USAF QF-4 Phantom is shot at by an F-35 with two AIM-120s during last unmanned mission (and survives)

During the last flight, the unmanned Phantom served as an aerial target and was shot at by an F-35 with two AIM-120s. Nevertheless, the aircraft landed safely back home.

The U.S. Air Force has just released some information about the QF-4 drone‘s last flight along with a video and some photographs. Interestingly, the aircraft that have flown as unmanned aerial targets for several DoD and foreign military sales customers testing next generation weapons, flew its last sortie supporting an F-35 mission on Aug. 17.

QF-4 returns safely 2

According to Lt. Col. Ronald King, the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, Detachment 1 commander, the aircraft was shot at by the F-35 Lightning II with two AIM-120 AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air-to-air missiles). We don’t know the exact scope of the weapon test, the RoE (Rules Of Enagement), the scenario and whether the QF-4 was expected to escape the downing. Maybe something went wrong, the missile launch failed or was cancelled, or just missed (because no missile has a probability of kill of 100 percent). However, it’s at least worth of note that the unmanned Phantom landed back at Holloman Air Force Base completely unharmed in spite of being targeted by the (controversial) 5th generation fighter and shot at with 2 radar-guided air-to-air missiles.

Update 1:

The reason for the QF-4 not being shot down is probably that the test was not a test of the AIM-120 missile’s ability to hit a target (something that has been proved in the past) but on the F-35’s ability to track the target and guide the AMRAAM until this reached the kill envelope. Once the missile starts self-guiding to the drone the test is accomplished and there is no need to waste a costy unmanned aircraft: the AIM-120 is directed to self-destruct before impact.

However some readers point out that previous tests saw some controversial “misses” (“the drone was beyond visual range and the AIM-120C was directed as planned to self-destruct before impact”) whereas other tests (for instance those with the AIM-9X) involving QF-4s or even more expensive QF-16s eventually led to knocking down the drone with direct hits (“After launch, the missile successfully acquired the target and followed an intercept flight profile before destroying the drone, achieving the first F-35 Air-to-Air kill or “Boola Boola,” which is the traditional radio call made when a pilot shoots down a drone.”)

Will keep you updated if more details emerge and the expected outcome of the mission is clarified.

Anyway, the unmanned mission on Aug. 17 served as the final unmanned flight before the QF-4 program ends in December year, and the 82nd ATRS, Det. 1 transitions to flying QF-16s. Until then, the unit will fly the Vietnam era F-4 as a manned aircraft.

Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. is the only base with a QF-4 mission. However, the 82nd ATRS, based out of Tyndall AFB, Florida, has been flying QF-16s since September 2014.

“It’s certainly bittersweet,” said King in a USAF release. “The F-4 served faithfully in Vietnam and as late as the Gulf War. So, for it to be pulled out of the boneyard to continue serving its country is a testament to this airplane — to the designers, the test pilots who first flew it, to the maintainers who’ve worked on it all these years — what a testament to what they’ve been able to do, and what a great airplane it was. Forty-five years later, we are still flying these airplanes to test the latest and greatest equipment we have.”

Image credit: U.S Air Force














About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Often in such missions the aircraft are also equipped with countermeasures and try to escape being hit by performing a preplanned escape move. Also the test missiles used in these tests don’t have warheads, or in the case of this test perhaps not even a real seeker. Certain air to air missiles are equipped with a data link and as such don’t need their radar until they reach the final stage of their flight. It is likely that there was NO intention of hitting the QF-4 if they have manned missions planned for it.
    During Combat Hammer testing I can remember a A-10 pilot that failed to announce his firing of the AIM-9. The Drone operator didn’t evade and didn’t fire off flares to avoid the hit. So the AIM-9 did it’s thing and killed the QF-4. The Pilot thought it was hilarious, I bet the Test Squadron didn’t find it funny.

  2. Dave, you should follow up with Raytheon.

    Someone needs to tell them that their missile is defective!

  3. It is not uncommon for most test shots to have the warhead removed and a telemetry package substituted to capture angle of approach, fuzing function, etc. Live warhead shots are typically very few. Even then, without a warhead, many of the shots result in a downing due to the missile actually hitting the target (at about the advent of the AIM-7F and AIM 9L series). Most of the time against “un-warheaded” missiles the test is running against some special profile that might have unique (and expensive hand-crafted) counter-measures or even telemetry on the the drone that the testers would prefer not to lose. From my time in operational testing I don’t remember flight termination hardware being on air to air missiles but maybe that has changed. Also, just FYI, with 4000 hours in fighters I don’t ever remember “Boola, Boola” as the “traditional” drone kill call… and I have killed a few. Normally the Air Force call at WSEP anyway is “Splash”… or a simple, “Kill”… but maybe that has changed also.

    • What he said. The best tests are when the missile has a miss that would have been a kill if it had a warhead. It costs $$ to convert a jet to a drone, and all that is wasted if it’s actually shot down.

      Never heard the boola, boola either. Then again I’ve watched some videos where the narrator says his chest is about to explode when he goes Mach. LOL!

    • I wish I could give you many more upvotes.

      Also missiles with digital flight controls can theoretically be programmed to an offset rather than a hit- although this is probably not a feature in non-development hardware missiles.

      Of course with some warheads, an offset based on target flight path is normal for max PK anyway.

