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Versatile F-4 Phantoms from ‘the last flight’ for the U.S. army

The last of thousands of F-4 Phantom fighter jets that is a workhorse for the U.S. military for more than five decades to be put to pasture to serve as ground targets for strikes by newer aircraft.

But first a well deserved honor.

The air force is holding a “final flight retirement ceremony Wednesday at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the last F-4s are still on the flight for the U.S. army. The ceremony will celebrate the aircraft of the rich military history as the jet was a mainstay during the Vietnam War and for decades used for reconnaissance missions and anti-missile electronic interference.

McDonnell Douglas — now part of Boeing Corp. — more than 5,000 F-4s for the air force, navy and Marine Corps. It first flew in the late 1950s and production ended in 1985.

The last F-4s still on the run from the AMERICAN army took a different role, that as aerial targets, and testing of aircraft during the Air Force training over the desert of New Mexico. The aircraft were either flown by a pilot or remotely as drones by the controllers on the ground. They are used as targets for the missiles, and also used to test new radars and other assignments. But with the retirement this week, the planes no longer fly, and instead be used as ground targets.

The aircraft continued for so long is a testament to a range of roles that the F-4 could handle thanks to the large size, powerful engines and a two-man crew, said Jeff Duford, National Museum of the Air Force research curator.

While other planes can handle some of the missions, “there was no one that are as flexible as the F-4,” Duford said.

“It was not the best of everything, but it can do everything,” said Craig Schorzman, a retired air force colonel, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he trained to fly the F-4 in the 1960s, while at the Davis Monthan Air Force Base before heading to Germany and then in South-east Asia.

“It was not the best air-to-air, but we could do it. It could do close air support (of ground troops). It could bomb. It could be a role, including the nukes, we would be able to do.”

The aircraft “is hardy and very robust,” Schorzman said, recalling the times when his plane made it back to the base, despite the fact that it shot up. “It saved my tail a few times.”

Schorzman said the fighter-bomber can make use of a precision guidance system to guide bombs to their targets. “We could go in a mouth of a cave.”

The Navy originally got the production of F-4s to intercept enemy bombers threatening U.S. aircraft carriers, and the first models used on air-to-air missiles. They were later equipped with guns during the Vietnam War to fight of enemy fighters.

As a dogfighter, the F-4 was not great, but could counter North Vietnam, is more nimble MiG fighters by the use of the more powerful engines to climb to a good position or getting a bad, Schorzman said.

While other aircraft such as the F-15 replaced the F-4 in the fighter-bomb role, still flew for many years as a camera-toting reconnaissance jets and electronic warfare versions that blinded enemy anti-aircraft missiles’ guidance systems.

“I think it really speaks to the usefulness of the platform,” Duford said.

The other 13 QF-4s at Holloman are flown by a detachment of a squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, and dozens of the target aircraft were shot down over the White Sands Missile Range near Holloman or about the Gulf of Mexico.

The Tyndall squadron has been converted to fly with F-16’s as well as aerial targets, and the Holloman detachment is getting her first F-16 target version this week.

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