Report by : René Vallée
Holloman is located in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin between the Sacramento and San Andreas mountain ranges. The base is about 10 miles west of Alamogordo, New Mexico, on route 70/82; 90 miles north of El Paso. Located on the eastern edge at the southern part of WSMR, Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB) occupies 24,153 ha (59,639 acres) of land and houses 4,900 military, 870 civilian personnel, and is home to 380 members of the German Air Force. HAFB shares boundaries with White Sands National Monument and WSMR and interacts regularly in various mission activities. Holloman Air Force Base operates the Radar Target Scatter (RATSCAT) and RATSCAT Advanced Measurements (RAMS) facilities, and utilizes the Red Rio and Oscura Bombing Ranges, Yonder, and WSMR airspace for training.
The QF-4 is a remotely controlled target, which simulates enemy aircraft maneuvers. The aerial target can be flown by remote control or with a safety pilot to monitor its performance. The QF-4 is flown unmanned when missiles are fired at it, and only in specific over-water airspace authorized for unmanned flight. When flown unmanned, an explosive device is placed in the QF-4 to destroy the aircraft if it inadvertently becomes uncontrollable. The QF-4 is equipped to carry electronic and infrared countermeasures to fully evaluate fighters and weapons flown and fired against it. Full-scale aircraft can be flown totally by computer, or controlled manually during takeoff and landing using a mobile control station located at the runway. As a safety precaution, a chase plane trails the QF-4 during critical periods of flight. First flown in May 1958, the Phantom II originally was developed for U.S. Navy fleet defense and entered service in 1961. The Air Force’s Phantom II was designated F-4C, and first flew May 27, 1963. Production deliveries began in November 1963.The QF-4 conversion adds a digital control system for remote operation of the aircraft’s steering, throttles, flaps, landing gear, brakes, braking parachute, and tailhook. Also fitted are a vector Doppler scoring system, transponder, second autopilot, and GPS for navigation and formation-keeping in remote flight. Non-essential equipment such as the F-4E’s 20mm cannon is replaced with ballast, while unused avionics like radar are left aboard but disabled. Finally, the wingtips and tail are painted orange to distinguish the aircraft as a drone. The QF-4s are assigned to the 82nd ATRS at Tyndall, part of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. The squadron operates full-scale and sub-scale drones over Tyndall’s air weapons range in the Gulf of Mexico. Detachment 1 of the 82 ATRS, based at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, provides target services for the Army and civilian contractors over the Army’s White Sands Missile Range (WSMR).
The 82nd flies the USAF’s last active-duty Phantoms as full-scale aerial targets (FSATs) for weapons tests. The cost and hazards of using a manned aircraft from the active-duty inventory for this purpose are obvious. Instead, the target is an unmanned FSAT drone. As one 82 ATRS pilot summarizes it, “the F-4 is dying, to give birth to new weapons systems.” In support of U.S. test and evaluation activities, Phantom drones also act as targets for non-lethal tests of missiles, radar and other sensors, and defensive systems. Both services also employ sub-scale target drones, which are less costly to operate than FSATs. But only a full-scale target offers the flight characteristics, performance envelope – including subsonic and supersonic flight at altitudes up to and above 50,000 feet – endurance, radar and infrared (IR) signatures, and damage resistance of a real aircraft. The QF-4 – the “Q” prefix signifies a drone conversion – is the latest of many distinguished Air Force fighters to adopt the drone role at the end of its days. The F-4 was a logical choice to succeed the QF-106. Hundreds of surplus Phantoms were available following the type’s phase-out. Its suitability for drone use had been proven by the Navy, which had operated QF-4s in its own drone program since 1972. QF-4 conversions are performed by BAE Systems in Mojave, California. Over 230 Phantoms have been “droned” since 1995, and conversions continued through 2011 if all contract options are exercised. Production at first concentrated on F-4E tactical fighters and F-4G “Wild Weasel” defense-suppression aircraft. As the last models retired from active duty, these airframes were in good condition and still had a military supply chain. The earliest conversions included a few RF-4C photo-reconnaissance variants, which were found harder to control than later models because they lacked slats. Nonetheless, with no suitable F-4Gs left and stocks of candidate F-4Es depleted, RF-4C conversions resumed in 2007.
