The follow-on Es brought enhancements: A horizontal tailplane with a fixed inverted slat gave improved control at high angles of attack. Leading-edge slats on the wings enabled tighter turns at slow maneuvering speeds. A Northrop system called TISEO (target identification system, electro-optical) identified airborne targets.
By the time my final tour was up, in 1974, a fleet of Phantom variants had safely taken me through a gauntlet of fire and flying experiences that would constitute the greatest adventures of my life.
Three-plus decades later, I was once again in the company of Phantoms. This time the setting was the tarmac at Tyndall.
The commander of the 82nd Aerial Target and Recovery Squadron, which conducts the drone shootdowns, is Lieutenant Colonel J.D. “Bare” Lee. A former F-16 pilot, Lee also has 1,500 hours in the Phantom. He still recalls the first time he took to the air in one. “I was shocked at how much more difficult it was to fly than I thought it would be,” he told me. “When I got home, I told my wife, ‘I think I just traded in a Porsche for a ’72 Cadillac.’ ”
At any one time, a total of up to 80 F-4s are stationed at Tyndall and at Lee’s Holloman detachment in New Mexico. Twenty-one Phantoms sat on a ramp called the Swamp, awaiting movement to Death Row, the holding area for the soon-to-be targets.
At mid-afternoon the drone mission briefing took place. The meeting included the drone “fliers,” Lockheed Martin personnel headed by pilot/controller Matt
LaCourse. “Today’s mission is in support of WSEP, so there’ll be a lot of shooters out there,” said Lee. “WSEP” is the same Weapons System Evaluation Program I had participated in four decades earlier in Vietnam, when I’d practiced shooting at towed targets from F-4s. Now the F-4 was the target.
LaCourse explained that four F-22 Raptors would each fire the latest AIM-120 air-to-air missile. The shooters and chase plane would take off from the main runway, while the drone used a strip three miles east.
Most Phantoms wind up in the Gulf of Mexico within one to three missions. But not all: One, nicknamed “Christine,” after the Stephen King book and film about a crazed car with a mind of its own, had survived 10 missions. Another, “Son of Christine,” has come back from 12 sorties, the current record.
Some drone missions are not meant to be shootdowns: The Phantom is loaded with missile jammers, and missiles without warheads are fired against the craft to test how well the jamming works. Other Phantoms are spruced up with Vietnam War-era camouflage and flown to airshows.