For decades the F-16 Fighting Falcon was the world’s premier fighter jet. Small, maneuverable and fast, it has been used for air-to-air operations and air-to-ground operations. Even today, with its current upgrades, it is one of the world’s most advanced fighters.
This is why they are blowing them up.
In a small compound on the edge of the flightline at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, retired military maintainers from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group are pulling retired F-16s from the bone yard and turning them into almost new QF-16s in as little as 18 days.
Lt. Col. Martin Meyer, 309th AMARG director of flight test, said that the mission here has been going on for 50 years.
“The Air Force has always had a need for a full scale aerial target to practice and succeed with missile testing,” he said. “So we have flown what we call optionally-manned aircraft going all the way back to the F-100 (Super Sabre) in the late fifties…through the F-4 (Phantom II) which we used for a lot of years up until now, the F-16, which we designate the QF-16.”
The QF-16s are pulled from the 309th AMARG and rebuilt to become airworthy and flyable as functional test aircraft. They are then sent to a Boeing facility, at Cecil Field near Jacksonville, Florida, where they install an optionally manned package on them. The aircraft can be flown just like a normal F-16 fighter with a pilot in the cockpit, or remotely.
After about a year, and one to three hundred flight hours, the aircraft are set for destruction. The QF-16s will have live missiles shot at them for testing and validation, and eventually they’ll get shot down.
“Validating the capabilities of other aircraft and missiles is almost impossible to duplicate unless you can actually go out there and replicate it,” Meyer said. “With the F-16…they can program the aircraft and fly it remotely to nearly any profile that you could ask it to. If we can mimic our adversaries tactics, we can validate that our missiles are effective in defeating them.”
The Air Force is currently planning on 200 QF-16 aircraft, over about a ten-year period, to support this testing. The first shoot down of a QF-16 happened in July 2016.
For approximately 20 years, the Air Force utilized F-4s that were turned into QF-4s. They were also generated at the 309th AMARG. Eventually, as the supply dwindled, it got prohibitively expensive to regenerate them and they were much more limited in the profiles they could fly as a target compared to the F-16.
“The QF-4 was an awesome aircraft but it’s a generation or a generation and a half old,” said Retired Lt. Col. Jim “WAM” Harkins, civilian QF-4E and QF-16 pilot/controller at Detachment 1, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. “The F-16 is a much more of what (pilots) might see today. It’s a better test platform for testing new weapons.”
If you also look at it from the maintenance perspective, the old F-4 with its parts, its fuel burn and its maintenance requirements, was getting difficult to maintain and expensive. The F-16, which is a currently fielded fighter, is much cheaper to maintain, the parts are more readily available and the per-hour cost is much lower than the F-4.
“Overall we got a better target, it’s cheaper, and it does a great job,” Harkins said.
Meyer has a lot of faith in the maintainers that rebuild these jets, some of which have been sitting for 10 years or more. He is tasked with flying each one and signing off on the Dash Six checklist, making the aircraft airworthy again.
Interactive 3d Graphic // Alfredo Tirado
“Almost all these guys are retired Air Force, they’re almost all senior non-commissioned officers; guys who have been around Air Force aircraft their entire lives. The pride that they’ve got in making sure the aircraft are good is evident,” Meyer said. “They take it as a personal insult if they send me up there and something goes wrong with the airplane, even if it’s a bad radio.”
Some would say that rebuilding a jet just to blow it up is wasteful, but Meyer said, as he sat on the edge of a completed QF-16, that the job he and his team does benefits the entire Air Force.
“Take this aircraft for example; this thing flew for the Air Force for fifteen years, flew for the Italian Air Force, and was just sitting in the desert, gathering dust. We’re repurposing it, and it’s something that directly affects the war fighter,” he said. “We are able to replicate mission profiles that would otherwise be impossible to do. And when these guys go into combat, they know that their missiles are going to do what they need them to do. So that part of it is extremely rewarding.”