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Boeing’s QF-16 Goes Unmanned

Boeing and the U.S. Air Force‘s 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) took the next step in a two-year process with the first unmanned flight of the QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. on Sept. 19, 2013. The QF-16 is a retired F-16 that is modified to be an aerial target. Much like the F-16 was part of the replacement of the F-4 Phantom, the QF-16 is the replacement for the QF-4 Full Scale Aerial Target, which was a modification of the F-4. The first unmanned flight comes after the first QF-16 delivery in November 2012.

“It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around.”

After a pilot performed the routine preflight checks, he climbed out of the cockpit, locked the canopy, and turned over control to Thomas Mudge, who was sitting in an air-conditioned control room on the other side of Tyndall. Mudge, who is a pilot controller for the 82nd ATRS, remotely flew the QF-16 on an hour-long demonstration. The demonstration involved takeoff, a series of simulated maneuvers that included reaching supersonic speeds, and a landing. “Its performance and abilities are great and we’re looking forward to this airplane,” said Mudge. Although it must have been a little surreal to see an unmanned F-16 take flight, it didn’t seem to faze those involved. “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, 82nd ATRS commander.

QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target

A QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target from the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) takes off on its first unmanned flight at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Sept. 19, 2013. The 82nd ATRS operates the Department of Defense’s only full-scale aerial target program. The QF-16 will provide a fourth generation fighter representation of real world threats. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Javier Cruz

What the QF-16 will provide that the QF-4 doesn’t, is an advanced 4th generation target that will be similar to what pilots might see in real-life aerial combat. “The QF-4 did a good job for many years, but it’s time to turn the page in the aerial target program. This program will bring us into the 4th generation aircraft,” said Inman. The development of advanced 5th generation aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II created the need for a more capable aerial target. “It takes it to the next generation, which now provides the shooters an aircraft that is completely a replication of current real world situations,” said Inman.

QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target

A QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target from the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) flies over the Gulf of Mexico during its first unmanned flight at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., Sept. 19, 2013. Next up for the QF-16 is live fire testing at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. J. Scott Wilcox

The QF-16 used at Tyndall was pulled by Boeing from the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. and restored to flight condition. Boeing has so far modified six F-16s into QF-16s and plans on entering low-rate initial production at the end of 2013, with production deliveries beginning in 2015. The ongoing testing at Tyndall is aimed at ensuring the QF-16s’ viability as aerial targets. The next step is for the QF-16s to move to Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. for testing on an air-to-ground system as well as live fire testing. If all goes well, the QF-16s will be used for aerial training and weapons testing.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...