Crash Recovery team moves F-4 Phantom display

  • Published
  • By Chris McCann
  • JBER Public Affairs

If you're a regular through the Government Hill gate into Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, you're probably at least vaguely aware of the F-4 Phantom that has stood vigil outside the fence for the last three decades.

All of the static display aircraft need regular maintenance due to Alaska's unforgiving climate – usually in the form of small touch-ups and checks. But periodically they need a complete overhaul, and that's a much bigger proposition, taking months of coordination.

In the morning of Feb. 18, a team from the 3rd Maintenance Squadron's Crash Recovery section assembled in the snow along with a contracted crane and operator.
The F-4 was placed in 1999 – before security requirements necessitated the building of the new guard shack and covered gate. With the new opening much narrower than the aircraft, the team's primary mission was to lift the Phantom over the fence and place it where it could later be moved to a hangar for maintenance.

The team began planning in earnest near the end of 2020, said Maintenance Flight Chief Senior Master Sgt. Raymond Chamberlain, and one of the biggest pieces was getting an aircraft-specific sling for a plane which has been out of service for 30 years.

“We got in touch with Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and their boneyard, and requested a sling,” said Jeb Ritchie, the Crash Recovery team chief. “They had one they could loan us; we got it here and test-fitted it and everything was good.”

When lift day arrived, they hooked the sling to the crane and increased the tension – and Master Sgt. [Wade] McFarlande noticed a mount on the sling wasn't in good working order.
“We need to be sure everything is done as safely as possible,” Chamberlain said. “With that big a paperweight at that height in the sky, with seven or eight people huddled around – if it's not safe, it could be catastrophic.”

The team made the decision that using belly bands to lift the aircraft was the safest way.

“We had our crash-recovery 18-wheeler there with all kinds of equipment,” said Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Dupuy. “So we were prepared. We changed out the cable sling and everything went off without a hitch after that.”

The Airmen had used snowblowers to clear a spot for the aircraft to rest for the next several hours, when the next leg of the Phantom's journey could begin.

“It was really an effort by all the agencies on base,” Dupuy said. 673d Security Forces Squadron Airmen ensured the road was clear and provided an escort during the movement after the gate closed for the night. The 773rd Civil Engineer Squadron had plowed and packed “ice roads” to move the aircraft on unpaved areas. The Sheet Metal and Corrosion shop Airmen had plane specifications to provide any details about the airframe.

Ritchie said the Crash Recovery team has moved several of the static aircraft before, including the F-4 in Heritage Park near 3rd Wing headquarters, but the need to lift over the fence and trees made this one a little more challenging.

“The biggest part was the preparation and coordination,” he said. “Just getting the bits and pieces flowing.”

It was also valuable training for several of the active-duty personnel who have not performed the task before.

“The lift helped our team, as we're required to do training lifts periodically to stay proficient,” Dupuy said.

Senior Airman Jenice Romero, a native of Las Vegas, was part of the lift team. She came to JBER in September, so this was her first experience with lifting an aircraft outside of training – and clearing a landing area in a snowstorm.
“We had to keep snowblowing it,” she said. “It was definitely a sight to see.”

The F-4 will be repaired where necessary and given a fresh coat of paint during the course of the next year, Chamberlain said. Over the summer, civil engineers will build a new plinth and stand inside the gate, and next winter the Phantom will resume its vigil.

One of the next aircraft scheduled for an overhaul is the helicopter outside Muldoon gate, Ritchie said, and the Crash Recovery team will be there to make it happen.

“It's good when you have good team players beside you,” he said. “Even when we had to make the change with what slings we were going to use, when everyone has their stuff together, makes it a really easy transition.”