USAF F-4 Phantom II Phinal Phlight... The "Rock Star" Retires
Another chapter in the history of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II closed on 21st December 2016, with the final flight of a US active duty Phantom, at the final operating base of Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The honour for this went to the USAF's 82d Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS) Det 1, who had continued the legacy of the mighty Rhino in US service, with its final role as the QF-4 in the Full Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) mission lasting for 20 years.
With the next generation of 'target jets' in the form of the QF-16 'Zombie Viper' now fully in service with the unit, it was time for the QF-4 Phantom to be retired. Indeed, the first of the next (4th) generation 'target jets' was now on station at Holloman, with QF-16C 85-1562 (QF-013) only arriving in the previous week as the first 'Zombie Viper' to join Det 1, which had now been joined by two others present. For the Phantom, upon reaching their Out of Service Date there were 13 QF-4E's remaining on the ramp at Holloman, with seven still in airworthy condition. Those on strength with the unit had been drastically reduced in the final six months of operations, with the first four days in August seeing a large cull, when the unit lost another seven unmanned jets, after being shot down (or 'killed') over the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) operating area. With around 70 QF-4's destroyed over the twenty years in service, that was around a year's worth of kills in less than a week... 'The blaze of glory'.
And so, to mark the historic event the 49th Wing and 53d Wing would be welcoming the public on base at Holloman for the "Retirement Ceremony and Final Flight of the last F-4 Phantom II in the Active Duty Air Force Inventory". Starting with a media day on December 20th, the event began with a brief by Lt. Col. Ron "Elvis" King along with the units other three remaining pilots, Lt. Col (Ret) Jim "WAM" Harkins, Maj (Ret) Jim "Boomer" Schreiner and Eric "Rock" Vold. Todays flights were essentially a rehearsal for tomorrow, and also a chance to catch more images and video, as three QF-4's along with a pair of QF-16's departed for a photoshoot over the WSMR in glorious weather. Returning at sundown allowed for some very special images to be captured, at the end of a memorable day.
Phinal Phlight Day... Unlike the previous day, the weather had started off pretty cold and bleak, with an obvious reflection on the mood of those gathering, to take part in and witness history. Not only a somber mood though, today was very much about mixed emotions, with excitement and even defiance in evidence. It was clear that this day would be remembered as a legendary aircraft 'going out as a winner'. Its quite easy to describe everyone present today as enthusiasts. Period. From the local community that had simply come out to witness something special, to the gathering of international photographers present to recond the event, to the veterans and their families getting 'that last chance' to witness 'that part' of their life, to of course the ground crews and pilots carrying out this final duty.
And so, with the time upon us, the 'Phinal Phour' were cleared to taxi, with canopies open and pilots punching the air, they parked briefly at the edge of the ramp for the final last-chance checks by the ground crews. At this moment (and purely by chance!) another retiring iconic veteran 'photobombed' the occasion, when the very last US Army operated UH-1 Huey departed its Holloman home for the last time. As one of the last Hueys produced, UH-1H N670SP/74-22478 had operated over the WSMR for the last 25 years, at the end of a 42 year service with the Army. Along with the other final Army Hueys, this was being transferred to a national law enforcement agency, in this case the Louisiana State Police being the destination, where it will continue to serve. A week after the final operational mission, this was one of three based here supporting the many tests at the White Sands Test Center. Missions that included being used as a Patriot Missile 'target' to improve the radar system over the years. Quite fitting then that another 'aerial target' was bowing out today.
Now ready for take off for the final time, todays aircraft would be boss-bird 74-1638 (AF-349) flown of course by "Elvis" with back seat 'pitter' being Col. Adrian "Elmo" Spain (the 53d WEG Commander at Eglin AFB), 74-0643 (AF-351) flown by "WAM" with pitter Lt. Col. Brian "Jaws" Swyt (the previous Det 1 Commander and current 53d WEG Deputy Commander at Tyndall AFB), 74-0645 (AF-336) flown by "Boomer" and 74-1043 (AF-338) flown by "Rock". Off the ground in pairs and singles, "Rock" was airborne last with a powerful pull into the vertical, with all four then grouping for a formation pass. Heading off, what followed was a phantastically rare moment, as first unseen the group then proceeded to make a supersonic pass at height, with the four double sonic booms certainly being 'felt' by those on the ground. Not for the faint hearted! With the weather finally starting to clear, this highlight was then followed by multiple high speed passes low over the crowd, before each aircraft returned for their final, phinal touchdown. As a water cannon salute honoured the first aircraft back (followed by a champagne drenching for some pilots!), "Boomer" and "Elvis" continued with their burner passes along the runway, not wanting the moment to end. Then with "Boomer" down for his soaking by the USAF Fire Department, it was of course left to the boss as "Elvis" managed one more 'buner turn' with smoke belching from the J-79's, before back around for that PHINAL touchdown. Taxying in and parking directly outside the ceremonial hangar, the unit Commander was greeted by family as he stepped out of his aircraft for the very last time.
The final event of the day then followed, with a formal retirement ceremony held in front a dignified audience. The short but heartfelt ceremony, in the presence of another of the units QF-4E 'heritage birds' marked as "Col Olds Scat XXVII' (with his four Mig-kill marks from the Vietnam War) was enthusiastically received as several speakers payed homage to the Phantom in US service and the important role it had played in defending the nations interests. One interesting fact being that "no US ground personnel have been killed by an enemy aircraft since 1953", with the Phantom playing a major part in that aerial defence in the previous century. With the reality of closure, the futures of our four pilots today mean that this tight-knit team will be changed. "ELVIS" will continue to fly in the short term on the FSAT mission with the QF-16 until his retirement (planned for June of this year), after almost 25 years of service with the USAF. "WAM" will continue with the unit as a ground controller for the QF-16. "Boomer" will continue flying with the unit on the QF-16, while "Rock" will continue his flying career as a First Officer with FedEx.
In the twilight of the F-4 Phantom II's life, similar retirement events will be seen around the world, as each remaining Air Arm says pharewell. Attended by die hard Rhino fans, respects will be payed to the iconic classic aircraft that grips the imagination of veterans and enthusiasts more than almost any other. The next pharewell is already in sight, with the Greek Air Force retirement of their RF-4E 'Recce' Phantoms in May. The HAF will continue to fly their 'regular' F-4E's for several years to come, while other variants will soldier on in Iran, Japan, South Korea and Turkey for the foreseeable short term'.
For the United States Air Force, taking the Phantom out in a blaze of glory, literally at the end of 53 years of service, was a bitter sweet but honourable way to go, as most devotees would suggest. Doing so provided another twenty years of service thanks to the FSAT role that saw the Rhino out. If not the end would have come so much sooner, by May 1996 when the F-4G Wild Weasels of the Idaho ANG were retired at Boise. But more than just being twenty more years to enjoy the Rhino, the aircraft provided a continued history lesson for young and old alike, at air shows and other public events around the country, such as the annual Phancon event organized by the F-4 Phantom II Society. The sight and sound of the Phantom in the skies and even on the ground drew a very special response, from the 'wow' and intrigue of the young, to the memories and emotion of several generations of veterans and their families. The Spook effect... and to quote "WAM"... "a real rock star".
Report by Kevin Perry for Combat Air Journal, also published in Smoke Trails magazine (Issue 22-2 February 2017), with many thanks to SrA Kenney, 49th Wing Public Affairs at Holloman AFB and Capt Farr, 53d Wing Public Affairs Advisor at Eglin AFB for their assistance with facilitating my media visit.