Bob Adler asked me about how it felt to work on QF-4 Drones, knowing they would eventually go away.

Bob Adler asked me a question in another thread about working on Drones, and my feelings about watching them die later. I’ll try to answer that here. First off, and with very few exceptions, the QF-86F and QF-4 N/S Drones that I worked on came and stayed for a good long while. Most operations were manned flight carrying auxiliary systems, such as radar jammers, for testing against captive carry flights by other organizations. One QF-4N, 151000, only lasted a month because of a customer requirement, but it was rare to see a Drone go away that quickly.

For example, when AIM-120 was in OpEval there were dozens of flights when the missile was captive carried, and only the guidance portion was in operation. Software was tested, various aircraft radar modes were evaluated against the missile interface, and so on. There were also occasional telemetry shots fired at the Drones, essentially broom sticks without a warhead, with scoring equipment on the Drone allowing Engineers to determine what worked and what did not. Admittedly, some of the TM shots went skin to skin and we either lost the Drone or recovered it with gaping holes in the airframe (mostly QF-86F).

Even when warhead shots were fired at the Drone, sometimes a survivor would come back to us with battle damage. One particular QF-4N came back sufficiently damaged, that we had to strip it down and have it airlifted back to Pt. Mugu from San Nicholas Island under a CH-53E. The in-house repair process took months, but, interestingly enough, was accomplished by our own maintainers. We had some some real F-4 airframe magicians who worked some incredible miracles.

On the avionics side there were always modifications to be installed, most for the aforementioned tm gear, but also for any particular auxiliary test equipment required by a customer. Due to the high A-6 losses during Desert Storm, we were tasked with modifying one QF-4 to carry Defensive ECM gear for testing against threat based offensive weapons (I’ll leave the meaning of that phrase to your imagination). Whatever positive results we had were to be transmitted to the Fleet for implementation inside of twelve hours. Some of what was learned we believe saved some lives during the Gulf War.

After the Marines transitioned VMFA-101 to FA-18’s we lost any organizational F-4 pilot training, and had to come up with our own solution. Pilot training in the QF-86 was a walk in the park, due to its very forgiving nature. The F-4, on the other hand, had a malicious streak in her, and would just as soon kill you as look at you. Our solution was to install the rear seat flight controls in one jet, and use it for bringing new pilots up to speed.

One compromise made to the Drone control system for the dual stick configuration was removal of the Drone throttle servos, which sat right where the throttle quadrant would go. Everything else about the Drone Control system worked, but you’d be missing engine control. Side note: the F-4N now on display aboard USS MIDWAY is the last such dual stick trainer used by Targets, and was Bloodhound 145 while in service at Pt. Mugu. There are pictures around for those interested in searching.

Of the external auxiliary systems carried, the sub-scale missile targets, primarily the AQM-37C, were the most often used. We had a period of carrying tow reels for tow targets being tested against CIWS aboard ship, with targets often carrying a radar altimeter to keep the target at 50’ msl. It is interesting to note that the CIWS rounds had so much kinetic energy, they burned their way through the target rather than punch a hole in it. Until the Navy stopped using depleted Uranium rounds, we were required to check for radiation levels on survivors that came home to us.

Did Drones ever crash on takeoff or landing? Oh yeah…more than a couple of times. The control systems were pretty reliable, so it wasn’t often that we’d lose a Drone coming or going. The two most spectacular takeoff crashes were at Roosevelt Roads and China Lake, but resulting from the same malfunction; an afterburner failure to light. The Roosie Roads crash was pretty spectacular, having only one lit blower going down the runway. The pilot had full aft stick trying to get the Drone off the ground (he was running out of runway), but a pitch limiter only gave him 15 degrees leading edge down while on deck. Wolverine 43, last of the QF-4B’s, and weighing 51 thousand pounds, finally did get airborne in the last few hundred feet, but, as soon as it did the weight on gear switch opened up. The result was full aft stick authority and a Drone imitating a Blue Angels Takeoff, zooming up to about 500 feet, tail walking for a few seconds, and then pitching over towards the deck.  For all those folks who love a good train wreck, you’d have loved the F-4 in all its glory slamming down and going across the road while becoming a flaming inferno as it skidded into the jungle. Just ask the two Sailors who had gone around the security gates and were just approaching the road.

Landing crashes weren’t so spectacular, but a couple of them noteworthy. One, a QF-86F, was caused by pilot error on touchdown, and got sideways going down the runway. The Drone later skidded off into a field, broke up a bit and caught fire. In a sense it was comical to watch because every so often the intake would suck in a huge chunk of dirt and throw it out the tailpipe, somewhat reminiscent of a dog digging a hole in your yard. After about 45 minutes the tailpipe burned off, allowing the burning gases to escape out the side instead of going around the turbine wheel, and the engine quit. On an ancillary note, the duty section was called out and given shovels to help in putting out the brush fire surrounding the crash site. After all was said and done, we boarded the Air Resorts flight back to Pt, Mugu about 2200 hours and made the trip home.

As a Drone Setup pilot I started chiseling off the data plates in the cockpit, but the few I took got away from me somehow. Did some of us have favorite jets? Oh, you bet! There were always a couple of reliable jets that just loved to fly, and would always give as good as they got. In the end, we just felt that they were giving their best right up until the last call came for them to die. All in all, we loved our jets and took good care of them. Once in a while we’d have a miserable PITA that continually broke, but it would go away on a NOLO (No Live Operator Onboard) and take with it a list of non-downing gripes.

