On June 3, 2015, Lt. Col. Ronald King flew solo for the first time in the QF-4 Phantom II, from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, making him the last pilot in the Air Force who will ever learn to fly the QF-4. The QF-4 is an F-4 Phantom converted to operate as an optionally-piloted expendable drone. King is the commander of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron’s Detachment 1. The 82nd is a subordinate unit of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group.
The F-4 Phantom II began as a U.S. Navy program for a missile-armed all-weather fleet defense interceptor with a secondary attack capability. First flown on May 27, 1958, the F4H-1 (later F-4B) entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1961. The first Air Force Phantom, the F-4C, flew on May 27, 1963. By the end of production, 5,195 had been built; 2,597 for the Air Force, 1,264 for the Navy and Marine Corps, and 1,196 for export. Another 11 were supplied in kit form to Japan, with a further 127 being built by Mitsubishi, including the very last one in 1981. The Phantom was produced in greater numbers than any other jet combat aircraft in the West. Only the MiG-21 has surpassed the Phantom, with more than 10,600 built in Russia during its production between 1958 and 1985.
The F-4 was the primary Air Force fighter-bomber throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and was most famous for its combat record during the Vietnam War. The Air Force operated the F-4C and F-4D before settling on the definitive F-4E version, with more powerful engines, leading-edge slats, upgraded radar and other avionics, and an M61 20mm Gatling gun in a longer, reshaped nose. The gun, slats, and more powerful engines came to the aircraft due to lessons learned in combat over Southeast Asia.
As more modern fighters such as the F-15 and F-16 began to enter service, F-4Es were gradually retired, although the specialized RF-4 reconnaissance variants and F-4G Wild Weasel-configured Phantoms remained in service through Operation Desert Storm and beyond. F-4s converted into remotely-piloted targets reached initial operational capability in 1997, flying from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
Tyndall’s final two QF-4 Phantoms flew away on May 27, 2015 and were destroyed about 30 minutes later in air-to-air engagements.
“The QF-4 has really served the Air Force and the nation very well by making sure that our weapons are qualified and tested, and we know they’re going to work when our pilots take them into harm’s way,” said Jerry Heikkinen, 82nd ATRS drone remote controller and pilot, in a 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs story by Senior Airman Alex Echols. “Instead of wasting away in the desert and sitting in long term storage, these aircraft have been modified to provide valid combat effectiveness testing for our military forces, and it’s really a good way for these airplanes to go,” Heikkinen said.
The 82nd is converting onto the QF-16 aerial target, based on early model F-16s no longer flown by Air Force fighter squadrons. With Tyndall converting to the QF-16, the last QF-4s will now be expended from Holloman AFB.