Look Ma! No pilot! (Or RIO, for that matter.) (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Phantom Phanatics have loved the F-4, even though the legendary fighter has been out of United States service for two decades. But that may not be an accurate way to think of it. Because theF-4 actually has still been serving – and still has about two months of life left with the United States Air Force.
According to an Air Force release, these Phantoms that have been serving just haven't been manned – for the most part. QF-4 Phantoms (the Q standing for "drone") have been providing "live" targets for the testing of air-to-air missiles (like the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM), usually by simulating an enemy aircraft during those tests. Any number of pilots who have used air-to-air missiles in combat can thank those target drones for helping make sure those missiles worked.
How did the Phantom provide two decades' worth of target drones? Well, it's not hard when you realize that almost 5,200 were built by McDonnell-Douglas. Now, that includes those that were exported, but even with combat losses in Vietnam (73 for the Navy, 75 for the Marine Corps, and 528 for the Air Force). The Air Force arranged for 324 airframes to become QF-4s. The Navy also used the QF-4 after retiring its last F-4 from USMC service in 1992 – getting another 12 years of service from the "Double Ugly" until the last airframe retired in 2004.
The QF-4s were not the first planes to serve as target drones. The QF-86 Sabre, QF-80 Shooting Star, QF-100 Super Sabre, and the QF-106 Delta Dart have been among former fighters that provided additional service beyond their "official" retirement date by serving as target drones. Even the legendary B-17 had a version that served as a target drone. In fact, just as the F-4 Phantom was replaced in active service by the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the QF-4 Phantom will be replaced by QF-16 Fighting Falcons.
The surviving QF-4 Phantoms at White Sands Missile Range will get one more round of maintenance, mostly to remove hazardous materials, and then they will serve as ground targets.