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The Drone Rangers: Organizations wrap up effort to turn old F-4s into full-scale target drones
The last regenerated F-4 Phantom is greeted by an arch of water from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., fire department after its second test flight. The QF-4 Phantom Drone program came to an end in February after more than 15 years. (Staff Sgt. Sarah Pullen)
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The Drone Rangers: Organizations wrap up effort to turn old F-4s into full-scale target drones

Posted 3/25/2013   Updated 3/25/2013 Email story   Print story


by Master Sgt. Luke Johnson
943rd Rescue Group Public Affairs

3/25/2013 - Citizen Airman/Apr. 2013 -- February marked the end of an era for a small Air Force Reserve organization and the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regener-ation Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

The two completed a project to take the last F-4 Phantom aircraft out of long-term storage and get it ready for conversion to a Q-F4 full-scale target drone equipped to carry electronic and infrared countermeasure devices. The Q-F4 program had been operational at Davis-Monthan since 1997.

Taking an F-4 Phantom from the desert floor at AMARG and turning it into a target drone takes a lot of mechanical know-how.

"It can be very, very challenging," said Rob McNichol, F-4 flight chief and retired Air Force chief master sergeant with decades of experience working on various aircraft. "The last F-4 we are converting into a drone was put into storage Jan. 18, 1989, and getting it into an airworthy condition can be extremely difficult, due to the age of the aircraft and parts issues."

Once an F-4 is removed from storage in the "boneyard" at AMARG, it has to go through a series of inspections and repairs to ensure it's safe for manned flight before being sent off to the contractor, BAE Systems, to be outfitted as a drone.

"We don't have to make the F-4 combat-mission ready," McNichol said. "However, we've got to be sure it's a safe aircraft to fly. We don't compromise on any safety issues with the F-4."

Flying an aircraft that has been sitting in the desert for decades is where a three-person Reserve organization -- an operating location of the 413th Flight Test Group at Robins AFB, Ga. -- comes into play.

Lt. Col. Michael Leach, a four-year veteran of test flying F-4 Phantoms, said it takes maintainers about six to nine months to get an aircraft ready for its initial test flight.

"We take the F-4 on a planned two-flight profile; we're looking for basic airworthiness of the aircraft before it gets turned into a drone," Leach said. "The major thing we are looking for is basic aircraft performance and making sure the aircraft doesn't do anything unexpected. We look at the basic instrumentation to make sure it's working properly."

Richard Nelson of the 309th AMARG, who has more than 25 years of active-duty experience flying in the F-4, said he is amazed at how the maintainers can take an aircraft that has been sitting in the desert for many years and make it airworthy.

"On the first test flight, we take these things up to 50,000 feet at 1.7 Mach; we have a lot of confidence that they put it together right" Nelson said.

Master Sgt. Brian Alexander, production supervisor, said a big challenge in the preparation process is locating parts.

"Finding a specialty part for the F-4 is kind of like searching for parts for a classic car; they just don't make them anymore," Alexander said. "We either have to do a special order for parts or, if they are simpler parts, have our machine shop fabricate them for us."

Most of the F-4s pulled out of storage to be used as drones had been sitting in the harsh environment of the Sonoran Desert for many years. The conversion process begins by inspecting all of the major flight systems to make the aircraft safe for its initial manned test flight and subsequent test flights.

"I rely on my experience and my crew to get the job done to make it airworthy," said
Steven J. Herman, hydraulic maintenance lead for the Q-F4 and retired Air Force engine mechanic. "We disassemble the plane, take panels off and look at everything for damages.

"Sitting out in the desert for so long, you've got rats that chew up the wiring and even make nests in the aircraft," he said. "We've got to clean it out and look at all the wiring. We've had to completely rewire from the nose back to the aft cockpit because it was chewed up so badly."

Even though it can be frustrating to spend countless hours working on a jet that has long been forgotten in the desert sun, Herman said he feels an immense amount of pride knowing that the work is important and necessary.

"First-time flights, you get goose bumps," he said. "I don't care who you are, if you've got pride in your work, even if it's a small portion of the job, watching a plane take off after more than 20 years, you get a lot of goose bumps."

Another point of pride for Herman is his direct involvement in helping the Air Force maintain its air superiority.

"It's improving our technology so we can be more prepared and better at air superiority," he said. "It's not just me; it took my crew and all of us who worked on this project to produce the 300-plus drone aircraft."

Leach and Nelson said it's both humbling and an honor to play a part in the F-4's illustrious history.

"More than 5,000 F-4s were built," Leach said. "This thing has been the backbone of fighter aviation for the Air Force. F-15s and F-16s were built upon what we learned in the F-4. It has been a huge part of our Air Force, and for Mr. Nelson and me to be part of the closing of its history is an honor."

The end of the QF-4 program does not mean an end to Air Force drones. The service is pushing ahead with the implementation of a QF-16 program that will push the envelope for testing air defense systems.

"The F-16 is a lot faster and has a smaller radar signature," McNichol said. "It's going to put some of the missile systems to a greater test than what they faced against the QF-4."

The drone fleet is operated and maintained by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall AFB. The squadron is a subordinate unit of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, also located at Tyndall.

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