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Members of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, use the QF-4 for a unique mission. The QF-4 is an F-4 Phantom that has been converted to a remotely piloted aircraft for use as an aerial target. (U.S. Air Force video/Jimmy D. Shea)

No one wants to end his or her career on a low point.

Often, professional athletes will retire years early to avoid ending their career as someone who barely contributed to the team.

For many Spartan warriors in ancient Greece, they’d rather die in battle than live on to become an old man, withering away until they died.  For some pilots, seeing their old airframe sitting and collecting dust in the “boneyard” outside of Tucson, Arizona, feels like part of them is doing the same.

But waiting to die in the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group’s sprawling desert storage facility isn’t the only option for a retired aircraft.

For example, the F-4 Phantom II can end its life helping others.

Since 1995, members of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, have been taking F-4s from the boneyard and converting them into remotely piloted aircraft designated for one purpose: getting blown up.

Well, that’s putting it in layman’s terms.

Actually, they’re playing the role of enemy fighters, flying training sorties over the Florida Gulf Coast as military aircraft test their abilities to engage with live munitions.

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Staff Sgt. Kelly Eilenberg (walking) and Senior Airman Jonathan Bybee transport an AIM-120 missile across the Tyndall Air Force Base flight one. The missile will be loaded on an F-16 Fighting Falcon and then fired at a Q-F4 Phantom as part of exercise Combat Archer.
Staff Sgt. Kelly Eilenberg (walking) and Senior Airman Jonathan Bybee transport an AIM-120 missile across the Tyndall Air Force Base flight one. The missile will be loaded on an F-16 Fighting Falcon and then fired at a Q-F4 Phantom as part of exercise Combat Archer.

The 82nd ATS’ main customers are the pilots participating in Combat Archer — an exercise Tyndall AFB hosts roughly 40 times a year, bringing in other flying squadrons from around the country, including Air National Guard, reserves and other branches, said Maj. Jeffrey Rivers, the director of operations of the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron, the unit that conducts Combat Archer. During this exercise, squadron personnel verify weapon system performance, determine reliability, evaluate capability and limitations, identify deficiencies, recommend corrective action, and maintain combat Air Force-wide data by firing missiles at either the QF-4 or the smaller reusable subscale targets.

During the Vietnam War, pilots had little to no experience firing missiles, and very little testing was done on how the aircraft and missile perform when brought together for action, said Steve Davis, the contract program director at Tyndall AFB’s aerial target squadron and a retired senior master sergeant with more than 27 years of experience as a crew chief.

As a result of the concerns in Vietnam, Combat Archer was organized to help pilots gain confidence and practice successfully firing weapons at aerial targets.

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The AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) is a new generation air-to-air missile. It has an all-weather, beyond-visual-range capability and is scheduled to be operational beyond 2000. The AMRAAM is being procured for the Air Force, U.S. Navy and America’s allies.

“Every shot you take builds more confidence,” Rivers said. “In knowing what a valid missile looks like when it comes off your aircraft, you know what it looks like when a missile is having trouble and can follow up with another.”

As a result of consistently not seeing the result pilots wanted from their missiles, an order was passed, making it mandatory for missiles to be tested before being employed in battle. This study would give the Air Force the data needed to have full faith in the missile system, while also giving pilots the experience of knowing how it feels to fire a missile at an aerial target.

“They enacted under Title 10 of theUnited States Code governing the armed forces, to establish an interrogation of all missile systems,” said Davis. “So when we strap a missile on any of our fighters, we’d know with confidence that those missiles would hit targets. And that’s where we started.”

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A pair of QF-4 Phantoms are readied for mission at Tyndall Air Force Base. The planes will be shot down by pilots participating in the exercise Combat Archer.
A pair of QF-4 Phantoms are readied for mission at Tyndall Air Force Base. The planes will be shot down by pilots participating in the exercise Combat Archer.

Sitting on a remote runway, nicknamed “droneway,” several QF-4s catch some afternoon sun as they await their final call — Tyndall AFB’s last QF-4 Aerial Target mission.

Running his hand along the grey airframe, raw American steel stripped of its paint, Davis feels history flow through his hands and into his veins.

“The paint tells a story,” he says aloud, noticing dozens of stamps on it, signifying each scheduled round of maintenance performed on the aircraft while sitting in the boneyard.

