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. An AIM 120C will launch and lock on the same way no matter aircraft it was launched from. The failure(?) of the missile not hitting it’s target is no fault of the jet but of the missile. The AIM 120C is a fire and forget missile in case anyone forgot.

    • AIM-120s only have a short range capability with their internal monopulse seeker radar, probably less than 10 miles.
      Wow pup, you’ve got some learning to do.

      All shots with AIM-120s initially involve the launch aircraft cueing the -120 with target vector, range, speed, altitude and expected time of flight / clock sync, before it leaves the rail.

      In a BVR shot, the missile will fly off this initial data, and the launch aircraft will continually send radio updates to the -120 on target position, which are delivered with the launch aircraft’s much more powerful radar. Also the enemy will not be alerted that there is a missile in the air. Emissions mode from the launch aircraft can be the same as search and intermittent query.

      right before the AIM-120 enters its closest approach to the target (estimated from original launch data, or with midcourse updates – its own radar will turn on, detect the target, and make the terminal engagement.

  2. Got an ass load of F-16s, but very few F-4s left that are fly able here. Damn shame.

    At least we still have Greece, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Israel, and Iran

  3. OK, they never wanted to kill the F4 – this time!
    if they do get to that stage I’m happy to give one a good home.
    Yes, I am kind person.

  4. Saying, “F-35” is like a dog-whistle for idiots based on the comments that typically flood any comments section on the matter.

  5. Oh, I don’t know. The Marine Corps F-35B seems to be able to hit targets pretty well:


    “On day one of live fire testing, the team was able to shoot two missiles on two separate test set-ups within 12 minutes – an exceptional level of efficiency in a test environment. Another test mission involved an F-35B dropping a GBU-12 and supporting it with LASER guidance while simultaneously engaging a QF-16 drone. Both weapons successfully guided to their targets.”

    Not bad for a day’s work! And guess what? It can hit and destroy a drone. Wait until it finds its first MiG. Or will it be Sukhoi? Chengdu? To F-35, they’re all the same. Targets – nothing more.

    • Dude, that’s all fine and dandy as long as you fight non-stealth aircraft (and still, you’d be largely underestimating the enemy), but what happens when other stealth aircraft like Russia’s T-50 goes into production and starts being sold to everybody with the money in hand? Russia needs the money, y’know. Same goes for the J-20 and J-31. Many countries will surely be in line to get some each. Oh, I know, you’ll say those got nothing on the F-35 or F-22 because, somehow, you already know how such an encounter would end.

      Sorry, but you sound like a Lockheed-Martin ad.

Comments are closed.