In 1995, Collings Foundation cofounder Bob Collings decided it was time to add an F-4 Phantom to the nonprofit’s collection of vintage planes. “Our mission is living history,” he says, explaining that the foundation, which has a stable of World War II–era machines that includes a B-17, a B-25, and the world’s only airworthy B-24, had to begin adding aircraft from later conflicts. “The F-4 is a significant plane of the Vietnam and Cold War eras. We’ve got to preserve it and keep it flying.” Collings officials learned that the Air Force owned several airworthy Phantoms, and for two years it attempted unsuccessfully to purchase one from the military branch. In 1997, Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Ritchie, the Vietnam War’s only Air Force flying ace, suggested that Collings petition Congress, and in 1999, through an amendment to that year’s defense bill, the foundation gained permission to acquire a Phantom.
A team that included Collings’ son, Rob, who serves as the foundation’s chief pilot, traveled to Tucson, Ariz., to select an F-4 from among the 1,300 that were stored at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), a facility on the grounds of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. “First we looked for one that had MiG combat experience, but we didn’t find one,” Collings says. “So we looked for the one that had the best airframe and the best engines.” Foundation officials chose a 1966 F-4D Phantom that had been stationed at bases in Germany, Spain, and Kansas before ending its service career in 1990 with the Texas Air National Guard at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, which, coincidentally, is the same airfield that hosts Collings West. In August 1999, following a complete overhaul and $600,000 worth of repairs, Ritchie piloted the foundation’s Phantom on its maiden flight.