New drones a quantum leap
By Tom McLaughlin
September 2013
...Retired F-16 Fighting Falcons, among the most lethal warplanes to roll off an
assembly line, are getting a new lease on life that will let them go out with a bang.
...About 200 of the combat-proven planes will eventually be turned into full scale
aerial targets, the first fourth generation aircraft converted into pilotless drones. They
will help the military gauge the effectiveness of new weapons and perfect the skills of
military aviators.
...Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City in Northwest Florida has been
designated as the first recipient of QF-16 and received its first reconfigured plane
Nov. 19, 2012. Five more QF-16s arrived before the end of that year to begin
combined developmental/operational testing, according to Lt. Col. Ryan Inman,
commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall.
...“The QF-16 program is now on pace for full implementation and integration by
early 2015,” Inman said.
...Boeing was awarded the QF-16 full-scale aerial target engineering, manufacturing
and development contract in 2010. Back scatter X-ray technology was used to
assess each aircraft before installing state of the art electronic control equipment
needed to allow current and qualified pilots with the 82nd to operate the jets from the
...Phase II of the contract calls for Boeing to support initial flight testing at Tyndall, a
company news release said.
...When the QF-16s are ready to fly at Tyndall, they’ll rejuvenate a venerable drone
program that has for too long relied on the QF-4, the drone version of the Vietnam-
era F4 Phantom. An environmental assessment conducted in 2013 called the QF-4
inventory at the base “nearly depleted and outmoded” and said “QF-4s at Tyndall
are almost at the end of their useful service life and need to be replaced.”
...That notion was underscored in July when two mishaps involving QF-4s occurred
within a week of one another and grabbed the attention of the civilian population
around the Panama City vicinity.  Folks living in the coastal town of Port St. Joe
reported seeing a fireball in the sky over the Gulf of Mexico on July 10, and learned
later that a QF-4 had malfunctioned and had to be destroyed in flight.
...On July 16, another drone crashed during takeoff from the base’s drone runway,
and the Air Force closed a portion of U.S.  98 for 24 hours to ensure the battery of
the self-destruct charge was fully depleted. Another drone was airborne at the time
and continued on with its mission.
...Inman is excited by the prospect of the QF-16. He said the fourth generation
fighter, first built in 1974 and still being manufactured today, “represents a quantum
leap in capability in all areas compared to the QF-4.”
...“Flight testing has begun … and we are excited about the amount of progress we
have made,” Inman said. “Improvements discovered in training will afford the most
threat representative aerial target we can employ.”
...The drone aircraft at Tyndall are used as full scale aerial targets for weapons tests.
Under United States law, before a missile system can be placed into production it
must undergo what is known as “lethality testing.”
...Lethality testing requires firing upon a “combat configured target” and for both air
to air and surface to air missiles that means shooting down a real-life, fully equipped
aircraft or, in Air Force parlance a FSAT, or Full Scale Aerial Target.
...The Air Force has used unmanned aircraft for weapons testing since 1959 and
Tyndall, with easy access to Gulf of Mexico water ranges, has played in integral role.
The base’s Q-F4s are the last F-4s still seeing active duty and at this juncture are
“the only full scale aerial target in the Air Force,” according to the 2013
environmental assessment.
...The 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron arrived at Tyndall in 1981 when it was called
the 82nd Tactical Aerial Target Squadron. It was renamed once in 1982 then again in
1991. It’s part of Tyndall’s 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, which reports to the
53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., northwest of Tyndall.
...The squadron’s original drone targets were the QF-106 Delta Dart, which were
contracted for production in 1987, began flying in 1991 and were replaced around
1997 by the QF-4s.
...“I think the most significant improvement the QF-16 yields” for the squadron “is
longevity,” said Inman.
...“In order to maintain the QF-4 we must scour the ends of the earth to replenish our
supply of replacement parts,” the squadron commander said. “The QF-16 provides a
complete supply chain that is active and will maintain replacement part availability for
our entire aerial fleet.”
...The F-16 was envisioned in the 1970s as a smaller, more agile adjunct to the twin-
engine F-15 Eagle, and it proved popular with foreign allies in part because the unit
cost was far below that of an F-15.
...There are presently about 4,500 F-16s in existence and in May 2013, Lockheed
Martin, the plane’s manufacturer, estimated it had enough orders to continue
production until 2017.
...At present, plans are to ship a total of about 60 F-16s to Tyndall to replenish the
aging fleet of 40 QF-4s.
...The planes to be converted have spent between three and 12 years in storage
under the care of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at
Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. They’ll be shipped from there to Cecil for
reconfiguration by Boeing before reaching their final destination of Tyndall.
...Plans call for 22 F-16s to be converted each year from fighters to drones through
Underwritten in part by:
Aerospace Quarterly
Full newsletter