The USAF’s 2016 Phinal Phantom II Tour
Photographic coverage by: Joe Kates, Ulrich Seibicke, Scott Jankowski, Mark Hrutkay, Beau Goff, Bob Shane, and Scott Zeno.
Story by Ken Kula with Steve Lewis
After 53 years of service and having five main versions of the airframe produced, the last United States Air Force examples of the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-4 Phantom II were retired from flying service in 2016. Although removed from frontline service in 1996 (when the last F-4G Wild Weasels were retired), more than 300 specialized target versions were converted from surplus airframes by BAE, and began operations during that same year with the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron (82nd ATRS). These allowed for unmanned QF-4 aircraft to be controlled from the ground, often as disposable targets for live-fire testing. The Phantom IIs were also flown by veteran pilots in various scenarios for non-destructive testing.
QRF-4C taken in 2013
Various versions of Air Force Phantoms were modified under the Full Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) program, the last three versions being the QF-4G, QRF-4C, and QF-4E. Visually, distinct orange wingtips and tail markings helped distinguish the targets from other jets.
Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary, in part, defines the word “finale” as: “the last and often climactic event or item in a sequence ”. During the last year of operation of the QF-4s, the Air Force made it a point to provide Phantoms for major aviation events throughout their final year of operation. Thus, what we call the USAF’s Phinal Phantom II Tour, became the type’s finale on the country’s aerial stages. Untold thousands of Phantom II fans, former pilots and crew, and maintainers with a soft spot in their hearts for the aircraft, attended these shows. And whenever possible, the thunderous roar of QF-4 afterburners was heard at these venues.
Here are some highlights from the now–distant tour, as seen by numerous Photorecon.net, ClassicWarbirds.net and PHXSpotters photographers…
Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and STEM Expo, May 2016
EAA AirVenture 2016, Oshkosh WI, July, 2016
National Championship Air Races, Reno NV, September, 2016
Nellis AFB Air Show and Open House, November, 2016
Holloman AFB Phantom Finale, December 2016
Other events in 2016 where Phantoms appeared included the MCAS Miramar Air Show, Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, and a flyby at the Texas Motor Speedway.
Star Wars Canyon Final Passes, October, 2016
Another fitting ceremonial display occurred as a low-profile, high impact traverse through the Sidewinder Low Level Route, JEDI Transition, of the R5208 Military Training area in California. A pair of QF-4s visited NAWC Point Mugu CA in October, 2016. A meeting at a Camarillo CA restaurant (sounds familiar… more than a few brilliant aviation ideas have been sketched out on a napkin during a meal…) between two 82nd ATRS QF-4 pilots (‘Wam’ and ‘Elvis’), Photorecon.net’s own Steve Lewis, and another photographer ensued, to plan a flight through a particular canyon (otherwise known as Star Wars or Rainbow Canyon) while enroute to Hill AFB in Utah after the visit.
The Low Level Route lies almost directly in between the two bases, and the thought of Phantoms in the valley one more time (this wouldn’t be the first time Phantoms roared through the canyon!) was a wish on many photographers’ minds – especially when the Phantom’s time in the air became limited. Armed with maps and charts, Steve and the pilots planned out times, routes, and determined the geographic points that would allow the pilots to present the QF-4s for the best photographic results. Steve would fly an American Flag at their location for the pilots to verify their navigation. Later the pilots, armed with all of the information they needed, went to work and coordinated their flight plans and use of the low level route.
There were a few items that could interfere with the plan… fuel would be one of these. A major consideration, as Phantoms gobble down large quantities of gas anyway, would be a low level segment that would burn up a higher quantity of fuel than a normal overflight would. As long as the jets could climb to a more efficient altitude quickly and not be routed further away from their filed flight plan route, the mission to fly the Canyon would go on.
Sure enough, on the morning of their flight to Hill AFB, the pair of Phantoms dove down into the canyon and presented the assembled pack of photographers their final opportunities to photograph the jets airborne against the stunning scenery… with a pair of passes. Then, the QF-4Es climbed on course to Utah, and the Air Force maintenance depot at Hill AFB, where a ceremony was planned.
Phantom Phinale, Holloman AFB, NM
Although a dozen or more airframes began the year with the 82nd ATRS at Holloman AFB, NM, attrition as live-fire targets whittled the last operational aircraft to about half a dozen for the final retirement ceremony on December 20, 2016 at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. Four QF-4E aircraft flew the type’s final sorties just days before the end of the year.
The sound barrier was broken for all to hear, a series of passes in front of the crowd offered some final photos of Phantoms in the air, and after landing, a water cannon salute was given to the quartet and their pilots. The flyers would go their separate ways after the last QF-4s landed; retirement, upgrade to the QF-16 program, and other endeavors were discussed. An official release said that the QF-4s would be utilized as ground-based targets after their flying was done, towed out into the desert ranges of Holloman AFB.
Only a handful of Air Forces around the world still operate Phantoms in early 2017; the USAF’s finale put to bed what was once the largest Phantom fleet in the world (the U.S. operated almost eighty percent of all Phantoms produced). Japan (three units with F-4EJ and RF-4EJ), Turkey (one unit with upgraded F-4E 2020 jets), South Korea (two F-4E units) and Greece (5 units with upgraded F-4Es and RF-4Es) are four countries that still fly the big jets. Iran has a number of squadrons still operating a handful of F-4D, F-4E and RF-4C Phantoms too.
The USAF has replaced the QF-4 series of Full Scale Aerial Targets with the QF-16… although the bright orange panels used for visual tracking and identification still remain.
With the retirement of the American Phantoms in 2016, a noteworthy type of phighter was pheted with a grand phinale during its phinal year of phlying!