The U.S. Air Force recently received its last QF-4 drone aircraft. Over 300 F-4 Phantom fighters were modified to fly by remote control and the last batch of 50 were delivered over the last four years. The last one had spent two decades in storage in the “boneyard” before being refurbished and fitted out as a UAV. The mods cost about $1.4 million per aircraft, plus the cost of getting a boneyard aircraft back in flying shape. The QF-4 first appeared when the U.S. Air Force retired its F-4 fighters in the 1980s and fully replaced the QF-106 in 1998. The air force ran out of retired (but still flyable) F-4s to convert this year.
This QF-4 arrived just in time because it wasn’t until September 2013 that the first QF-16 (remotely controlled F-16 fighter) made its first flight. These unmanned F-16s will be used as aerial targets, just as their predecessors were. The QF-16s are being converted from F-16s that have been retired from service. Currently at least 200 F-16s are scheduled to be converted. This first order of QF-16s is being delivered this year and six QF-16 aircraft have already been converted to remote (no pilot in the cockpit) flight control and they will be available for use in early 2014.
The process of equipping the F-16 with all the necessary sensors (cameras and remote feeds of the aircraft radar) and remote capabilities took longer than expected, even though there was a lot of experience doing this to older aircraft (F-4s, F-100s, F-102s, and F-106s). The QF type aircraft use GPS to help with navigation and to insure that QFs flying in formation don't collide with one another. The aircraft also carries sensors to detect near misses by missiles. The original plan was to introduce the first QF-16s in 2011, after deciding to do it in 2010. But there were technical problems that delayed the first QG-16 flying until September 2013. The QF-16s can still carry a pilot who can fly the aircraft or simply observe how the remote control process is working.
Training operations destroy up to 25 remotely controlled QF class fighters a year. The existing supply of decommissioned F-4s is exhausted and the QF-16s are arriving just in time. Before the QF-4, the air force had converted 218 F-100s (for use from 1983-92), 136 F-102s (from 1974-85), and 210 F-106s (1990-98) to act as full scale target aircraft. There are smaller UAVs that are also used as targets. The full scale models are needed to fully test the capabilities of new, and existing, missiles. Nothing like using real missiles against real targets to build pilot confidence and be sure the damn things work.
The UAV version of an aircraft is superior, in some ways, to one with a pilot in it. This is mainly because pilots black out when the aircraft makes turns too sharply at high speed. The air force discovered how effective this capability was during the 1970s, when they rigged some jet fighters to fly without a pilot and had them go up against manned aircraft. The QF-16 has already demonstrated its ability to carry out acrobatic maneuvers under remote control.