QF-16 is the designation assigned to retired Lockheed Martin F-16 "Fighting Falcon" multirole fighters reconstituted as full-scale, unmanned drone aircraft. The QF-16 - converted through a Boeing-led program - succeeds the outgoing line of McDonnell Douglas F-4 "Phantom II" multirole fighters converted by BAe to become the "QF-4". The QF-16 series will be featured as an aerial target for training purposes as well as to develop new aerial doctrine and test new technologies.
Six modified F-16s currently make up the QF-16 fleet (as of 2015) and these currently serve the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATS) of the United States Air Force (USAF). Testing is done at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
The existing F-16 airframe is outfitted by Boeing engineers with new equipment allowing for automated take-off and landing, preset maneuvers execution and high-speed, high-altitude flight. These ex-USAF aircraft - mainly F-16A and F-16C production models - carry the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200, -220 or -229 or the General Electric F110-GE-100 or -129 series turbofan engines offering afterburning capability which allows the fourth generation airframe to reach supersonic speeds and enter high agility movements to better represent modern air targets to be encountered by American airmen today. Additionally, the aircraft retains a full-working defensive suit which serves against incoming radar tracking and seeking air-to-air missiles - offering a greater challenge to the student pilot. Should the QF-16 become unresponsive to the operators or a danger near civilian areas its flight can be terminated in-air with the loss of the entire aircraft.
The QF-16 program has reached several milestones since its development began - it flew with an empty cockpit on September 23rd, 2013 to much publicity. In August of 2014 it was reported that the aircraft responded successfully to a ground-based missile live fire test. However, instead of directly targeting the unmanned aircraft with the missile (and risking its total loss), a Ground Control Station (GCS) sent the missile to a specific coordinate in the airspace near the QF-16 with the data collection system aboard the QF-16 validating that the missile did in fact reach the coordinates. After data comparison from both the GCS and QF-16, the missile was able to hit its "target".
Beyond the stated scope of the program, it is not out of the realm of possibility that data garnered from the QF-16 project will serve a full-sized unmanned fighter platform in the near future.
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