EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Meet The Last US Air Force F-4 Pilot

Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins is a bad ass.  He’s the quintessential fighter pilot who bleeds blue and loves flying.  WAM flew A-10s and F-16s on active duty before retiring and continuing to fly as a civilian F-4 instructor. On December 21, 2016, he had the honor of flying one of the absolute last F-4 sorties for the US Air Force. We spoke with him to hear his story. Enjoy!

1.) At Avgeekery, we always have to ask… When did you first know you were an Avgeek?

I went for a glider ride with my Dad when I was 10. I hated it because everyone was “old” (30s and 40s) and it was pretty scary! I went back a few years later, for some reason, and there just happened to be other youngsters there. We took over that club (Long Island Soaring Association “LISA” in NY) and I started accumulating FAA certificates on my birthdays. I also got into airshows then, and barely remember the Thunderbirds flying F-4s.

2.) You’ve had a pretty amazing career. How did you get started in aviation?

I soloed a glider on my 14th birthday, got my private glider on my 16th birthday, and did my commercial/CFIG on my 18th birthday. I also got my PPL on my 17th birthday and was a tow pilot in LISA. There was not a lot of money in the family, so my plans were to go to a local NY university and be an aeronautical engineer. Since I couldn’t afford to buy my ratings at a college, I figured I might as well work on aircraft. Luckily, one of the LISA members had a son at the USAF Academy (USAFA) and mentioned there was FREE soaring there! The rest is history! After receiving the Outstanding Cadet in Soaring Award at USAFA, I went on to fly A-10s in England for 5 years (1500 hours, and Weapons School Graduate), Jaguar Exchange in Scotland for 3 years (700 hours), and F-16s for 9 years in Korea, Arizona (Luke AFB), Egypt and Arizona again (1500 hours).

3.) Every pilot has had days where the world just feels right. Tell us about your favorite flying story.

I just did it. My last flight in the QF-4 was amazing. Quickest 45 minutes of my life, and my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. Plus I shared it with hundreds of my closest friends at Holloman AFB, NM and 1.5 million of my other “phriends” with the 4K 360 video camera that Airman Magazine put in my cockpit.

A close second was my solo attempt at probe and drogue refueling in the RAF Jaguar during my exchange tour. I was upgrading to Combat Ready in the RAF Jaguar so I could deploy with them in the first Gulf War. I was the first American to obtain that status. I was pretty nervous, but managed one short hook-up just before reaching “Bingo” fuel and having to return home! After landing there was a lot of commotion in a back room…turns out the RAF Jaguar pilots had bet on whether I would be able to successfully take any air-to-air gas. Lots of money was lost that day! Due to the quickness of the first Gulf War, my rotation was cancelled and I went back to Scotland to instruct in the Jaguar.

4.) You’ve been a Phantom driver for quite a while. What will you miss most about not flying the F-4 anymore.

The Phantom Phanatics for sure! This last year has been like a Rock Band tour! The F-4 was the star, and I was the bus driver. Met a lot of the same people along the way, but there were new characters at every stop. I signed everything imaginable, answered millions of questions, and posed for thousands of photos. I also met war heroes, family of war heroes, and friends I hadn’t seen in decades. I lived another entire Fighter Pilot life these last 9 years.


5.) How many total hours in the F-4 did you finish up with?

1180 hours in the past 9 years as a civilian QF-4 Fighter Pilot. It was the last US 1000 hour patch in the F-4, and it was a chapter in my life that I could never have imagined or written better! Not a lot of Fighter Pilots get to fly Fighters into their late 50s, much less a Civilian in the iconic Phantom!

Lt. Col. Ron King, left, and Jim Harkins, both pilots from the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, Detachment 1, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, talk with Col. Dana Pelletier, 75th Mission Support Group commander, during a QF-4 Aerial Target aircraft static display at Hill AFB, Oct. 25. (U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Holcomb)

More questions, videos and photos on the next page!

Photo by Staff Sgt. Eboni Prince

6.) We’ve been told that the F-4 is a pretty straightforward jet but things could still go wrong. What was your toughest challenge when flying the jet?

I had previously flown the F-16 for the last 9 years of my active duty career, and had one non-flying job before I retired. I had never flown the F-4 in the military, and I was the first pilot hired with no previous F-4 experience. There were concerns about that and initially I didn’t understand why. After sitting through old PowerPoint academics, reading the old publications, and then flying my first sortie without any simulator practice, procedural or emergencies, I realized why! I never worked so hard in my life…from not starting the engines correctly to trying to fly without a Heads-Up Display or GPS. Oh…I also had to use rudder during high angle of attack maneuvering now, after not using the rudder in-flight for 9 years in the F-16. I did manage to depart the QF-4 a few times during early aggressive maneuvering, but stick forward (and plenty of altitude) always saved the day. I had my first Utility Hydraulic Failure, and approach end cable arrestment (first of my life), on my fifth flight. Luckily I was dual because I had problems finding and/or activating several of the emergency systems due to no simulator training. It took me several years, and a few hundred hours, to feel comfortable flying the Phantom and to experience enough emergencies to think I had more skill than luck!

8.) Do you think there is any chance that a USAF F-4 will ever return to the skies?

Nope…no way. Too expensive to operate and maintain, and not representative of today’s fighter envelopes (altitude, Gs, radar cross section, etc.). Plus the parts train is drying up at the boneyard. It overstayed its Drone job by a year or so, but more than made up for that by bringing smiles to thousands of faces over the past year.

8.) Now that you’ve flown your last F-4 flight, you plan to retire from flying. What’s next for you?

Actually, I am staying in the same office and taking over the Controller only job of our retiring 75 year old Vietnam Veteran F-4 pilot. My heart knows I can still fly Fighters, but my 56 year old brain, and 70 year old neck and back, have no desire to pull 9 Gs again in the centrifuge and F-16 requal training. Therefore, in an attempt to keep walking when I am really 70, and to keep my chiropractor and wife happy, I decided to take over the job as the Chief Controller of the QF-16. I will still get to hang out with Fighter Pilots, and fly Fighters…remotely from the ground! It’s always tough to admit you’re getting old…but high-G fighters are a young man’s game. I will start flying and instructing in gliders again at the local airport, and continue instructing motorcycle training.

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeffry Howerton

9.) What advice do you have for people who are trying to start a career in aviation?

Do fantastic work in school, get involved in leadership (sports, flying, Jr ROTC, etc) and attend the USAF Academy! The education is superb, the free flying is fantastic, and the job waiting when you graduate is amazing. The best percentage of Pilot Training slots goes to USAFA. If you can’t or won’t do the Academy, then ROTC is your next best bet, followed by OTS. Don’t get me wrong…the Academy is tough, and it sucked a lot, but it’s a GREAT PLACE TO BE FROM! The fact that I got paid to be an immature Fighter Pilot for over 30 years, and almost 6000 hours, should be illegal! Thanks Dad…and tax payers!

(Photos in story shared by  LtCol Jim Harkins unless otherwise noted.)

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