SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) – In the Vermont Air National Guard, they call it the “Lethal Lady.”

Through a 25-year career, this F-16 has flown missions in Iraq, chased radar blips and unexpectedly added a section to the book of military tactics during its 7,000 hours in the air.

Soon, the longest-flying plane of its type – aircraft No. 1165 – will be grounded for good. Later this year, it is due to land at the “Bone Yard” – the Air Force’s aviation graveyard, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, where it will be retired or cut up for scrap.

“It’s been part of this unit for a long while and (there’s) a lot of history here with it, a lot of history with the 7,000 hours and it’s going to go down in the books,” said crew chief Master Sgt. Terry Tracy.

One night last month, Air National Guard Lt. Col. T.J. Jackman was at the controls over New York’s Adirondack mountains when the plane turned over 7,000 hours of flight time.

Testament to crew

Jackman and the rest of the Vermont Air Guard don’t look at the fighter jet as a plane that costs 50 percent more to keep flying than newer aircraft: They see it as a testament to the ground crews that have kept it flying, years past its expected retirement age.

“She has worked hard. She has been there,” said Jackman, who flew Lethal Lady on three tours in Iraq. “She has definitely saved a lot of lives, a lot of Marines, a lot of soldiers, a lot of airmen owe their lives to what this airplane did when she was called upon.”

It could do more.

“The airframe is old, but everything inside that’s flying the jet, from the engine to the avionics, it’s all up to date,” Tracy said. “It’s old for the year and the hours, but with the right maintenance, you could probably maintain this for probably another 3,000 hours.”

But it’s not to be.

Museum destination

There are some in the F-16 community who’d like the Lethal Lady sent to a museum, or put on display. Members of the Vermont Air National Guard would love to add the plane to its collection of obsolete aircraft parked outside its gate at Burlington International Airport or National Guard headquarters at Camp Johnson in Colchester.

“It can’t go to the Bone Yard, it’s got to go to a museum,” Jackman said. “You gotta save this airplane.”

B-52s can last 50 years, and the Air Force has at least one F-16 with more flying hours than the Lethal Lady, but that’s a two-seat trainer.

Distinguished

But its 7,000 hours in flight – more than 1,000 hours in combat – distinguishes the Lethal Lady.

“Hitting the 7,000 hour mark is really significant, because it is the first” U.S. plane to do it, said Laurie Quincy, F-16 program communications manager at Lockheed-Martin in Fort Worth, Texas.

A total of about 4,300 F-16s have been produced and they are in service in 24 countries, she said.

No. 1165, a C model, rolled off the General Dynamics assembly line in 1983.

Missions

It flew 42 missions during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, was turned over to another Air National Guard unit after the Gulf War and in 1994, sent to Vermont.

It has patrolled the skies over the East Coast, helped keep Saddam Hussein’s air force on the ground and provided air support for fighting Marines.

In 2004, a Vermont pilot (the Guard didn’t want to identify the individual pilot) was flying Lethal Lady over Najaf, Iraq when he got a call for close air support from Marines pinned down in heavy fighting.

The helicopter that had the missiles needed to destroy the target couldn’t expose itself to enemy fire long enough to aim and shoot, so No. 1165’s pilot used its sights to aim the missile from miles away, which was then fired by the helicopter.

The target was destroyed, the Marines relieved. As far as anyone can tell, it was the first time that had been done.

“There’s actually a formal tactic out there now on how to do it,” Jackman said.

In all probability, the Lethal Lady has made its last overseas deployment, although it will still be flown on training missions until later this year when it’s due to be shipped to the Bone Yard.

The Guard is in the process of turning in all its old F-16s in favor of a newer model.

Long-range plans call for the Vermont Air National Guard to be equipped with the next generation of fighters, the F-35 Lightning. But the Joint Strike Fighter, as its also called, hasn’t even gone into production yet, and it will be years before they’re assigned to National Guard units.

Pilots can be sentimental about what other people might consider merely hunks of metal with lots of whirling parts.

Lethal Lady is one of those aircraft.

“I get to fly 1165 quite a bit, which works out well,” Jackman said. “This jet belongs to the taxpayers, the crew chiefs take care of it, they take the pride. I just have the privilege of having my name on this airplane.”

AP-ES-04-06-08 1441EDT


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