Seeing some pictures of Phantoms reminded me of a story about a specific airplane I flew. She was 74-1649, the “Flagship” of the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Rocketeers.
She was special for several reasons. One she was one of the last of the Phantoms purchased by the United States Air Force, (number 4,905 out of the over 5,000 that rolled out of Building One at MACAIR St. Louis) built when the production rate was near the peak. Second, she had a four-digit tail number, 1649. There was another E-model Phantom, also in the 336th, with only three digits, 649. It was not as new, but having two almost identical tail numbers caused some interesting situations because of the wing’s mission involving nuclear weapons. (I’ll discuss this later)
Second, 1649 had the ARN-101 modification. There were around 200 E-models with this very extensive modification. The backbone of ARN-101 was an integrated LORAN system. This was a big upgrade in navigation accuracy and also brought much better conventional weapons delivery capabilities. Not as good as what the F-16 had, but a big improvement over earlier Phantoms using Dive Toss, a step above the classic depressed, non-computing Iron gun site. Unfortunately, Dive Toss used radar for ranging and required lots of calibration for improved accuracy. I’ve searched for the Star Wars Lessons Learned that the fighter guys came up with after the first edition of that series.
One of the ten lessons was “Dive Toss Will Never Work.” This is a takeaway from Luke’s call, “We’re Going in Manual.” Many a Phantom pilot rolled in planning on using Dive Toss only to get bad indications on the sort of electric gun site and went manual. There were nine other Lessons Learned. The only repeatable one I remember is, “There Will Always Be Happy Hour.” Not so true any more.
ARN-101 also gave the Phantoms that had the mod the capability to carry the PAVE TACK pod. I think it was probably the second generation of the PAVE sensors with PAVE SPIKE and PAVE KNIFE being first generation. The big thing about PAVE TACK was the incorporation of an infrared sensor adding some night capability for target detection and tracking, mounted on a gimbal with essentially a 360-degree field of view.
The bad thing about PAVE TACK was it was a really BIG thing. The drag created when it was mounted on the centerline station was massive. As a result, it had a big effect on combat radius, top speed, and acceleration. PAVE TACK was not jettisonable so if you lost an engine, there was a good chance you’d lose the airplane. Running out of fuel was a possibility and a single-engine approach was possible, but there wasn’t much margin on the approach. And landing on a NATO Standard runway, which would probably be wet ,would be interesting to say the least.
Having said all that, it had some advantage including accuracy with laser-guided weapons and some night capability. PAVE TACK found a home on the F-11s where it was carried in a less drag configuration in the ARDVARK’s bomb bay. Many of the Iraqi tanks destroyed on the highway of death were “plinked” by Lakenheath F-111s.
The 336th trained with TACK locally and at RED FLAG. We had good success with it. I believe the ARN-101 E-models stationed at Clark would have been very effective in a Korean scenario. The threat and range to many targets would have been a good match.
The third reashon the “Flagship” was special was 1649’s color scheme. The Flagship of each of the 4th TFW’s original three squadrons had a white trimmed colored band on the fuselage. The band was in squadron colors, matching the color on the tip of the vertical stabilizer. The 336th was yellow, the 335th green, and the 334th blue. The Wing Commander’s aircraft had the stripes of all squadrons on his Flagship (Note for a few years the 4th wing had a fourth squadron, the 337th – its band was Red and at that time the Wing Commanders had four bands).
I am a little fuzzy on the heritage of the bands. I believe they were present on the F-86s that the Fourth Interceptor Group flew in Korea. I believe the 4th Fighter Wing was the only unit in PACAF, TAC and USAFE with banded flagships.
Phantom, 1649 had another distinction. She was the first TAC aircraft to have the euro grey camouflage scheme. Operational Phantoms in the Pacific, Europe, and TAC were in a subdued color scheme like the Osan F-4E below.
I flew Phantoms in SEA, all over the US, and in Europe from the UK to the Lick. I can’t remember a terrain where this green and brown combo was suited for. When the Air Force decided to go to euro grey, the color of the Rocket Flagship, it was a good move. No color scheme is perfect but the grey tones suited the skies over the continent many days, and the greens were closer to the forests of Central Europe.
The squadron was deploying in September, 1983 for the annual Crested Cap to Ramstein, Germany. My maintainers wanted to have a euro grey for the trip, but 1649 was on the paint barn schedule. So they approached me with a deal. Chief Kirkman (he was only wearing Senior Master Seargent stripes at the time, but he acted like a Chief, and that’s what we called him) came forward with a deal. He could finess a spot in the paint barn sequence to have 1649 ready to deploy.
But there was a catch—no euro grey paint on the base. A clever guy, he had a suggestion. He knew a local auto paint shop that could mix the paint, but they would have to supply it. So how much paint would it take and how much would it cost? I don’t remember the figure—it was fundable. The deal was off the books, but thanks to a version of the midnight auto supply, she was painted and striped for the September launch.
I flew 1649 to Ramstein and back home after a month. It looked great. It was so good the Wing Commander always took it to Langley for the TAC Wing Commander’s Conference. All the visiting jets from across the command were reviewed by the TAC Commander. 1649 always won even against the Wing Flagship. You get what you pay for.
I know 1649 took another trip to Ramstein in the fall of 1985. There is a picture of it on the web page listing all the Phantom tail numbers. It’s still a great-looking jet.
I don’t know where it went when the Strike Eagles came to town, but probably to a Guard unit. It would have been stripped of the Commander’s stripe and probably repainted to the grey scheme of the Pantom’s last years. According to the website, it was expended, ending its life for a good cause, helping Eagle and Viper pilots hone their skills and validate their weapons. I’m glad I wasn’t there for its last mission, but glad it’s not weathering away somewhere without a custom paint job and a Commander’s stripe.
Tail number back story: I mentioned there were two very similar numbers in the 336th fleet, 649 and 1649. This was important when it came time for a practice load out of nuclear weapons. They were dummies, (called shapes or silver bullets) but procedurally they were treated as live rounds. It was critical a specific weapon ended up on a specific tail number. A mismatch was a flunk in the Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI) .
Nuclear load-outs are by the numbers. Tail number one gets bomb one at a specific time in the sequence. That went on until all 24 Phantoms were matched to their bomb on a very carefully monitored flow. On the nose gear door was painted the tail number of the airplane. It seemed foolproof, easy for the marriage of tail number and weapon. But Murphy loved to play in the NSI. He loved to have some event interrupting the careful following of checklists and schedules. We knew Murphy, so we had a special subset of the checklist. Before a bomb is married to a tail number, either 649 or 1649, my ops officer or I would be at that spot to shoo away Murphy. We used Regan’s “Trust but Verify” policy. Murphy never won. And we never had a retake.