F-4 Flies for Final Time


Pilots of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 led the final military flight of the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. The final variant of the Phantom II was the QF-4 unmanned aerial targets flown by the 82nd at Holloman AFB. The F-4 Phantom II entered the U.S. Air Force inventory in 1963 and was the primary multi-role aircraft in the USAF throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It was also flown by thousands of Navy and Marine Corps aviators. (U.S. Air Force video // Andrew Arthur Breese)

CLICK TO VIEW PHOTO GALLERY

As he slides his hands across the edges of the wings and walks from nose to tail, inspecting all aspects of the jet, a wave of emotion begins to hit Jim Harkins.

His weathered features appear calm and determined, but they hide the tears he is fighting back.

While he walks around the aircraft, he greets each maintainer and says, “Thank you.” Harkins rubs and taps the bulging nose of the QF-4 Phantom II, like an aged cowboy saying hello to a trusty steed, and then climbs into the cockpit.

“One last time,” Harkins says and the canopy closes around him.

For Harkins and the F-4, this is a day of lasts. For Harkins, it’s the last time he will fly for the Air Force and, for the Phantom, the last time it will take to the skies.

It’s their final flight.

Civilian QF-4E Pilot/Controller Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins, exits his McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, after a rehearsal for the final military flight and retirement ceremony for the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. The final variant of the Phantom II was the QF-4 unmanned aerial targets flown by the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 at Holloman AFB. The ceremonial flight was Harkins last in a cockpit for the Air Force; he will now be a ground controller for the QF-4's replacement, the QF-16. The F-4 Phantom II entered the U.S. Air Force inventory in 1963 and was the primary multi-role aircraft in the USAF throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The F-4 flew bombing, combat air patrol, fighter escort, reconnaissance and the famous Wild Weasel anti-aircraft missile suppression missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Civilian QF-4E Pilot/Controller Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins, exits his McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, after a rehearsal for the final military flight and retirement ceremony for the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. The final variant of the Phantom II was the QF-4 unmanned aerial targets flown by the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 at Holloman AFB. The ceremonial flight was Harkins last in a cockpit for the Air Force; he will now be a ground controller for the QF-4’s replacement, the QF-16. The F-4 Phantom II entered the U.S. Air Force inventory in 1963 and was the primary multi-role aircraft in the USAF throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The F-4 flew bombing, combat air patrol, fighter escort, reconnaissance and the famous Wild Weasel anti-aircraft missile suppression missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

“It’s not really sad, because in the military you get used to a lot of lasts, but it’s humbling,” Harkins said.

Harkins isn’t the only one feeling nostalgic and emotional about the aircraft affectionately referred to as “Old Smokey.” Hundreds of “Phantom Phixers,” “Phantom Phliers” and “Phantom Phanatics” gathered on the flightline at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to watch the final F-4 flight.

Some used to work on the aircraft, some are just fans and others, like retired Col. Chuck DeBellevue, had the privilege of actually flying the fighter.

DeBellevue flew the F-4 in Vietnam, where he had six confirmed kills – two against the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-19 and four against the MiG-21, the most of any U.S. aviator during the war.

He’s not just saying farewell to an amazing machine, he’s saying goodbye to an old friend.

“A friend who got me home more times than I care to remember,” DeBellevue said. “Being back on the flightline today brought back a lot of memories, not all are good. I lost a lot of friends, but it was a great airplane. I loved to fly that airplane. It’s very honest and it got me out of a lot of tight spots during the war.”

DeBellevue recalls the Navy originally bought the F-4 to be a fleet interceptor and the Air Force bought it in 1963 to do everything – and it did do everything. It served as the primary air superiority fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, but it also served roles in ground-attack and aerial reconnaissance and, once taken out of active service, was designated the QF-4 where it flew as aerial targets.

The F-4 was a workhorse weapons system for the Air Force through the 1990s and it still hold the distinction of being the first multi-service aircraft. During it’s heyday, the F-4 set 16 speed and altitude records and demonstrated its effectiveness time and again throughout its lengthy career.

The Phantom looked cool doing it, too.

“You didn’t get into the F-4, you put it on, it became you,” DeBellevue said. “It was a manual airplane, not like an F-16 or F-15, they were aerodynamic and designed well. The F-4 was the last plane that looked like it was made to kill somebody. It was a beast. It could go through a flock of birds and kick out barbeque from the back.”

Col. (Ret.) Charles B. DeBellevue, left, greats Major General (Ret.) William P. Acker and his wife, Nadine, after the final military flight of the storied F-4 Phantom II at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. Both men flew the multi-roll fighter. Debellevue was a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) during the Vietnam War, where as a member of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the "Triple Nickel", stationed at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. Then Capt. Debellevue, scored four kills flying with Capt. Steve Ritchie and two more flying with Capt. John A. Madden Jr. on Sept 9, 1972, making him an ace. Acker was among the initial Air Force cadre, 4453 Detachment, to fly the F-4 in 1963. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Col. (Ret.) Charles B. DeBellevue, left, greats Major General (Ret.) William P. Acker and his wife, Nadine, after the final military flight of the storied F-4 Phantom II at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. Both men flew the multi-roll fighter. Debellevue was a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) during the Vietnam War, where as a member of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the “Triple Nickel”, stationed at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base. Then Capt. Debellevue, scored four kills flying with Capt. Steve Ritchie and two more flying with Capt. John A. Madden Jr. on Sept 9, 1972, making him an ace. Acker was among the initial Air Force cadre, 4453 Detachment, to fly the F-4 in 1963. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

On the flightline at Holloman, the final flight of four F-4s prepare to take off for the last time. The engines rumble and smoke flies.

