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QF-4 Phantom Pharewell Looms

Last QF-4 Phantom pilot flies solo at Holloman Air Force Base

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.

QF-4 taxi

Lieutenant Col. Ronald King, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Detachment 1 commander and Mike Fogle, QF-4 Drone mechanic, go through a pre-flight checklist June 3, 2015 at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. At Holloman, QF-4s can be flown either manned or unmanned and are used as remotely controlled unmanned targets for air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons systems evaluations, development and testing. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney

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.

Two QF-4 Drones taxi onto the runway on June 3, 2015 at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Lieutenant. Col. Ronald  King, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Detachment 1 commander, flew the QF-4 for the first time solo. He was accompanied by James Harkins, a civilian pilot with the 82nd ATRS, Det 1, who also served as King’s instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1990s and at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. in the early 2000s. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney

Two QF-4 Drones taxi onto the runway on June 3, 2015 at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Lieutenant. Col. Ronald King, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Detachment 1 commander, flew the QF-4 for the first time solo. He was accompanied by James Harkins, a civilian pilot with the 82nd ATRS, Det 1, who also served as King’s instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1990s and at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. in the early 2000s. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney

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.

Last pilot solo

Lt. Col. Ronald King gets sprayed down with water after his first solo flight in the QF-4 Drone June 3, 2015 at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Lieutenant. Col. Ronald King, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Detachment 1 commander, flew the QF-4 for the first time solo, making him the last pilot in the Air Force that learned to fly the QF-4. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney

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.

QF-4 flight line

Mike Fogle, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 mechanic, performs routine maintenance on a QF-4 Drone June 3, 2015 at Holloman Air Force Base N.M. The F-4 Phantom II first began flying in 1958 and is most famous for its performance in the Vietnam War. The F-4 officially retired in 1996 and now all operational Air Force F-4s have been converted to QF-4 Drones, which serve solely as remotely controlled unmanned targets for air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons systems evaluations, development and testing. QF-4s can also be flown as a conventionally manned fighter. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Emily A. Kenney

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.