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Phantoms at Mojave!

Short Flights


Photo provided

Formation flight of QF-4s leaving Mojave Airport.

I'm sure that many readers remember seeing F-4s parked at Mojave Airport to be transformed into full-scale aerial target drones for the Department of Defense. This transformation process produced a most impressive air-to-air training machine for our fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. When finished, the drone was capable of taking-off, navigating to designated locations, flying programmed flight profiles with evasive maneuvers and, in many cases, surviving the dogfight to return to its original base.

BAE SYSTEMS Flight Systems had been awarded numerous contracts by the United States Air Force for the conversion of F-4 Phantom aircraft. By the year 2012, they had delivered three hundred QF-4s to their customer, the U.S. Air Force.

The supersonic drone, which replicated enemy aircraft maneuvers in test and training exercises, could also be flown with a safety pilot for performance monitoring. It was integrated with electronic and infrared countermeasures.

Our good friend, Dick Lawyer, was Chief Test Pilot for Flight Systems, Inc. in the QF-4. He conducted an impressive flyover for a plaque dedication ceremony in 1996. The plaque was dedicated to the air crews and personnel who served at Marine Corps Air Station Mojave.

Dick was a retired Air Force Colonel and walked with a Martin-Baker limp after ejecting from an F-4 in Vietnam. (Martin-Baker makes the ejection seats in many jet fighters.) He was selected in 1965 as one of the first astronauts to the Air Force's classified Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. This program, later canceled without sending any astronauts into space, was to man a military space station with Air Force astronauts using a modified Gemini spacecraft.

Dick passed away Nov. 12, 2005 from a suspected blood clot in his leg. We miss him to this day and will always cherish our friendship with him. He was the guy who checked Al out in the F-86 and was one of the only other pilots Al would let fly his Sabre.

The history on where all the Mojave F-4 Phantom aircraft came from is interesting. In 1946 a unit was established at Davis-Monthan (DM) AFB in Tucson, Ariz. The primary function was to provide a storage location for the large number of aircraft no longer required by the Army Air Force following the end of World War II.

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force was created as a separate service. As the decades passed, the site was not only used for the storage of surplus aircraft for the Air Force, but its role was widened to store aircraft from all U.S. armed services.

In the 1980s, Norton AFB in California was added to preserve TITAN II, THOR and ATLAS missiles used by the Space Division for its satellite launches. The name of the center was changed in October 1985 to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC). All of the Mojave QF-4s came from AMARC at DM in Tucson.

All the conventional control systems were replaced with remotely operated ones and electronic scoring systems were installed. The electronic scoring system measured and recorded the direction, velocity and distance of missiles used against the drone on trials. Each conversion took around six months to complete at Mojave.

The main nerve center of the drone system was located in the vacant armament or gun compartment. Two electronic control systems were installed to provide back up capabilities.

Before delivery to the Air Force, the drones went through a series of flight tests to ensure that the newly installed systems were effective and that the extensive re-wiring had not affected the reliability of the aircraft in flight.

Photo provided

BAE Systems Flight Systems QF-4 on flightline at Mojave.

We watched a formation of four QF-4s take off one morning at 6 a.m. I always liked the photo I took that morning, because it was hard to tell if the Phantoms were flying away from the camera or towards it!

It was really great to see and hear the QF-4s take off in full after-burner! Two General Electric J-79 engines make a lot of noise! Some of the predecessor drone aircraft included: the Canadair T-33; Canadair F-86E; North American F-100 and Convair F-106.

I remember seeing the flightline at Mojave full of F-100s and F-106s. Such a shame to shoot down these beautiful airplanes. Now Boeing is converting F-16s into full-size aerial targets! Boeing won a $28.5 million contract in March 2015 to convert 25 retired F-16 fighters into QF-16 target drones.

See you on our next flight!


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