Boeing completes first QF-16 conversion at Arizona facility

Boeing announced that it had completed the first conversion of a QF-16 Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) at its modification facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona, on July 31.

The company stated that a joint team of personnel from Boeing and the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) had passed the milestone at its new modification line in Arizona in June. Following its conversion, the aircraft was flown to Tyndall AFB in Florida, where it will be employed by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) as an autonomous target in future weapons training operations.

QF-16 [USAF/A1C Jacob T Stephens] #1
The first QF-16 - serial 85-4402 - to be converted at Boeing's modification line at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, takes flight. USAF/Airman 1st Class Jacob T Stephens 

Craig DeMeester, Boeing’s QF-16 programme manager, said: “The partnership between Boeing and AMARG is crucial to expediting capability to the warfighters… It’s an example of great teamwork, and completing this first jet is just the beginning as we have more deliveries planned this year and well into next year.”

The unit teamed up with the firm under a public-private partnership to establish a second QF-16 modification line. The first is located at Boeing’s Cecil Field facility in Jacksonville, Florida.

Col Jennifer Barnard, commander of the 309th AMARG, said: “The delivery of this first AMARG-modified QF-16 aerial target drone is a testimony of the cooperative, synergistic relationship we had hoped for when we created the private-public partnership with Boeing… Though the installation of the drone conversion package is a relatively new venture for us, our hope is to leverage cost efficiencies and proficiencies [benefitting] both partners.”

QF-16 [USAF/MSgt J Scott Wilcox] #1
QF-16 - serial 83-1110 (c/n 61-663) - in flight. This aircraft was written off in July 2017. USAF/MSgt J Scott Wilcox

AirForces Intelligence data states that the USAF has ordered 127 QF-16s so far. Boeing states that more than 40% of the current contracted aircraft have been delivered to date. The company began converting F-16A/Cs to the unmanned QF-16 configuration in 2015 and the platform achieved its initial operational capability (IOC) in September 2016.

The QF-16 replaced the USAF’s existing QF-4E/G Phantom IIs in the autonomous aerial target role from December 2016. In total, the air arm operated 169 examples of the QF-4E/G – many of which were shot down during weapons training operations.

Although the QF-16s fly autonomously during training exercises, the aircraft are optionally-manned. The platform retains the Fighting Falcon’s full speed and handling capabilities and are used to provide operational USAF squadrons with interception, tactic and targeting training against a highly manoeuvrable adversary. The aircraft are relatively expendable, so some missions will result in the QF-16 being shot down.