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.
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 But its cameras and sensors were out of date even in 1991, and the RF-4C had no way to relay images.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-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.
“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.
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.