“A lot of these fighters still have their markings,” Davis said. “It tells a long active-duty life. It all tells a story. Most of these aircraft were used in the Vietnam War, and there’s a lot of history in that.”

He thinks one last farewell as one of the QF-4s gets the call and taxis to the end of the runway for its final flight before it’s shot down over the Gulf – “You always want to die in glory.”

Though these aircraft won’t be meeting their demise over the battlefield, their final contributions will increase the chances that American pilots won’t either.

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A Member of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, goes through engine checks on QF-4 Phantom before a mission. Once engine checks are completed the cockpit is vacated, the canopy is closed and the plane is totally under control of the remote pilot located on Tyndall Air Force Base.
A Member of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, goes through engine checks on QF-4 Phantom before a mission. Once engine checks are completed the cockpit is vacated, the canopy is closed and the plane is totally under control of the remote pilot located on Tyndall Air Force Base.

Well that’s different

Since the official aerial targeting mission began during the Vietnam War, the program has seen many aircraft changes, including the conversion of the F-106 Delta Dart, F-100 Super Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger and now the F-4 into remotely piloted fighter aircraft.

While the elements of the program are complex, the concept is rather simple.

When a QF-4 is slated for a mission, civilian crew chiefs ready the aircraft similarly to any normal fighter aircraft, starting the engines and performing preflight checks of the systems, with a few minor differences.

“We have crew chiefs cranking this aircraft up, and we have a certain stage that we turn the aircraft over to the pilot at a remote location,” said Davis.

From that point, things get interesting.

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Since 1995, members of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, have been taking F-4s from the Boneyard and converting them into a remotely piloted aircraft, designed to be shot down pilots in training exercises.
Since 1995, members of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, have been taking F-4s from the Boneyard and converting them into a remotely piloted aircraft, designed to be shot down pilots in training exercises.

Once the aircraft is deemed airworthy by the pilot, who’s sitting in a dimly lit room on the other side of base, looking at instrument panels, “we will get out of the cockpit, close the canopy and walk away from it,” Davis said.

When the crew chief walks away from the QF-4, the pilot takes control of the aircraft, and within minutes, takes off for its date with a missile and the bottom of the Gulf.

Though it has been roughly four decades since Gene McCormick first saw a fighter jet take off without a pilot, it’s an image etched in his memory.

“The first time I went out at Eglin (Air Force Base, Florida) and saw an unmanned mission is something I still remember clearly,” said McCormick, a retired fighter pilot and aerial targeting program member. “The drone takes off – this totally orange, beautiful F-104 – and it got shot down. And the guys just casually walk away. I said, ‘I mean, you guys are just going to let your airplane go away like this.’ They said, ‘It’s our mission. It’s a target.’ You have to accept that. It’s the price of peace.”

According to McCormick, it’s sometimes hard for pilots to accept this fate for their aircraft, unlike the pilots he met at Eglin decades ago.

The relationship between a pilot and an airframe goes beyond a master and a tool. It’s a true relationship, with accompanying feelings.

“It’s like your dog getting shot I guess. You love the airplane,” said McCormick. “You have a personal attachment to it.”

Understanding this relationship, McCormick keeps a master log of each QF-4, so he can give some closure to Airmen who had a connection with a particular F-4.

“I have a master list of tail numbers. When they call and give me a tail number, I can look it up, and the date, and say, ‘This QF-4 died on this date with this missile.’ It makes people feel better when you know how and why. People still tear up.”

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A pilot remotely controls a Q-F4 Phantom as it takes off from the drone way, a runway east of Tyndall Air Force Base, on a mission over the Gulf of Mexico.

One death, dozens saved

The first time someone sees the QF-4 take off, its back engines lit up with flames like a space shuttle blasting off, is awe-inspiring. It’s loud enough to cause a person’s stomach to shake from the sheer power. The rear twin engines scream a low, deep sound with its bass turned up on high like a concert.

But the feeling of awe quickly turns into disappointment upon the realization that there’s a good chance it won’t be coming back.

That feeling of disappointment can be mitigated by the understanding the purpose of the aircraft’s sacrifice.

“When we see a QF-4 come back with battle damage, it speaks volumes for this program,” Davis said, noting how it’s not uncommon for fighter jets to fail to shoot the aircraft down. “That missile was not effective. It did not take that aircraft out. Had it been an adversary, they would have landed that aircraft, done some battle damage repair and turned it back out into combat.

