their airplanes. “We spent a lot of time anticipating what kinds of targets we might be asked to look at,” said Vonderheide. “We were very much aware that the Iraqis had formidable air defenses.”

The RF-4C carried a pilot and a back-seat weapons systems officer (WSO). It was a robust and versatile aircraft that was in many respects a holdover from an earlier era. Two 17,000-pound thrust afterburning J79-GE-15 turbojet engines powered a typical RF-4C. At a combat weight of 51,000 pounds with three “bags” (external fuel tanks), the RF-4C the could cover the 540 miles from Shaikh Isa to Kuwait or the 573 miles from Incirlik, Turkey to Baghdad and loiter for two hours taking pictures. But its cameras and sensors were out of date even in 1991, and the RF-4C had no way to relay images. When Lt. Col. Lloyd “Pappy” Rowland arrived at Incirlik with a second wave of RF-4Cs from the 38th TRS at Zweibrücken, Germany, in January 1991, he found himself wishing for “a multi-function display with real-time capability and some up-to-date instruments in this antique airplane.” Also arriving late in theater were RF-4Cs from the 12th TRS at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas.

RF-4C Phantom II

RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance aircraft from the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Reno, Nev., prepare for a mission during Operation Desert Shield. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Bill Thompson

RF-4Cs began flying combat missions on the first night of Operation Desert Storm, Jan. 17, 1991. At first, they were limited to daylight operations, flying over Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in search of Republican Guard units. They flew over Baghdad looking for such targets as rocket fuel plants, chemical weapons plants, and command and communications centers.

RF-4Cs were repeatedly diverted from other photographic missions to go and look for Scud launchers hiding in western Iraq. “We burned a lot of gas … on the ‘Great Scud Hunt,'” Vonderheide said in a 1991 interview with the author. “Looking back, I guess you’d say our leaders were panicked about the Scuds but never understood how hard it was to find their launchers.”

The Bahrain-based RF-4Cs were in the war from the beginning. Those at Incirlik joined the fighting at the start of February.

Maj. Steve Vonderheide

Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Steve Vonderheide of the Nevada Air National Guard flew the RF-4C Phantom II in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Photo by Robert F. Dorr

“On one of my early missions we flew to Kirkuk,” said Capt. (later Col.) Ken “Razor” Rizer of the 38th TRS. “The photos showed that the Iraqis had taken their MiGs and distributed them in urban housing areas. We were the first to see and report that.”

“We flew repeated missions to a dam near Mosul,” continued Rizer. “There was a 57mm gunner on that dam. It was almost as though we developed a relationship with him. One day, when the flak was heavier than normal, he was shooting and we climbed above it.” No Iraqi MiG, missile or gun ever touched an RF-4C throughout the war. One RF-4C was lost in a postwar mishap on March 31, 1991; the crew ejected safely off the coast of Bahrain.

In support of RF-4C operations, numerous airmen and aircraft were used, among them C-21A Lear Jets, to move finished imagery around the theater. In the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia known as the “Black Hole,” coalition air commander Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Charles “Chuck” Horner scrutinized RF-4C images of Iraq’s forces every day and used the information to organize aerial strike “packages,” or formations.

RF-4C Phantom II

The RF-4C Phantom II was long in the tooth in 1991, but it proved to be an invaluable reconnaissance asset to battlefield commanders in Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force photo

Deployed RF-4Cs maintained a “mission capable rate” (MCR) of 85 percent on the eve of Desert Storm; the MCR declined to 78 percent during the conflict, still a respectable number for an aging, high-maintenance system. Off to a slow beginning – with six aircraft in theater only 42 sorties were flown in January – the RF-4C eventually logged about 1,800 sorties as numbers were increased and the war progressed. One airframe flew 172 sorties.

Following the end of Desert Storm, the RF-4Cs of the 38th TRS returned to Zweibrücken and those of the 12th TRS to Bergstrom. Soon afterward, RF-4Cs were retired from active-duty units. The last active-duty RF-4C flight was in 1994. The last RF-4Cs in inventory belonged to the Nevada ANG and were retired on Sept. 27, 1995. Not everyone agreed that putting the last manned tactical reconnaissance aircraft to pasture was a timely move. Lt. Gen. Michael Short, the air commander in Kosovo in 1999, said he would have used an aircraft with the capabilities of the RF-4C had one been available.

