By Jacqueline Devine
Alamogordo Daily News, N.M.
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE — Holloman's 49th Wing and the Eglin Air Force Base's 53rd Wing, alongside veterans, retirees and community members bid farewell to the last active duty F-4 Phantom II jets in a historic retirement ceremony at Holloman Air Force Base Wednesday morning.
Eglin's 53rd commander Col. Adrian L. Spain, Lt. Col. Lance Wilkins, commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron and the last active duty F-4 pilot Lt. Col. Ron "Elvis" King of the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron were all in attendance of the ceremony and said a few words about the legendary F-4 Phantom II.
The F-4 Phantom II entered the U.S. Air Force inventory in 1963 and was the primary bomber aircraft in the USAF throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The F-4s also flew reconnaissance and the famous Wild Weasel anti-aircraft missile suppression missions.
Production of the Phantom II ended in 1979.
The current variant of the Phantom II is the QF-4, unmanned aerial target. The remaining QF-4s are assigned to the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Detachment 1 at Holloman.
The QF-4 program attained initial operational capability in 1997 and was the successor to the QF-106 in the Air Force aerial target inventory. The aerial target fleet is owned and operated by the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group of the 53rd Wing. The 82nd Aerial Target Squadron operates the only full scale aerial target in the Department of Defense.
To date, the QF-4 has flown approximately 145 unmanned sorties, and about 70 jets have been destroyed through the FSAT program. The QF-4 will be replaced by the QF-16.
Holloman's 49th Wing graciously hosted the retirement ceremony sharing the historic and significant occasion honoring its legacy and service to the USAF and the nation for the past 53 years.
Col. Ron "Elvis" King, who was the last remaining active duty Air Force F-4 pilot, said that it was pretty unique for so many people to gather for an airplane a few days before Christmas but was not surprised being that it was for the F-4 Phantom II.
"I can't think of a single airplane out there, but the F-4, that this many people would come to Holloman Air Force Base to send it off. I thank you all for your efforts to be here," King said. "It's unusual to have a group this big but this has become very common for us, you take an F-4 on the road and let me tell you, you're a rock star instantly."
King said not many people knew the F-4 Phantom II was still being flown to this day but to its faithful followers, the F-4 Phantom Phanatics, they knew all too well.
"A lot of people outside of this room have no idea we've still been flying F-4s. Most people think they went away in 1997 except for a small number, the Phanatics. We were fortunate enough to take these F-4s on the road one last time this year," he said. "It wasn't easy and it wasn't always fun but I knew it was important and I want to thank a few people who made that happen."
The F-4 Phantom II Society has been touring the nation this past year and showing off the F-4s one last time. They visited Holloman, the only base left that still had working, flying F-4s, back in September.
King thanked all the F-4s maintainers for managing the 45-year-old stealthy steeds throughout the tour and his wife and children for making sacrifices to honor the F-4.
"I want to thank all the maintainers for taking care of the 45-year-old airplanes going across the country everywhere we possibly could. We never once got stuck anywhere," King joked. "I had no question that the jet was reliable and it was going to get me back on the ground in one piece."
King said the F-4s has a following like no other and all the airshows were successful due to its large fan base.
"It was like a movie star showing up to a red carpet movie premiere for a blockbuster," he said. "But you don't know the airplane without talking to the people who lived it. It's been the highlight of my career."
Dozens of members from the Phantom community, including the Phantom II Society, the Red River Valley Pilots Association, the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing Association and the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing Group and retired Phantom pilots who flew the iconic plane during the Vietnam era, cheered in the audience as they saluted the F-4 Phantom II one last time while singing the official Air Force anthem.
Mayor Richard Boss said it was fantastic to see the F-4 Phantom II fly one last time as it is a part of aviation history.
"We all heard what a history that airplane has, it was fantastic to see it fly. I remember seeing them fly during the Vietnam era, it had superiority over the enemy aircraft without a doubt but I never thought I would get up close to one and today I was and I really enjoyed it," Boss said. "I had no idea that this aircraft was this popular, but there are hundreds of people here and I rode out here with one that flew that airplane in Vietnam. This shows how important our military is to us and also as old as it is, the F-4 is still popular as ever."
(c)2016 the Alamogordo Daily News (Alamogordo, N.M.)