So what does this have to do with how I/we felt about losing Drones? We became indifferent, I suppose, because it was a fact of life that Drones would be killed. Those we lost at China Lake were visible to us, some of them coming down in spectacular fashion after destruct charges blew their nose section off. Elsewhere, at San Nicholas and Roosie Roads, the Drone went away and we never saw it again. A couple of Drones lost utility hydraulics on final approach to Nic, and were pushed over into the ocean. Without utility hydraulics QF-4’s lost lateral flight control, which was managed through the lateral series servo. Pitch control was managed through PC1 and the pitch trim servo. Lose either of those systems, and the Drone was a goner. Sometimes, in a perverse moment, we gloried in a missed missile shot and would paint our own kill on the intake splitter. Mostly, when a Drone died, it was “Oh. Okay. Hey, pull the gripes on 4-2. It’s gone!” Business as usual…

The saga of Full-Scale Aerial Targets is a long one, full of rich historical events, and really should be told sometime in a book. In its last years Aircraft Targets saw some organizational changes, moving away from Civil Service maintenance to Contractors, and in its last year suffered the loss of an aircrew during an air show. The crash was the last nail in the coffin for Navy Full-Scale Aerial Targets, and moved the Commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center – Weapons Division to direct all operations terminated and transferred to the Air Force. From my perspective, as one now on the outside, it was a good move. After too many changes and not enough consistency in good pilot and maintainer training, a mishap was bound to take place. I’m still in contact with a lot of the guys who were there with me, and know a number of others who have since gone west. We had a tight crew in our day, and, with very few exceptions, were like a family that took care of one another. Unlike a military organization where people would transfer in and out, we generally came on and stayed on for the career; I had a dozen years at Targets when I left. When someone retired from Targets, it was generally from the workforce altogether and on to a well deserved retirement.

I’m rambling, so I’ll stop now. One of the Navy’s best kept secrets is now a page in the history books.


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9 responses to “Bob Adler asked me about how it felt to work on QF-4 Drones, knowing they would eventually go away.

  1. Bill Brandt

    I wonder how many of those Phantoms were in SE Asia with a few MiG kills to their credit. To here about these great war birds makes me a bit melancholy – OTOH they died like warriors – helping the military – which is what they were built for – and , I guess, in the end, better than withering away in the Boneyard only to meet the crusher.

    I was reading about the carrier Franklin the other day – we all know what an amazing feat it did getting back to NY – a testament not only to her toughness but the sailors who brought her back – repaired but sold for scrap in 1966. That to me is a sad ending for such a gallant ship.

    Better to go out in a blaze of glory I think.

  2. Jeff the Bobcat

    I saw your F-4 on the USS Midway last week in San Diego. She looked to be in fine fighting form to this non-military, non-pilot aircraft lover.

  3. Buck

    Thanks for this, Mongo. Your tale is one of the reasons I love The Lexicans — I learn SO much.

  4. Hogday

    what Buck said. A fascinating read. Unbeatable stuff.

  5. You just outlined the basis for a great book…flesh it out!! One question…Instead of going to all the trouble of installing the backseat gear, why didn’t you just get an Air Force C or D? Same aircraft, dual controls already there…

    • Ah, well, I suppose the reasons were mostly political. The mentality of “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.” runs rampant amongst the Services, even today when they’re supposed to share and share alike.

      The other challenge is the difference in configuration, some of it mechanical and the rest electronic. Navy jets have landing gear designed to land aboard ship, while Air Force jets have a lighter set good for shore based work only. While the Drones never went to sea, Navy pilots have it ingrained into them to fly a 3 degree glideslope to touchdown; no flaring.

      Another item is that Navy F-4’s have drooped ailerons when flaps are down, allowing for slower landing speeds. Air Force F-4’s have it in some models, but most did not, and this resulted in faster landing speeds. I suppose it would not have been too big a deal, except then you have to keep two sets of numbers in your head to keep it safe.

      Communications gear is different also, in that the Air Force uses (or used to, anyway) VHF frequencies, while the Navy and Marines use UHF. Minor matter, I know, but a difference nonetheless. When the ARC-110 came into service, with mixed VHF/UHF capability, we hoped to get them for the Drones, but were told “Gomenasai, boy-san. Bug freet first! After Bug freet, no more -110 radio! You no can have!”

      Navy/Marine J-79’s used direct air impingement to start, while Air Force J-79’s had air turbine starters requiring lower air pressure. Again, a minor detail, but one worth keeping in mind.

      Maintenance-wise, there weren’t any real issues. The AF versions had the utility hydraulic accumulator removed, while Navy/Marine versions kept it in place. We would have had to keep two sets of maintenance and parts manuals, that would have been a PITA, and supply would have cursed a blue streak every day over having to maintain separate parts inventories. Not to mention having to order from two separate systems! Oi vey!

      Anyway, long answer to short question. Somebody once had the bright idea of bringing OV-10’s to Targets for use as chase aircraft for sub-scale targets and Harpoon. Sadly, that died a quick death. We’d have had fun with that beast!

  6. OG

    What was the date of the QF-4 crash at Roosevelt Roads described above?

    • My faded recall of the crash says latter part of 1985, perhaps early part of 1986. I wasn’t there for it, but did see the post-det video taken by AFWTF.

  7. Orlando Gallardo

    Thank you Mongo. Any chance that QF-4 crash at Roosey might have been during the first half of 1988?

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