TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
Training pilots in the world’s greatest Air Force is no small task, taking ingenuity to provide realistic and effective training. Modifying F-16 Fighting Falcons into unmanned drones to use as targets is one way pilots are staying combat-ready.
Tyndall’s 82d Aerial Targets Squadron, which falls under the 53d Weapons Evaluation Group, maintains QF-16 aircraft for this purpose, enhancing training exercises for home station and transient units.
“The QF-16 brings the ability to provide a full-scale, unmanned, threat-representative aerial target for live missile testing,” said Lt. Col. Paul Einreinhofer, 82d ATRS director of operations. “It supports the 82d ATRS mission, which is to provide safe, effective and efficient aerial target support for Department of Defense and Foreign Materiel Support weapons test and evaluation programs.”
The 53d WEG’s Weapon Systems Evaluation Program exercises live missiles against QF-16s with special sensors that indicate a hit or miss to give pilots feedback. For many of them, this is their first time using live weapons in an aircraft.
“You can listen to briefings about how to shoot missiles, and even practice it in the simulator, but there is nothing that can replace actually getting in the jet and experiencing it firsthand,” said Lt. Col. “Vader” Peterson, 43d Fighter Squadron commander.
The QF-16 drone proves to be an invaluable asset to the 325th Fighter Wing by acting as a moving target for pilots’ live-fire training, with the added bonus of multiple aircraft being controlled safely from the ground. Up to four QF-16 drones can be remotely piloted from a single pilot on the ground.
To become a drone, an F-16 is regenerated by the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The aircraft is then modified with hardware and software to allow remote controlled capabilities through the Advanced Airborne Threat Target Control System, earning its “Q”. The AATTCS control stations, located on Tyndall, communicate with the QF-16 using an antenna system positioned along the Gulf Coast.
“The pilots who remotely fly the QF-16 are highly-trained experienced civilian QF-16 safety pilots,” said Einreinhofer. “They use computer displays to control up to four QF-16s simultaneously, with the ability to fly precise formation positions and perform complex maneuvers.”
Although the capability for unmanned flying is the main purpose for the QF-16s, some missions still require a pilot to strap into the cockpit to ensure everything goes smoothly, so upon delivery to the 82d ATRS, QF-16s are still configured to be flown with a pilot in the aircraft.
“The bulk of the missions use missiles that are not fired at the QF-16,” said Einreinhofer. “On these specific missions, a pilot is in the aircraft acting as a safety pilot, while the aircraft is flown by a remote pilot. Without a pilot in the aircraft, and with limitations on remote piloting, it is more challenging to avoid weather hazards and to deal with aircraft malfunctions.”
QF-16s are vital for student pilot training and also help the Air Force test munitions before being mass produced.
“Developmental and operational testing is a legal requirement for munitions to be produced and distributed across the force,” Einreinhofer said. “That involves live-fire missile testing against a threat-representative target. The QF-16 is critical to the 82d ATRS being able to accomplish our mission and ensures the Air Force is in compliance with federal laws.”
At the end of their life cycle, the QF-16s are stripped down to the bare minimum needed to fly, and then given a final sendoff that ends with a bang.
“As the QF-16 approaches the end of its lifespan, it is de-manned and used for live-fire profiles, where it would eventually be shot down during a live missile test over the Gulf of Mexico,” said Einreinhofer. “Afterwards, recovery vessels are sent out to recover the aircraft and all of the components to make sure we’re not doing any harm to the Gulf.”