In 2015, Military avionics experts at the Boeing Co. got a $24.7 million contract to convert 18 retired U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16 jet fighters into sophisticated manned and unmanned target drones .
Officials of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., are asking experts at the Boeing Defense, Space & Security segment in St. Louis to handle the conversion of 30 F-16 fighters into QF-16 Full-Scale Aerial Targets (FSATs)
The Air Force has used converted jet fighters as target drones for decades, beginning in the 1960s when the Air Force converted 24 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jets into target drones. Other U.S. jet fighters, including the F-100, F-102, F-106, and F-4, have become target drones. Air Force experts use converted jet fighters as target drones to test sophisticated missiles and electronic warfare systems.
Although some of these retired jet fighter target drones are destroyed during weapons tests, often the drones rely on onboard sensors to calculate the point of missile detonations to record “kills” without destroying the target aircraft.
Air Force leaders are expected to buy a total of 120 QF-16 target drones through 2019. Optionally Air Force leaders are considering buying a total of 210 QF-16 through 2022. The fleet should last until 2025.
Boeing converts F-16 fighter jets into drones
Boeing in 2013 retrofitted a number of retired Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets with equipment enabling them to be flown remotely without a pilot. In conjunction with the US Air Force, the company recently flew one of these unmanned jets, performing combat maneuvers and a perfect center line landing.
During the test flight, the controlled remotely by two US Air Force pilots located at a ground control facility, the plane cruised at 40,000 ft (12,200 m) and reached speeds of Mach 1.47. It then performed a series of maneuvers, including barrel rolls and a “split S” (where the pilot rolls his aircraft upside down and flies a descending half-loop, achieving level flight in the opposite direction at a lower altitude).
“It flew great, everything worked great, [it] made a beautiful landing – probably one of the best landings I’ve ever seen,” said the project’s chief engineer Paul Cejas. Should the need have arisen however, the F-16 was equipped with a ground-operated self-destruct mechanism.
One of the major advantages of not having a pilot on-board a jet fighter is the ability to stress the plane to higher limits without fear of losing human life. During this flight however, the aircraft was only tested at 7Gs of acceleration even though an unmanned, fly-by-wire F-16 should be quite capable of performing maneuvers at 9Gs.
The QF-16s were all retired aircraft. Boeing retrieved them from Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and restored them for flight. Boeing and the US Air Force revealed that the converted F-16s, re-designated as QF-16s, would be used in the training of pilots, providing drones for target practice and live fire tests. “Now we have a mission capable, highly sustainable full scale aerial target to take us into the future,” Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, is quoted as saying in a Boeing press release.
Company experts strip down retired F-16 fighters to remove unnecessary parts like the jet’s 20-millimeter cannon and APG-66/68 radar. Boeing alters the aircraft to fly unmanned or with human pilots. Boeing uses equipment called Drone Peculiar Equipment to remotely command and control the unmanned version of the F-16.
Because the USAF requires that the QF-16 be able to fly in both manned and unmanned modes, Boeing modified the flight control system, working in a teaming arrangement with BAE, the original equipment manufacturer for the F-16 flight control system.
Boeing also installs a flight termination system that can destroy the drone if it goes out of control, command telemetry systems so the drone can be controlled from the ground, a scoring system to gauge the accuracy of air-to-air missiles fired at the drone, as well as avionics packages to enable these plans to fly unmanned.