“That missile did not work; it did not do its job.”

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An AIM-120 missile leaves the rail of an F-16 during exercise Combat Archer.
An AIM-120 missile leaves the rail of an F-16 during exercise Combat Archer.

As a result of  captured data and analytics during these missions, updates are made to missiles systems whenever consistent poor performance has been demonstrated, Davis said. It’s common, after months of updating, for the missiles to return for more successful round two.

“We see missiles that were not working right at the first stages of shooting at us, and within six months of working on them, it’s a sure kill,” Davis said.  “You can’t do this with a computer. You need an actual target.”

When a QF-4 is tasked with a mission for Combat Archer, it’s typically flying against an Air Force, Marine or Navy pilot, who’s experiencing for the first time what it’s truly like to fire a missile at a target, while others on the ground are testing and studying the missile’s effectiveness.

“It puts them under the pressure of firing a missile, being watched, being yelled at,” McCormick said. “It plays a huge part in the operational world.”

The scenarios pilots experience during Combat Archer vary, but the program aims to replicate something they could experience in the future.

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Airmen from the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, prepare to load AIM 120 air-to-air missiles on to F-16 Fighting Falcons. The 177th is at Tyndall Air Force Base participating in exercise Combat Archer.

“We take aircrew and put them in a situation where they’re going against a target and they actually fire a real missile of their aircraft where they get the sound and feel of that missile leaving,” said Maj. Jeffrey Rivers, the director of operations of the 83rd Fighter Weapons Squadron – the unit that conducts Combat Archer. “We take all the training they’ve had at this point; they’re combat ready and now all we do is at that live fire portion of it to give them that experience.”

With the success of Combat Archer and the 82nd ATS, other branches of the military have requested the training.

“People go their entire Navy career, maybe just shoot one missile … sometimes don’t even shoot any missiles,” said Navy Lt. Bobby Hallum, VFA 31 in Norfolk, Virginia, one day after he fired his first missile.

For Hallum, firing a missile was something a simulator couldn’t replicate. Having this experience has reduced his concerns of the unknown if he ever needs to fire a missile against an enemy.

“You don’t want to be surprised by the missile taking a while to get off the jet,” he said. There are a lot of things that have to happen for the missile to launch. You want to be confident in your systems, be confident in your aircraft and confident in yourself that you can get the job done when it comes time.”

Rivers still remembers his first missile leaving the rail, referring to the experience as “spectacular.”

This training served Rivers well, having to nearly call upon it shortly after participating in Combat Archer.

While stationed in Europe, Rivers’ daily mission was to police the skies over Iceland and the Baltics. During one flight, he had to intercept a Russian aircraft flying over international waters.

“I’ve been up close to Russian airplanes with live ordnances,” he said. “If anything did happen where I was asked to take shots, having been through this program, gives me the confidence to know my missiles will work. If they don’t, I know what that looks like, so I can immediately transition to another game plane.”

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A sailor from VFA 31 Norfolk, Virginia wipes dew from the canopy of an F/A-18 Super Hornet at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. VFA 31 is at Tyndall AFB participating in exercise Combat Archer where pilots will fire live missiles at QF-4 Phantoms.
A sailor from VFA 31 Norfolk, Virginia wipes dew from the canopy of an F/A-18 Super Hornet at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. VFA 31 is at Tyndall AFB participating in exercise Combat Archer where pilots will fire live missiles at QF-4 Phantoms.

As the sun goes down on the QF-4 program at Tyndall AFB, the F-16 is lining up to leave and, in some circumstances, avoiding all together, the boneyard.

Slated to officially begin Fall 2015, 13 QF-16s will call Tyndall home, enabling the program to better reflect potential adversary fighter aircraft.

“We want to shoot against actual aircraft – aircraft that’s the appropriate size, as well as giving us the appropriate radar return,” Rivers said. “That target size, radar return and the maneuverability, much like the current high performance threat aircraft, is much better represented by the QF-16.”

To Rivers, having a fighter jet sit, waiting to die goes against the warrior mentality.

“If those airplanes were humans, you can go to the old folks home and just wither away and die,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Or you can die a Spartan’s death – a warrior’s death. That’s what these full-scale (RPAs) are doing.”