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F-4s at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the warplane retirement home. (Mark Bennett)

Where Have All the Phantoms Gone?

How a fighter-bomber-recon-attack superstar ended up as fodder for target practice

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The F-4 Phantom II lives. But the life it leads today is an odd one.

It still flies in other countries; in northern Iraq, for example, the Turks use it in combat with the Kurds. But in the United States, it leads a twilight existence. It’s a warplane, but it no longer fights. Its mission is weapons testing, but no pilot flies it. Mostly, you’ll find these F-4s either sitting in the desert or lying at the bottom of the sea.

The F-4 entered service in 1960, flying for the U.S. Navy. After studying its potential for close air support, interdiction, and counter-air operations, the Air Force added the F-4 to its fleet in 1963. Eventually the Phantom ended up even in the U.S. Marine Corps’ inventory. In four decades of active service to the United States, the aircraft set 16 world performance records. It downed more adversaries (280 claimed victories) than any other U.S. fighter in the Vietnam War. Two decades later, it flew combat missions in Desert Storm.

In 1996 the aircraft was retired from the U.S. fleet. But the venerable McDonnell design has one last mission to perform for the military: to go down in flames.

Since 1991,  254 Phantoms have served as unpiloted flying targets for missile and gun tests conducted near Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The use of F-4 drones (designated QF-4s) is expected to continue until 2014.

When an airframe is needed for target duty, one is pulled from storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in the Arizona desert. The airframe is given refurbished engines and instruments, then sent to Mojave Airport in California. There, BAE Systems turns the aircraft into remote-controlled drones, installing radio antennas and modifying the flight controls, throttles, landing gear, and flaps.

QF-4 production test pilot Bob Kay is responsible for testing the converted aircraft, then flying them from Mojave to Tyndall and Holloman. Kay has been captivated by the F-4 since the age of seven, when his father took him to an airshow. “I saw a Navy A-3 refueling two Phantoms as they flew over so low and with that noise,” he says. “That’s all I remember of that airshow, but I knew I wanted to fly that fighter.”

I ask if he has any second thoughts about being part of a system that destroys an airplane he loves, an aviation legend.

He thinks for a moment, then says, “What better way is there for a warrior to end its life than to go down in a blaze of glory?”


The Phantom has been called  “double ugly,” “rhino,” “old smokey,” and monikers even less flattering. The design does have its share of ungainly bends and angles. The horizontal stabilizers droop 23.25 degrees. The outer wing sections tilt upward 12 degrees. When an engineer looks it over, the first thing that probably comes to mind is “stability and control problems.” A brutal example of that weakness occurred during a May 18, 1961 speed record attempt. While Navy test pilot Commander J.L. Felsman flew below 125 feet over a three-mile course, his F-4 experienced pitch damper failure. The resulting pilot-induced oscillation generated over 12 Gs. Both engines were ripped from the airframe and Felsman was killed. (A later attempt succeeded.)

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