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PHANTOM SURVIVORS: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

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Operational F-4s have dwindled over the past decade, with some notable retirements and events.

The advent of modern fighters such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II has brought into sharp focus how the F-4 may be universally popular, but that it had become increasingly obsolete. There have been some notable retirements in the past few years as long-time operators of the F-4 made their final farewells.

The first F-4F Phantoms arrived in Germany in 1973, with the Luftwaffe going on to take delivery of 175 F-4Fs, joining some 88 RF-4E tactical reconnaissance versions that preceded them. The first unit to receive the F-4F was JG 71 ‘Richthofen’, with its very first aircraft, serial 37+01, being the last to bow out of service in June 2013 wearing special blue and gold colours.

The three specially painted Luftwaffe F-4Fs fly in formation with a standard scheme example in the final months of operation in 2013. Jamie Hunter

It was decided to apply stunning ‘retro’ colour schemes to two aircraft for the Luftwaffe farewell, in order to chart the career of the F-4 in German service. Aircraft serial 38+10 received the original ‘Norm 73’ green and grey camouflage, with 38+33 being given the ‘toned down’ ‘Norm 81’ scheme, and 37+22 being painted in a fresh ‘Norm 90’ scheme, the standard camouflage for last years of service. However, of arguably greatest significance was 37+01, the Luftwaffe’s first F-4F and also the commander’s jet right up to the last day. A stunning electric blue and gold scheme and the inscription ‘First in — last out’ signified the final Luftwaffe tribute to the mighty F-4. The very last official landing by an F-4F was made at the event in June 29, 2013 by pilot Oberstleutnant Alex Berk and JG 71 wing commander Oberst Gerhard Roubal in the rear seat.

The Hellenic Air Force had operated magnificent, chisel-nosed, RF-4Es since 1978, and in May 2017 was bidding a final farewell as 348 Mira Taktikis Anagnoriseos (MTA, Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron) ‘Eyes’ joined the history books. Based at Larissa in northern Greece, in the shadow of Mount Olympus, 110 Pteriga Machis (PM, Combat Wing), 348 MTA was down to just three remaining RF-4Es when Combat Aircraft Journal visited in March 2017, during the squadron’s last weeks of flying.

One of the last three Hellenic Air Force RF-4Es gets airborne from Larissa in March 2017. Jamie Hunter

The Hellenic Air Force formally retired its last photo-reconnaissance RF-4E Phantom IIs on May 5, 2017. Two of the aircraft were later ferried to Andravida and Tanagra on May 10, marking the final flights of the RF-4Es. A May 5 event saw a formation flypast, with the last of the original HAF RF-4Es, serial 77-1765, landing first followed by 69-7450, a former Luftwaffe aircraft. The final touchdown was saved for 69-7499, also an ex-German aircraft, with Lt Col Stavros Antonopoulos at the controls. The aircraft had received special markings in its last few weeks of service with ‘End of the film’ titles for the event — leaving just the last unit of F-4Es still active at Andravida.

December 2016 will forever be remembered as the month that saw the end of US Air Force F-4 Phantom II operations. The F-4 was a stalwart of the USAF for five decades, before the last aircraft bowed out of service with the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) Detachment 1 at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

A handful of USAF QF-4Es wore ‘Heritage’ schemes that harked back to previous eras of F-4 operations. This QF-4E wears a South-east Asia scheme. Jim Haseltine

Back in April 1996, the USAF ended operational Phantom II service when the Idaho Air National Guard at Boise retired its last F-4G Wild Weasels. Over the following two decades, the USAF continued to operate these venerable and charismatic fighters, albeit as manned/unmanned full-scale aerial targets (FSATs) to help facilitate testing and evaluation of air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. It was a career that could ultimately lead to these old warriors being literally blown out of the sky.

The QF-4 served America well, but sustainability latterly became a real issue and the USAF had exhausted the supply of suitable airframes. With only 13 remaining QF-4 airframes on the unit, the era of the QF-16 had arrived, promising greater airframe availability and more plentiful spare parts. All 13 QF-4s remained on charge until January 1, 2017 when the seats and engines were removed and the aircraft were turned over to the 49th Wing for use on the local weapons range as targets — this time on the ground.

Egyptian ‘Rhinos’

It’s not clear exactly when Egypt formally retired its F-4Es, but its last few airworthy examples were attached to 76 and 78 Squadrons at Cairo West until around 2011. Initially interested in buying F-5E Tiger IIs, the Egyptian Air Force (al-Quwwat al-Jawwiya Il-Misriya) settled instead for a batch of 35 ex-USAF F-4Es in 1979, following the Camp David peace accord with Israel. Purchased under the ‘Peace Pharoah’ deal, the agreement also included AIM-7F Sparrow, 350 AIM-9 Sidewinders, 500 AGM-65A TV-guided Maverick missiles, and freefall bombs.

The F-4Es were initially drawn from the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Homestead AFB, Florida, and rapidly delivered to make the October 1979 National Military Day in Cairo. A lack of spares meant that the Phantoms were initially in poor status. However, the US increased its support and from 1983 the Phantoms were steadily returned to service. In 1988, an additional seven ex-USAF aircraft were supplied.

The F-4s failed to achieve popularity and in recent years they fell into disrepair as Egypt purchased new Dassault Rafales and MiG-35s.

Taken from the boomer’s window during a ‘Bright Star’ exercise, an Egyptian Air Force F-4E takes on fuel. Egypt received 42 ex-USAF Phantoms. US DoD

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