Whatever Happened to My F-4 Phantoms?

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Retired Air Force fighter pilot Jay Waitte flew F-4 Phantoms. He describes what is sometimes a Phantom’s second life.

QF-4 Phantom at Tyndall AFB
A QF-4 Phantom takes off from Tyndall AFB in 2015. Notice what’s missing.

Nearly 5,200 F-4 Phantoms were produced between 1958 and 1981 and flown by the US and other nations. In 1996 the US Air Force retired their F-4s from combat duty and converted some 315 jets into remotely controlled target drones for training and weapons testing. They were redesignated as the QF-4. The “Q” stands for drone. Their US Air Force career ended completely in 2016 and was replaced by QF-16s.

QF-4s were stationed at two bases. One was Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Ironically, I rode in the back seat of a (manned) F-4, my first F-4, in 1969, during my Sophomore Summer at the Air Force Academy.

QF-4s were also stationed at Tyndall AFB in Florida. Most of those Phantoms ended up in the Gulf of Mexico within one to three missions, to be scooped up by one of three drone recovery vessels that made up the “Tyndall Navy.”

But apparently, not all died so quickly. I’ve heard that one, nicknamed “Christine,” after the Stephen King book and film about a crazed car with a mind of its own, had survived ten missions. Another, “Son of Christine,” supposedly came back from 12 sorties.

Tyndall AFB is the home of the 325th Fighter Wing, whose primary job is combat training for F-22A Raptor pilots. In 2010, my son Ethan was stationed there.

I visited him once and looked over the drones. They had been completely refurbished, and they were immaculate.

I was there when Ethan shot down a QF-4. The Air Force awarded him with a trophy plaque which showed the tail number of the plane. Well, believe it or not, but I had flown the F-4 with the tail number before it and the F-4 with the tail number after it.

At least Ethan didn't shoot down one of my planes.