The QF-4 Phantom – the “Q” prefix signifies a drone conversion
Wearing the “stars and bars” insignia of the US Air Force, an F-4 Phantom cruises in level flight. Unobserved, another USAF aircraft falls in trail behind the Phantom and fires an air-to-air missile at it. The F-4 performs an aggressive slice in hopes of evading the missile, releasing countermeasures all the while. But it’s no use – tracking unerringly, the missile cuts the F-4 in half. Debris rains from the resulting fireball, but there are no parachutes.
What’s going on? Why is one US fighter being shot down by another? Strange as it sounds, this is a typical day for the 82 Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS). The 82nd flies the USAF’s last active-duty Phantoms as full-scale aerial targets (FSATs) for weapons tests.
The QF-4 – the “Q” prefix signifies a drone conversion – is the latest of many distinguished Air Force fighters to adopt the drone role at the end of its days, following the Convair PQF-102 Delta Dagger (used from 1974 to 1985), North American QF-100 Super Saber (1983-1992), and Convair QF-106 Delta Dart (1990-1998). The F-4 was a logical choice to succeed the QF-106. Hundreds of surplus Phantoms were available following the type’s phase-out. Its suitability for drone use had been proven by the Navy, which had operated QF-4s in its own drone program since 1972. And as the QF-106 had suffered several accidents due to landing-gear failure, the F-4s’s ruggedness and reliability were selling points.
QF-4 conversions are performed by BAE Systems in Mojave, California. Over 230 Phantoms have been “droned” since 1995, and conversions will continue through 2011 if all contract options are exercised. Production at first concentrated on F-4E tactical fighters and F-4G “Wild Weasel” defense-suppression aircraft. As the last models retired from active duty, these airframes were in good condition and still had a military supply chain. The earliest conversions included a few RF-4C photo-reconnaissance variants, which were found harder to control than later models because they lacked slats. Nonetheless, with no suitable F-4Gs left and stocks of candidate F-4Es depleted, RF-4C conversions resumed in 2007.
Candidate aircraft are taken from storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona. Following depot maintenance, the aircraft are flown to Mojave, where the drone conversion is performed. Completed aircraft are ferried to Tyndall AFB, Florida for Air Force acceptance tests. The process takes about seven months from storage at AMARG to active status and costs about $800,000 U.S. per aircraft.
The QF-4s are assigned to the 82nd ATRS at Tyndall, part of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. The squadron operates full-scale and sub-scale drones over Tyndall’s air weapons range in the Gulf of Mexico. Detachment 1 of the 82 ATRS, based at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, provides target services for the Army and civilian contractors over the Army’s White Sands Missile Range (WSMR).
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U.S. Air Force photo