The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is a legendary twin engine, all-weather fighter-bomber that well and truly earned the moniker of “Phabulous Phantom” in a long career of peace time and combat operations around the world for many different nations (over 5,000 were built between 1958 and 1981). At Aviation Nation 2014 I was surprised to see two Phantoms in the static line-up as they have been long retired from the USAF inventory (the USAF operated more than 2,600 F-4’s with the first delivered in 1963 and the last in 1979. They were retired in 1996). Well sort of…
These were actually QF-4E Phantom II aircraft of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron flown in for the air show from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. These are “retired” Phantoms converted into reusable aerial target aircraft that are either piloted (with a safety pilot to monitor performance) or remote-controlled drones used to simulate enemy aircraft maneuvers for research of weaponry and defensive systems. The QF-4 program became operational in 1997.
A QF-4 aircraft is fitted with electronic and infrared countermeasures to fully simulate an encounter with an enemy aircraft. When remotely flown they are fitted with a self-destruct explosive device just in case the aircraft becomes uncontrollable to avoid any accidents with other aircraft or casualties on the ground.
Sadly the ultimate fate of a QF-4 aircraft is generally destruction by a missile (for unmanned flights that is!). As such, there and not many of them left and these truly are the “Phinal Phantoms” of the USAF (even more likely given today’s military budget constraints and most are being replaced by the newer General Dynamics QF-16 Fighting Falcon).