Here's why Air Force fighter pilots might soon be seeing ghosts

This fall, Air Force fighter pilots taking to the skies to train might find themselves going up against a ghost.

Pilots chasing “enemy” jets in air-to-air dog-fighting exercises or avoiding them during training targeting runs will see the familiar sign of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The Air Force is converting older-generation, retired F-16 fighters that were wrapped and stored at the military’s aircraft boneyard in the Arizona desert into the latest unmanned drone called the “QF-16.”

A QF-16 full scale aerial target from the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron 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/Staff Sgt. Javier Cruz)

A QF-16 full scale aerial target from the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron 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/Staff Sgt. Javier Cruz)

The QF-16 is a “full scale aerial target” and for all intents and purposes it looks like the sleek, single-engine jet that was built by General Dynamics (now part of Lockheed Martin) and first flown during the height of the Cold War — with the same body, same size, same profile, same maneuverability as the manned Fighting Falcon. The target drone is converted so it has similar radar signatures and capabilities as potential adversary aircraft – including the latest generation of the multi-role F-16 flying today – that U.S. pilots might encounter in the not-so-friendly skies.

The Air Force’s F-16 drone program became fully operational in September when the Air Combat Command declared it had reached initial operational capability.

“This leap forward in airframe capabilities, combined with advanced electronic pods, will allow us to properly test and evaluate our 5th generation aircraft and weapons,” Lt. Col. Matthew Garrison, who commands the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, said in a Sept. 26 news release. The squadron belongs to the 53th Wing, which serves as the Air Force’s only operational test unit.

The orange-tipped jet drones can break the sound barrier in supersonic flight, sans pilot – and even reach 9Gs. That’s as tough as the latest high-tech jets out there — U.S.-built or otherwise. The “pilot,” though, is on the ground, controlling the drone just as other unmanned aircraft .

Various onboard sensors and instruments in the drone jet collect data and information that can be used by whoever’s got the finger on a missile (or other ordnance and weaponry) directed at it from the ground control station. During a 2014 ground missile test fired at the drone that registered a “kill” hit, an engineer described its role as a target to help in weapons training.

“The QF-16’s mission is really to act as a target and validate weapons systems. So, we do have a scoring system on the airplane and its job is to tell us basically how close the missile came and its trajectory,” Paul Cejas, a chief engineer, said in a Boeing news release.

Maintainers begin post-flight checks on the first Lot 1 production model QF-16 after it arrived at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., March 11. The aircraft is the first of 13 deliveries to the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, a geographically separated unit of the 53rd Wing, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base. The QF-16 will replace the QF-4 as the next generation aerial target. (Courtesy photo)

Maintainers begin post-flight checks on the first Lot 1 production model QF-16 after it arrived at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., March 11. The aircraft is the first of 13 deliveries to the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, a geographically separated unit of the 53rd Wing, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base. The QF-16 will replace the QF-4 as the next generation aerial target. (Courtesy photo)

St. Louis-based Boeing Defense, Space & Security got the first contract in 2010 to create as many as 126 of the drones. It flew the first unmanned flight – with an empty cockpit – over Tyndall AFB in Florida’s Panhandle in 2013.

As of March, Boeing had delivered 11 QF-16s to the Air Force, and the most-recent contract called for the conversion of another 30 target drones, according to the company. Several dozen retired jets are undergoing conversion. The F-16s are pulled from the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where several hundred of the mothballed jets are parked in the sun outside of Tucson, Arizona. Crews with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group help prepare for the trek to Florida, where the bulk of the conversion work is done.

The first QF-16 arrives at Tyndall escorted by a QF-4 Nov. 19. The QF-16 will undergo developmental testing by Boeing and eventually become part of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. The QF-16 is a supersonic reusable full-scale aerial target drone modified from an F-16 Fighting Falcon. At this time, the group uses QF-4s, made from 1960s F-4 Phantom, to conduct their full-scale aerial target missions. The targets allow the Air Force and allied nations to have a realistic understanding of what they could face on the battlefield. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chris Cokeing)

The first QF-16 arrives at Tyndall escorted by a QF-4 Nov. 19. The QF-16 will undergo developmental testing by Boeing and eventually become part of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. The QF-16 is a supersonic reusable full-scale aerial target drone modified from an F-16 Fighting Falcon. At this time, the group uses QF-4s, made from 1960s F-4 Phantom, to conduct their full-scale aerial target missions. The targets allow the Air Force and allied nations to have a realistic understanding of what they could face on the battlefield. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chris Cokeing)

The QF-16 isn’t the first unmanned fighter-like drone. But it is the latest generation, replacing the QF-4, an aerial target created from the previous generation of F-4 Phantom jets, which saw their glory during the Vietnam War.

There’s simply not enough of them left, and time has aged them toward obsolescence. The Air Force flew its final QF-4 mission on Aug. 17 at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, and the service plans to officially retire it in December.

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