TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The 82nd Aerial Target Squadron received the last of the "new" QF-4 aerial targets as the Vietnam-era aircraft landed here Nov. 19.
The QF-4, Aircraft 68-0599, spent more than 20 years in the Air Force "Boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., before being brought back to life for one last mission.
"It is bittersweet to receive the last QF-4," said Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, 82nd ATRS commander. "This aircraft has served the Air Force and the nation so well for so long. It is truly the end of an era."
The supersonic, reusable QF-4 provides a realistic full-scale target for air-to-air weapons system evaluation, development and testing. The 82nd ATRS will eventually launch the QF-4 on an unmanned flight where it will act as a target for a modern piloted jet. That last mission will provide vital data to American and allied forces.
Since the QF-4 replaced the QF-106 in 1998, more than 300 of the idle planes found a new purpose to continue to serve the Defense Department.
The Phantoms began returning to work after the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group reinstalled the parts to the aircrafts making them serviceable again, according to an April 2013 article from the Davis Monthan AFB website.
The next step involved contractors BAE Systems converting the F-4 to the QF-4, which would be flown remotely by highly-trained civil service pilots with an average of 4,000 flight hours.
Jeff Percy, the BAE Systems director of flight operations, has delivered close to 50 QF-4s in the last four years.
"It is a great flying airplane," Percy said after flying the aircraft into to base. "It was a team effort, and I was happy to deliver the last Phantom to Tyndall (AFB)."
The teamwork of contractors, civilian and military members contributed to more than 16,000 manned and 600 unmanned QF-4 missions. Ultimately, 250 of the Phantoms succeeded in their missions and been successively destroyed over the Gulf of Mexico and the ranges near Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., with the information gathered going to help warfighters globally.
There are only about 60 QF-4s remaining in the program both at Tyndall AFB and Holloman AFB.
The limited availability of F-4s and the continuing advancement of fighter aircraft such as the F-22 Raptors are forcing a shift to the fourth generation QF-16, a converted F-16 Fighting Falcon that should be ready for use in 2014.
"It is a more fitting end for the F-4 to go out in service instead of rusting in a field," said Vincent Farrell, a 82nd ATRS instructor pilot and controller who flew the F-4 during his active duty career.
The Air Force first flew the F-4 in 1963 with the aircraft seeing first combat in 1965 against North Vietnamese fighters, according to a National Museum of the Air Force factsheet.
The 82nd ATRS is part of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, which falls under the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The group provides the personnel and infrastructure to test and evaluate weapons utilized by the combat air forces of the United States and its allies. It operates the only full-scale aerial targets in the DOD.