US Air Force to train with unmanned F-16 fighter jets

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The venerable F-16 Fighting Falcon is getting second life as an unmanned vehicle. Boeing is repurposing the retired single-engine aircraft into remote-controlled drone that the US Air Force will use to test newly developed weapons and to train pilots.


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The program has been underway for a while, but according to Engadget, the first of the renamed QF-16 target drones were delivered to Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base last week. A total of 126 of the unmanned drones are scheduled to be provided by Boeing to the Air Force.

Five of those are in the process of being outfitted as part of a pre-production run and should be ready for service by October, the website added. They will be used as stand-ins for the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighter jets by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.

Gareth Jennings of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly said that the first of the drones, aircraft QF-007, was delivered to Tyndall AFB on March 11. Jennings added that Boeing has delivered six pre-production QF-16s, and that under the terms of its deal with the Air Force, it will deliver a total of 13 low-rate initial production (LRIP) platforms, of which QF-007 is the first.

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Bye, BAE! F-16s are replacing you

The USAF expects to receive all of the LRIP drones by October 9, and will used the 126 QF-16s to replace the BAE Systems QF-4, IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly added. The new drone is required because of dwindling numbers of the QF-4s, and the unmanned McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II no longer represents the type of air-to-air threats that American pilots are expected to encounter on future operations.

“It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, according to the Daily Mail. “It’s a replication of current, real world situations and aircraft platforms they can shoot as a target. Now we have a 9G capable, highly sustainable aerial target.”

World’s most capable fighter jet

The F-16 Fighting Falcon has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most capable fighter jets, and was used predominantly in the fleets of more than two dozen customers globally. It featured an innovating “fly-by-wire” control system and was capable of maneuvering at speeds of up to nine G’s, allowing it to have a tighter turning radius and giving it a tremendous advantage in a dogfight.

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Due to the force experienced by the pilots when performing such maneuvers, the F-16 was outfitted with a small side-mounted control stick on an armrest. Rather than needing to be moved back and forth, the joystick responds to hand pressure. In a tight turn, the otherwise immobilized pilot was able to fly his plane with the mere twitch of a figure, the UK newspaper said.

“Boeing is converting retired F-16s into full-scale, remote-controlled manned and unmanned aerial targets that will replace the QF-4 fleet,” the company explained in its website. “The QF-16 full-scale aerial targets will be used to test newly developed weapons and train pilots for the rapidly changing nature of warfare in a safe and controlled environment.”


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