Both 82 ATRS and Det 1 maintain a few “primary flier” aircraft for manned flight, approved for up to 300 flight hours. Other FSATs are cleared,for 100 hours, and are kept ready for unmanned flight with non-essential items like ejection seats removed, or held in non-flying storage. Despite having over 60 aircraft on strength, 82 ATRS has a small military staff: six USAF pilots split between the two bases and a few sergeants to oversee maintenance. All other personnel are civilians employed by Lockheed Martin, including pilots, ground controllers, and maintainers. All are ex-military with a tremendous level of expertise – for example, contract pilots typically have over 1000 F-4 flying hours. QF-4s are almost always flown with a pilot aboard, unless a weapons launch will occur. Usually he does not touch the controls but stands ready to take over if ground control is lost or the aircraft departs. The pilots fly the aircraft themselves on chase missions and to maintain proficiency. The aircraft are controlled remotely by the Gulf Range Drone Control System (GRDCS) at Tyndall or the Drone Formation Control System (DFCS) at WSMR. Drone controllers have a flight instrument display on a monitor, but no direct visual contact with the aircraft. Up to six QF-4 aircraft can be controlled in formation, using GPS to maintain each in position relative to the flight track. The programmed flight track may include an automatic landing, but if the telemetry signal is degraded or the aircraft is damaged, a Ground Mobile Control System (GMCS) is used to perform a visual landing. One controller controls pitch and throttles, while the other controls bank and heading. Two controllers are needed due to the workload – where an onboard pilot would sense the aircraft’s attitude and speed, the controllers must interpret it from instruments. If a missile will be fired at the drone, the actual test will use a NULLO aircraft – NULLO stands for “not under live local operation” but is also Latin for “zero,” the number of crew aboard. The NULLO aircraft carries a destruct charge (the warhead from an AIM-9 missile) to ensure the jet’s demise if it is damaged during the test or control is lost. Accompanied by a manned chase plane, the drone is launched from the 7,000×300-foot “droneway” at Tyndall or the 11,000×300 foot one at Holloman, heading south to avoid populated areas. Test results are recorded by telemetry and, at WSMR, by optical systems. If the drone is destroyed, its wreckage falls onto the range. But if it survives and the chase pilot confirms it is intact, the aircraft is recovered at base. A straight-in approach is made from the south with the hook down, and the aircraft is stopped by an arresting cable. A NULLO drone will usually complete three or four missions before being destroyed. Except during a lethality test, the missiles fired may lack warheads and the drone’s flight track may be programmed to evade a direct hit. This saves the cost of replacing the drone and prolongs the life of the QF-4 inventory. The QF-4 attrition rate is about one aircraft per month at Tyndall and one to four per year at Holloman. “Live fire” projects for Tyndall’s QF-4s have included Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) of Raytheon’s AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Holloman drones have participated in OT&E of Lockheed Martin’s Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) air defense missile and the F-22 Raptor. But more than missiles are tested: a Holloman QF-4 has flown development tests of the BAE Systems Common Missile Warning System, which can identify surface-to-air missiles launched at an aircraft and automatically release suitable countermeasures. QF-4 pilots are fond of their aircraft and do not enjoy seeing one depart on a one-way, final mission. But they are philosophical about the loss, noting, “It’s a better way for an aircraft to die than rotting away in the ‘Boneyard’ or on a pole. The taxpayer is getting his money’s worth from these aircraft.”
