A QF-4 Heritage Flight aircraft in Southeast Asia camouflage colors (Photo: USAF)

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The End is Near For USAF QF-4 Phantoms

QF-4 Phantoms will be retired by the end of the year.


The QF-4 Aerial Target is a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter modified into a remotely piloted aerial target. The QF-4 provides a realistic target for live-fire air-to-air missile testing, as well other anti-aircraft weapons systems.

The last operational flight of F-4 Phantoms occurred in 1996. The following year, the QF-4 program was established. Retired F-4 Phantoms were “recalled to duty” in 1997 to serve as remotely piloted aerial target drones for live-fire missile tests.

An Example of a Heritage Flight including the P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt, the QF-4 Phatom and the F-22 Raptor (Photo: Landmark9254)
An Example of a Heritage Flight including the P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt, the QF-4 Phatom and the F-22 Raptor (Photo: Landmark9254)

In what sounds like an oxymoron, the QF-4 can be a reusable target. While the QF-4 can be flown remotely—takeoff to landing—it can also be operated by a pilot for non-destructive testing, such as testing radar detection systems.

Unfortunately, this American classic, even as an aerial target, is rapidly approaching its final days, at least in the US (several other countries still have active F-4 squadrons).

QF-4s are operated by Detachment 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS) at Holloman AFB,New Mexico. Typically, QF-4s are simply grey with international orange on the tail and wingtips.

Over the last several years, several aircraft have been repainted using the Southeast Asia paint scheme. These aircraft have become part of the popular Heritage Flight program, that are formations of World War II aircraft (P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolts) with modern F-16s, F-22s, or F-35s). The QF-4 fills the historical gap of the Vietnam Conflict aircraft.

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Unfortunately, QF-4s will be phased out of the aerial target program by the end of 2016, with the last flights anticipated in November—also ending the QF-4s role in the Heritage Flights. The aircraft will be flown in their target roles as needed before the end of the year. Any aircraft not destroyed as aerial targets will be de-weaponized and towed to the Holloman AFB target range to be used as ground targets. An ignominious operational end to one of the most iconic aircraft of its era.

The F-4s will continue to operate in the air forces of several other countries, and there are many examples of F-4s around the country in museums and on display. Also, the Collings Foundation in Texas owns and operates an airworthy F-4 Phantom in the US.

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Written by Jeff Richmond

Jeff Richmond

Jeff has been flying and writing for more than thirty-five years. He flew in the Air Force and later taught college-level aeronautics. He has worked as professional photographer and a business and technical writer for both Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin. Now retired, Jeff is on a mission to visit, photograph and write about aerospace museums—especially the smaller, lesser known museums.