Illuminating history: F-4 Phantom II restoration


U.S. Airmen from the 86th Maintenance Squadron hold an RF-4C Phantom II aircraft steady as it is lifted over a fence at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, June 4, 2020. The RF-4C was transported to the traffic circle near the Northside Fitness Center, where it was emplaced and secured for display. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John R. Wright)

The 86th Maintenance Group, 86th Civil Engineer Group and 435th Construction and Training Squadron recently completed the restoration and installation of an RF-4C Phantom II aircraft.

The RF-4C was towed to its final destination — the roundabout near the Northside Fitness Center — on June 4. The installation was completed on June 8.

Although this aircraft is now a static model, it played a vital role in Ramstein’s history. Tail number 68-0554 spent its operational life supporting units assigned to United States Air Forces in Europe. This jet provided NATO with a reliable Cold War workhorse and a stable tactical reconnaissance platform. The F-4 provided ground training for the Construction and Training Squadron and it flew sorties and missions when the 86th Airlift Wing was a tactical wing.


U.S. Airmen from the 86th Maintenance Squadron and local nationals from the 435th Construction and Training Squadron lift and steady an RF-4C Phantom II aircraft over a gate at Ramstein Air Base, June 4. In order to move the RF-4C to its final static display location, roads had to be temporarily shut down, traffic signs were removed, and a crane had to lift the aircraft over several barriers.

This specific model of the RF-4C carried a variety of cameras in three different stations in the nose section that were capable of forward, oblique and mapping photography. These cameras could take photographs from high or low altitudes, during the day or at night with flash cartridges.

The RF-4C didn’t carry offensive armament, although during the last few years of its service, some were fitted with four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for defense, according to Dr. John Treiber, 86th AW historian.

A plaque commemorating the 86th Maintenance Group team involved in the restoration of an RF-4C Phantom II is fixed to the aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, June 4, 2020. The 86th MXG, along with the 86th Civil Engineer Group, preserved the U.S. Air Force heritage aircraft through the efforts of demilitarizing, fabricating aircraft panels and giving the RF-4C a paint overhaul.

“This aircraft hit Mach 2.2 and was able to give the Department of Defense a leg up in the early 1960s until the F-15 and F-16 rolled out of production in the mid to late 1970s,” said Master Sgt. Zachary H. Sidlovsky, 86th Maintenance Squadron assistant fabrication flight chief.

Crews of the 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing based at Zweibrücken Air Base, Germany, deployed the aircraft to southwest Asia in 1991 where it flew a number of combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.

The end of the Cold War resulted in a number of base closures in Europe, among them Zweibrücken Air Base, and the deactivation of the 26th TRW. The aircraft was retired in late 1991.

U.S. Airmen from the 86th Maintenance Squadron and local nationals from the 435th Construction and Training Squadron tow an RF-4C Phantom II aircraft to be put on static display at Ramstein Air Base, June 4. The 86th MXS fabrication flight spent two years restoring the aircraft.

“It was last flown at Zwei-brücken Air Base as a NATO asset until October 1991 before coming to Ramstein Air Base, after which it became a trainer here,” Sidlovsky said.

The task of restoring the aircraft was a joint effort between the 86th MXG and the 86th CEG, which took half a decade to complete. Numerous challenges were met and overcome by everyone involved with the project.

“First and foremost, none of this would have ever been done without Mr. Andreas May of (the 86th Civil Engineer Squadron),” Sidlovsky said. “He found and gave life to this beautiful product you see today. Along with the aircraft maintenance expert of Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Slaughter, who took this project on and started the paperwork that entails with making a static aircraft.”

U.S. Airmen from the 86th Maintenance Squadron hold an RF-4C Phantom II aircraft steady as it is lifted over a fence at Ramstein Air Base, June 4. The RF-4C was transported to the traffic circle near the Northside Fitness Center, where it was emplaced and secured for display.

“From start to finish would be five years,” Sidlovsky said. “But most of the real hands-on work took two years — the summer of 2018 until this summer. The biggest obstacle, which took the longest time, was getting the F-4 moved from the other side of base to the maintenance group facilities, along with sourcing and reaching out to the local German air force bases who had the appropriate engine trailers we could utilize to remove (the engines) from the aircraft.”

A light at the end of the tunnel was found in an experienced local national with an in-depth knowledge of the aircraft.

An RF-4C Phantom II aircraft sits near the flight line at Ramstein Air Base, June 4. The RF-4C was a tactical reconnaissance aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force from the Cold War to the Vietnam War and up until Operation Desert Storm.

“Mr. Tino Weichel, 86th MXS mechanic, worked on the German F-4s during his military career and had connections to outside units in order to save the aircraft, and assist with towing requirements and removal of the engines,” Sidlovsky said.

Reading up on the history of these aircraft can be informative. However, seeing it with one’s own eyes can be a different experience.

The RF-4C Phantom II is a part of Ramstein’s history. Along with everyone who worked to restore it, the plane offers reminders of what makes this the World’s Best Wing.