A trip to Las Vegas, Nevada to once again attend Aviation Nation (November 12th and 13th, 2016) at nearby Nellis Air Force Base was given a priority this year with the news that the flying program celebrating “75 Years of Airpower” at Nellis would include the last public air show display of the McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantom II piloted aerial target aircraft from the 82 Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS) during the Nellis Heritage Parade featuring classic aircraft from World War Two through to the Vietnam War.
From the time the QF-4 Phantom II took off to the time it landed the crowd were thrilled. What a great opportunity it was to see this mighty aircraft and the pilot did numerous top passes so we could get a great look at this beauty, the Phabulous Phantom! Just to hear those powerful General Electric J79 turbojet engines roar with afterburner blazing was worth it all!
Now the mighty Mach 2.2 capable F-4 Phantom II is an aviation legend and although they were retired from frontline USAF service long ago in 1996, they have dutifully soldiered on as remotely controlled target drones for missile testing (both lethal and non-lethal tests – sadly many of the drones got blown up by missiles!) and as piloted Full-Scale Aerial Targets (FSAT’s) since 1997, as there were plenty of surplus aircraft available (F-4E, R-4G and RF-4C – over 5,000 F-4’s were produced between 1958 and 1979. The USAF operated 2,600 receiving their first F-4C in 1963, the US Navy and USMC received 1,200 with the first going into service in 1960. The rest of the production run were operated by other countries). The 82 Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS) has operated the QF-4 Phantom II primarily from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida with a detachment at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico (in recent years a fleet or 50 aircraft has been maintained. Over 300 QF-4’s have been destroyed in missile tests!).
Why use a real aircraft rather than a less expensive drone? Well the QF-4 provides a much more realistic target size, performance, maneuverability, evasiveness and radar signature, plus it can deploy electronic and infrared missile countermeasures to enable far more realistic weapons testing programs to be deployed to assess the true effectiveness of the missile platform (USAF, US Navy, USMC and US Army). The Q is a drone designation and the aircraft are fitted with a digital control system for remote-controlled flying, along with a GPS system for navigation and formation flying, plus a scoring system to keep track of non-lethal missile tests. If there is a problem with a remotely piloted QF-4 they are fitted with an explosive device to remotely destroy the aircraft, to avoid it crashing into populated areas.
The orange tail livery on a QF-4 indicates an aircraft is a drone (remote-controlled aircraft also have orange painted wingtips). In the piloted version of the QF-4 the “safety pilot” monitors the performance of the aircraft.
Alas the last McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantom II will be retired at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in December 2016 (they have been in the process of being replaced by General Dynamics QF-16 Fighting Falcons for the past couple of years as that type is now more representative of modern combat aircraft). Most people go to Vegas to gamble and party, many of us dabbled in that but came fully intent on saying “Pharewell Phantom” in person at Nellis. I met people from all around the US and from as far afield as Australia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and more at Aviation Nation 2016. We were all a little sad to see this classic aircraft in its final days but we all had a great time at this fantastic air show!