In his jet, Harkins looks over the crowd, dancing in the cockpit, revving up the on-lookers and saluting those in attendance. Everyone cheers as the final four F-4s begin their last taxi.

Harkins is first to pass the crowd, followed by pilots Eric “Rock” Vold, Jim “Boomer” Schreiner and finally Lt. Col. Ronald “Elvis” King, the last active duty F-4 pilot and commander of Det. 1, 82nd Aerial Target Squadron. Together these men will fly the Phinal Phlight demonstration before King officially retires the QF-4 program during a ceremony following the flight.

From right, The last active-duty Air Force pilot to fly the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Lt. Col. Ron "Elvis" King of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1, Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins,, and return to the flightily after a rehearsal for the final military flight and retirement ceremony for the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

From right, The last active-duty Air Force pilot to fly the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1, Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins,, and return to the flightily after a rehearsal for the final military flight and retirement ceremony for the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but every time I get into the F-4 I can’t help but think of all the stories of all the pilots and all the maintainers who made this aircraft great,” King said. “The history and the heritage to me is the biggest satisfaction of flying the airplane.”

King had no concept when he became the squadron commander he would be the last active duty pilot. It didn’t really set in until he and Harkins began taking the F-4 on a farewell tour during to air shows and aviation expos last year. King felt obligated to take the F-4 on the road, to give admirers the chance to see it, touch it and share their stories one last time. It was then he realized this tour piloting the F-4 would be something special.

“It’s going to be sad to shut those engines down for the last time, but she’s served our country well,” King said of the F-4. “It’s exciting too, because our mission is to provide full scale aerial targets and we are going to be able to do that now with an airplane that’s better suited, provides higher performance and is more representative of the threats we face today in the QF-16.”

Two McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 streak over the flightline during the final military flight of the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Two McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 streak over the flightline during the final military flight of the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

King said it was getting more and more difficult to keep the F-4’s in the air, and the only reason the QF-4 lasted as long as it did was because of the maintainers of the 82nd ATS.

Unfortunately, he says, there is no longer a need for the F-4. All remaining aircraft will be de-militarized at Holloman and used as ground targets at the White Sands bombing range.

King says most people don’t like to hear the fate of the last F-4s, and he understands, but it’s too costly to maintain as a heritage piece or to preserve them for museums.

“At the end of the day, the Air Force isn’t real sentimental,” King said. “It will have a warrior’s death.”

The cockpit of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, flown by Lt. Col. Ron "Elvis" King of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1, when he led the final military flight of the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

The cockpit of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, flown by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1, when he led the final military flight of the storied aircraft at Holloman AFB, N.M., Dec. 21, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Engines roar and a flume of dust and smoke signals to the crowd the final four F-4s are off. The first two jets, piloted by King and Schreiner take off in a two-ship formation. Harkins follows in the third position and Vold in fourth. The last two jets perform an unrestricted climb, staying low to the ground in afterburner before pulling into a vertical climb at the end of the runway. The crowd goes crazy.

The sound of the F-4 is distinct. As Harkins passes over the crowd in a low-altitude turn it sounds like the jet is ripping the sky.

Multiple passes are made in four-ship, two-ship and stacked formations over the crowd of hundreds in attendance. Camera shutters clicking at a furious pace can be heard down the tarmac.

A McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantom II of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 streaks over the crowd gathered to witness the final military flight of the storied aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

A McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantom II of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron Detachment 1 streaks over the crowd gathered to witness the final military flight of the storied aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Out of nowhere, the sky cracks open and multiple booms shake the ground, buildings and cars, setting off alarms across the base. The concussions signal the F-4s going supersonic high above.

Harkins swoops down out of the sky passing over the crowd multiple times, and makes his final approach. As his wheels touch back to Earth, Harkins enters the history books as the last pilot to fly 1,000 hours in the F-4.

“I can’t imagine a better way to go out than with the F-4, it’s a special moment and a special jet and then … done,” Harkins said. “Although I flew F-16s and I went down to the F-4, but I consider myself going out on top.”

As climbs down from his jet he’s doused with water from his comrades and sprayed with champagne. In the distance, King lands his F-4 and with the front landing gear touching the asphalt, the history books close on the aircraft’s legacy.

But while the Phantom’s time in the sky may be over, the tales of its exploits are far from done. For those who flew the F-4, there is always time to wax poetic about the good ‘ole days, tearing across the wild blue yonder on “Old Smokey.”

 

Civilian QF-4E Pilot/Controller Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins, hugs his wife Annette, after being showered with champagne upon exiting the cockpit of his McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II for last time. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Civilian QF-4E Pilot/Controller Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins, hugs his wife Annette, after being showered with champagne upon exiting the cockpit of his McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II for last time. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

 

Colonel Robin Olds and 1st Lieutenant William D. Lefever (standing, left and center) with other pilots of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Rachitani RTAFB, 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Colonel Robin Olds and 1st Lieutenant William D. Lefever (standing, left and center) with other pilots of the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Ubon Rachitani RTAFB, 4 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A Spartan death


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)


Members of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, prepare a QF-4 Phantom for a mission.

Members of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, prepare a QF-4 Phantom for a mission. The Q-F4 is an F-4 Phantom that has been converted to a remotely piloted aircraft for use as an aerial target.

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.

Staff Sgt. Kelly Eilenberg (walking) and Senior Airman Jonathan Bybee transport an AIM-120 missile across the Tyndall Air Force Base flight one.

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.

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 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.”

A pair of QF-4 Phantoms are readied for mission at Tyndall Air Force Base.

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.

Well that’s different

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.

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.

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.

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.”

One death, dozens saved

 

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”