      Classic analog SARHs and Heaters just flew at the RF/IR shiny spots however, and were quite happy to hit them, if the fusing didn’t work. Heck even after popping, the hard-body has/had a habit of hitting the airframe.

    • “Boola boola” originated in the US Navy weapons test community in China Lake & Pt Mugu back in the 1950s & gravitated outward from there to the entire USN. I think originally one “boola” meant lethal distance & “boola boola” meant a direct hit on the drone. By the time I started flying in the late 1980s the single “boola” usage had dropped out. I assume joint testing has led to USAF pilots being exposed to it. It sounds cooler, which aircrews love. Similar to the USN slang “go green” for an encrypted radio freq starting to displace the more prosaic USAF “go secure.”

  4. Look at the edges and rivets and aluminum making up the exposed body of the F-4. Then compare it to the smooth stealthy lines, internal weapons carriage capacity and RAM that makes up the F-35. Is there any question whether or not we have entered a new age in fighter aviation? There shouldn’t be.

    In my mind only people who don’t understand mil aviation continue to question the overwhelming superiority of the F-35. In other words – the JSF isn’t your grandpa’s fighter! And if you still think Su-27 series or Gripen or Typhoon or MiG or Rafale or whatever can compete in the world of 5th gen, boy are you in for a surprise in the next shooting war!

    • but relying on just 4 internal missiles with PK of 50% or less is something to worry about. BVR in both 1st and 2nd Iraq and bosnia have shown that BVR is still not so good.

      • F-35 is not going to fly only with its internal missile load. It may use missile trucks that carry 40-50 air to air missiles AND guide drones with weapons. May be F 22 will guide it too. You cannot ignore the fact that F-35 is highly networked aircraft and can leverage network resources. US military never goes to war with fewer weapons than its enemy. Only in theory, the F 35 has limited weapons for the job.

      • For the last 40 years the majority, near 90%, of air to air dogfight kills have been done by missiles. With about 50% of kills done in BVR and that percentage increases with each decade. Gun kills happen at 10% or LESS of the time. Missiles are scoring most of the kills and increasingly in BVR.

    • That would be all well and good provided stealth is really invisible to radar. It’s not. And the key to the F-35 is, I see you, before you see me. Really, you do know there is an F-117 sitting in a Belgrade Museum? Low Band Radar, ~ less then 1 GHz can detect stealth and all the black magic in the world can’t change that, which why this aircraft sits there for the all the word to see. Thermal imaging and Schlieren Signatures are another way to track the F-35. The only real way to see if the F-35 works, fly it over it the Sakhalin Islands or the Chinese contested airspace in the South China Sea’s and see what happens.

      • Oh this tired old “argument”…

        Here is some food for thought.

        How many F-117s were their in Operation Allied Force? How many sorties did they fly? All they were able to do was shoot down ONE… ONE F-117 out of 78 days of combat action.
        You want to talk about the wreckage remains of SINGLE US aircraft in some foreign museum? Exactly how many Migs and Sukhois have been shot down by US built aircraft? How many of those Migs and Sukhois are on display at Museums in the US? Oh… those numbers are looking pretty high. Also in Operation Allied Force how many of those Russian aircraft were either shot down by NATO aircraft or destroyed on the ground?

        Also if stealth doesn’t work than how do you explain this?

        +I also asked about the plane’s Electronic Warfare performance. The F-35, as Breaking D readers know, is the first US aircraft designed to defeat advanced Surface-To-Air threats such as the Russian-built S-400. In training, the aircraft’s stealth was so effective that pilots had to turn on their FAA emitters to tell the SAM threats they were around so they knew the aircraft were targets and the F-35As could attack. “We basically told them where we were at so we could shoot at them,” Watkins said.+

        Did I just read that correctly? F-35s had to INTENTIONALLY make their presence known just so that the defending force knew that there was a F-35 in the area?

        If stealth doesn’t work why is China and Russia investing in aircraft that are designed to be stealthy?

        “Thermal imaging and Schlieren Signatures are another way to track the F-35”

        > Its a jet fighter… OF COURSE ITS GOING TO HAVE AN IR SIGNATURE. Show me a fighter jet that doesn’t have one. Also… how many fighter aircraft now or projected have as much IR reducing measures as the F-22 or F-35?
        Schlieren Signature? Really? Congratulations you now have to track EVERY AIRCRAFT IN YOUR AIRSPACE! At that point you’re searching for a small needle in a stack of needles.

        “The only real way to see if the F-35 works, fly it over it the Sakhalin Islands or the Chinese contested airspace in the South China Sea’s and see what happens.”

        > Well the according to all the testing, intelligence, and the writing on the wall it would look like those Chinese SAM operators wont know there is an F-35 in their area until 500lbs of HE lands on them at terminal velocity

      • More ignorance. It always rears its head when talking F-35. It’s like a magnet for the totally uninformed. I won’t take the time to teach you.

      • Have you tried to operate and maintain a “low band” radar? I have. Both FPS-24 and FPS-35. It’s difficult and expensive. Absolutely a “first world” problem. Also, not something you deploy just behind the FEBA (if there is a FEBA) Also, easier than anything to jam. Also, a GREAT self-guiding target.
        I once toured a Navy EC-121 that flew into Malmstrom where we had an FPS-24. The radar frequency was dialed into the Nav’s DF. He said it was better than any other navaid. Worked for many hundreds of miles.

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