After commanding the Nevada Air Guard, Steve Vonderheide died at 61 in 2008 in a tragic accident caused by carbon monoxide poisoning in the boat he kept at Lake Tahoe. Former 38th TRS commander Lloyd Rowland is today deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) where his knowledge of reconnaissance, acquired in the cockpit of the RF-4C, is essential to his work.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-6573">

    Great article. Thank you. I am proud to say I served with the 38th TRS during Desert Storm. I maintained the cameras on our jets. I was a team member of both RAM 88 and RAM 90; however, being at Incirlik was doing the job for real. I actually got a ride in 68-589, before we went back to Zweibrucken, with Lt. Col. John LaMontagne as pilot. Again, thank you for the article, your service, and remembering the great 38th TRS.

    John L. Hatfield, TSgt, USAF (Ret.), M.Ed

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-6724">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your words are very much appreciated, and thank you for your service.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-15684">
    Brian "MacD" MacDougald

    Lloyd “Pappy” Rowland was the best squadron commander I ever had. The 38 TRS was like a family.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-18465">

    I was there with the Alabama Air National Guard , I was from Bergstrom AFB and went with the Guard as the external fuel tank build up team,

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-22232">

    Just a few corrections on the article, though it is much appreciated. The LOROP cameras (we were equipped with the only 2 in our Birmingham RF-4’s) were not in a centerline pod. They were 66 inch focal length mounted in the nose and were developed in conjunction with Chicago Aerial. They shot 4 frames in a pan in the vertical, but were aimable from the rear cockpit with a joystick and sighting window. The 6 aircraft deployed from Birmingham included our 2 lorop birds as well as recently modded NWDS aircraft and the AIM-9 capable aircraft (the guard had modded their RF4s to carry the AIM9) NWDS was the new inertial nav which gave us nav accuracy sorely overdue in the RF4’s. The Birmingham unit (106TRS/117TRW) did not deploy to Shaikh Isa Air Base, Bahrain. We deployed to Al Daphra AB, UAE where the Shaw F-16’s were, as well as Italians and French. We lost two of our own (Barry Henderson and Steve Schramm) in a training accident in October. The initial Reno guys came, I believe in early December and were basically trained on the LOROP cameras and flew their initial missions with some of the Birmingham guys like Woody Cox, Wayne Fitts etc getting familiar with the theater and the operational missions we were flying at the time. Most of the Birmingham aircrews returned to the states and some stayed until just before Christmas. Reno brought a couple of their aircraft directly to Shaik Isa and set up camp and when the rest of the Birmingham guys left, the Reno guys at Al Daphra took the LOROP birds to Shaik Isa, and Al Daphra recce operations shut down with the departure of the Recce Rebels from Birmingham. Before the accident, Barry Henderson had drawn the shark motiff on the noses of the aircraft in chalk and when they were painted became the hit of the air refueling tracks. We spent a lot of time line abreast with tankers so people could get pics of our birds. The did look sierra hotel.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-24265">

    Great article. I had just left Zweibrucken 26TRW a couple of months before all this went down. Lt.Cols Rowland and Mechsner were perhaps the best combination leadership I had ever served under. I missed the fireworks but was there in spirit.
    The Zwei boys and girls were the best unit to have served in during my career.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-24278">

    Thanks for your comments. That article has definitely stirred some memories from people who served in the unit as well as those who worked around the RF-4C.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-25060">

    Lloyd Rowland will soon be retiring as NGA’s Deputy Director. It would be nice if this article could be made into something “presentation worthy”. I do believe he would appreciate that.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-25234">
    Tony Munoz, Major, USAF Retired

    I served as a Crewchief, Phase Dock Chief and Quality Assurance (QA) while in the 26 TRW at Zweibrucken, GE. I think a bit of history I found interesting is that while we were deployed in Aviano at the start of the Gulf War we were developing and planning with the Depot/SPO to install 2 sidewinder missiles on the right wing inboard pylon on all our deployed RF-4C s. Had the war lasted longer, all of our Zwei jets would have been flying with AIM-9 sidewinders. As I recall, one of the RF-4C guard units were flying with sidewinders that we were coordinating with but can’t remember which unit it was? Either way, looking back it was a great time!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-25403">
    Wayne Fitts