After 13 years, the number of F-4 airframes at AMARG that may be droned without excessive rework is shrinking. Moreover, the QF-4’s ability to represent the performance and signatures of modern fighter aircraft decreases with each new design that appears. The QF-4’s successor as a full-scale target looks set to be the QF-16, starting around 2014. While on test duties, QF-4 drones are rarely seen away from their Tyndall and Holloman bases. But the people who fly and maintain the Phantoms are extremely proud of their aircraft, the last operational US tactical fighter from the Vietnam era. In 2004, the 2005 flights had been funded from the 53 WEG operating budget! – allowing the QF-4s to appear at approximately 20 shows. As well, a simple QF-4 solo display routine was introduced. Except for their camouflage, the Heritage Flight QF-4Es are standard “primary flier” drones and are used for normal 82 ATRS operations when not at airshows. As the first six aircraft began to run out of flight hours in 2007, a new batch was painted. These aircraft all wear the same Southeast Asia scheme to simplify maintenance.While the Heritage Flight QF-4s salute those who served in the 1960s and ‘70s, they are also a reminder why full-scale targets are important. Early in its USAF career, the F-4 was hobbled in air-to-air combat when its AIM-4 Falcon and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles failed to work properly in real engagements over North Vietnam. Today, the QF-4’s final duty is to ensure such failures never happen again. The US Air Force expects to cease carrying out test support using its 22-strong fleet of BAE Systems QF-4 Phantom aerial targets in January 2017, followed by a complete out of service date in the middle of the same year. The target aircraft – based at Holloman AFB in New Mexico – is being replaced by the Boeing QF-16, the first of which was delivered to Tyndall AFB in Florida in March. 82 Aerial Targets Sqn based at Holloman remain as the last operator in the USAF inventory. The remaining QF-4s will continue to fly manned test support and unmanned live fire test support for the Department of Defense test and evaluation – plus foreign military sales testing – until 31 December 2016, The remaining aircraft are expected to be destroyed during live fire testing, and any that are not destroyed by 1 January 2017 will likely be demilitarised.The last delivery of over 300 QF-4s was in November 2013, paving way for the replacement QF-16 that is deemed to be more representative of commonly used aircraft than the ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom-based model. Deliveries of 13 QF-16s are expected under the Lot 1 production contract that the first aerial target was delivered under in March, while the air force has a requirement for 210 QF-16s in total. A multi-year contract to convert retired Block-15, 25 and 30 Lockheed Martin F-16 A and C model aircraft was awarded to Boeing in March 2010, which until conversion had been sitting at the Davis-Monthan AFB aircraft boneyard in The supersonic QF-4 is a reusable full-scale, remotely piloted aerial target modified from the F-4 Phantom. The QF-4 provides a realistic full-scale target for air-to-air weapons system evaluation, development and testing at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and Holloman AFB, N.M.
The Tactical Training Center was redesignated the German Air Force Flying Training Center July 1, 1999 in conjunction with its growing mission, and officially activate on March 31, 2000. All expenses involved in the Tornado and F-4 programs, including more than $140 million in construction, are paid by the German government. On 1 May 1996, the German Air Force Tactical Training Center was established in concept with the 20th Fighter Squadron which provides aircrew training in the F-4F Phantom II. The TTC serves as the parent command for two German air crew training squadrons. The F-4 Training Squadron oversees all German F-4 student personal affairs, and provides German instructor pilots to cooperate in the contracted F-4 training program provided by the US Air Force (20th Fighter Squadron). A second TTC unit, the Tornado Training Squadron, provides academic and tactical flying training, by German Air Force instructors, for German Tornado aircrews. The first contingent of Tornado aircraft arrived at Holloman in March 1996. More than 300 German Air Force members are permanently assigned at Holloman to the TTC–the only unit of its kind in the United States. The German Air Force selected Holloman as an additional training site for its Tornado aircraft, and construction facilitated the maintenance and troubleshooting of the aircraft and related weapons systems. When the second phase was completed 2000, 30 more Tornado aircraft were stationed here, bringing the total to 42. Globalairpower would like to Express its most sincere thanks to the all the 82 ARTS staff for their irreproachable welcome.