Warplanes: How to Train With Live Missiles


January 8, 2006: When the U.S. Air Force retired it's F-4 fighters in the 1980s, it converted many of them to UAVs, to serve as aerial targets. These aircraft became the QF-4, and the air force is running out of them. There are only about fifty left, and training operations destroys about 25 a year. The existing supply of decommissioned F-4s will keep the air force going until about 2011. Before that, it will start turning retired F-16s into QF-16s.

Before the QF-4, the air force had converted F-100s (218 of them), F-102s (136) and F-106s (210) to act as full scale target aircraft. There are smaller UAVs that are used as small scale targets. The full scale models were needed to 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 QF-4s can be flown with, or without, a pilot on board. The aircraft use GPS to help with navigation, and to insure that QF-4s flying in formation don't collide with one another. The aircraft also carry sensors to detect near misses by missiles.


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