    Major Munoz,

    The all of the guard units were flying (equipped to fly) with the AIM-9’s, so it could have been any of them. I would bet that it was either Reno or Birmingham (117TRW) that you were working with. The AIM-9 mod was something that had been on the drawing board for years and the guard guys initially came up with the mod (if I recall correctly) and it came in at about 16K per aircraft. The regular AF didn’t want to go forward with the mod, but the guard continued to push it and went ahead with it on our aircraft. The RF-4 FWIC was instrumental in its push. I was at the FWIC in 86 and one of the FWIC’s aircraft was equipped with an old iron sight which I believe came out of an old F4-D, and that became part of the mod as well. I was the Weapons and Tactics Officer in Bham and I can’t recall when we got our first aircraft modded and our training missiles, but I do remember developing the training program for our aircrews and getting everyone qualified on the missile in Bham. I left Al Dhafra in late December 90. At that time we didn’t have any l’real’ AIM-9s allocated to us, even though we could carry them. I may be wrong here, but I think Horner wouldn’t let the Reno guys carry them either (out of Sheik Isa). I believe his reasoning was that he didn’t want the Recce guys looking to shoot some Iraqi down and not getting home with the film. My thoughts were that there was no better way to defend yourself than to hose the poor smuck trying to shoot my butt down. Maybe one of the Reno guys will read this and weigh in on wether they ever got approval to carry them live.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27775">

    Great article, thank you for sharing. I was at Zwei from 87 -90 and remember just about everyone there. I too left just before the games were played. Happy to be retired and living in the mountains of Colorado.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-29014">
    Daniel Edwards, TSgt, USAF, Ret

    Great article, spent seven years processing film off the RF-4C, great aircraft. I enjoyed working in the PPIF of the 38 TRS at Zwei (1973-76). Missed the Gulf War but did make the end of Vietnam War (1970 – 71). Sad to see QFR-4C phantoms being used for target practice.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39741">
    Christopher Martin

    I had the greatest times in the 152nd great people Wayne Adams was someone to look up to for me . Role model.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-45895">

    Wow! Just now finding this1 Zwie was awsome. I think about it often.
    “TEX” Hartzell

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-134777">

    I now live in Penrose Colorado and was browsing Facebook checking out the photos posted by the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum and saw a few F4 photos. That brought back memories and a few Google searches led me to this article. My instructor and friend when I first started flying GA not military was Barry Henderson and I was probably his first student not counting his brother Lamar. We owned a plane together for a short period and worked together in the chemical weapons area. I was working at Rocky Mountain arsenal when Barry died in Desert Storm and made it back to Alabama for the services. It’s poor excuse especially since I considered Barry a good friend but I never followed up on the details of the events. If any of the guys that were there can contact me that would be appreciated. I can be reached at

    Steve Cox

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-166016">

    Like John Hatfield, I was deployed with the 26th AGS at “The Lik”. John and his wife Gena, and I were all Photo Pukes, and he, my first QA. His depth, wisdom, and humor were instrumental to me being there with the finest, most memorable AF unit I ever had the honor of serving with in my 20 years. We did amazing things there, and concluded the USAFE RF-4C role honorably, along with our brothers and sisters in TAC and ANG.


    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-172875">
    MSgt Howard Blake, USAF (Ret.)

    Wow. This sure brings back memories! I started out on RF’s at Bergstrom in ’81, served at “Sunny Zwei” from ’84 till base closure in ’91. I loved being a “Recce/Photo Puke”, Avionic Sensor System Specialist, for the first years of my career and I loved working on the RF-4C – a great bird! The sensors on this aircraft, while dated, gave intel that saved countless American lives and (sad for them) brought a lot of pain to our enemies. A photo puke’s moto: “We kill ’em with film!” – the Recce version: “Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid”. Cheers to great warriors and a fantastic warbird.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-192279">

    the f-4 is a very slêek aircraft, it is much faster than the f-15 with the lơok on the side, compare to the f-15, if you lơok on the side the plane doesn’t have a complete tail. because of that lơok the f-4 can fly in formation with many other aircraft, like the p51 mustang