Crowds gathered at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to cheer on the QF-4 Phantom II as the storied aircraft took its final flight Wednesday after more than a half-century in service.
"This has been a humbling experience," said Lt. Col. Ronald King, the Detachment 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron commander.
"There is no way to truly understand what this aircraft has done without talking to the people who lived it," he added in an Air Force release the day of the aircraft's retirement flight.
The F-4 fighter-bomber entered military service first to the Navy and Marine Corps and then to the Air Force in 1963. According to the service, the impressive dogfighter has set 15 world records, including an aircraft speed of 1,606 miles per hour; and an absolute altitude at 98,557 feet.
"It is also the only aircraft to be flown by both the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels," the release said.
A veteran signs his name on a QF-4 Phantom during the "Pet the Jet" portion of the Phinal Phlight event commemoration at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, on Dec. 21, 2016. The F-4 Phantom II entered the Air Force inventory in 1963, where it served as the primary fighter-bomber throughout the 1960s and 1970s. (U.S. Air Force photo/Eboni Prince)
The McDonnell Douglas-made Phantom ceased flying operationally in 1997, but was re-designated the QF-4 and was assigned to the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. At Holloman,13 QF-4s, designated under the detachment, would serve as manned and unmanned training aerial target jets.
In recent years, the planes were either flown by pilots or remotely as drones by controllers on the ground. They've been used as targets for missiles and also used to test new radars and other missions.
Lt. Col. Ronald King, 82 Aerial Target Squadron Det 1, waves goodbye before taking off during the QF-4 Phinal Phlight event Dec. 21, 2016, at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Hundreds of people were in attendance to commemorate the aircraft’s retirement, marking the end of the aircraft’s 53 years of service to the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Matthew McGovern)
Fondly nicknamed "The Double Ugly," "Old Smokey" and "The Rhino", the QF-4 flew 145 unmanned missions -- its last in August -- and 70 aircraft were destroyed in service.
"I've learned a lot on this journey," said King, the only active duty F-4 pilot in the Air Force. "This is not an aircraft; this is a family. With that, I would leave you with this -- Phantom forever."
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.