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Why it is easier to make a F-16 drone than F-4 drone?

Posted November 20, 2019

Drones are incredibly useful in military application. They can target various sights without putting servicemen and servicewomen in danger. They can be smaller, quieter and more versatile than big manned planes. And QF-16 is a very useful drone, even if its application is a bit weird. But why is it easier to make a drone out of F-16 than, let’s say, F-4?

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon first flew in 1974 and entered service in 1978. During its decades long career it participated in missions all around the globe and became one of the legendary military planes of the 20th century. It is actually still being manufactured. Just in February Lockheed Martin unveiled the F-21 concept at the Aero India air show, hoping that it will become India’s fighter of choice for the upcoming decades. However, most older F-16’s are already sitting in Boneyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. But some leave this place.

There is no one in the cockpit of this QF-16. Image credit: MSgt. J. Scott Wilcox via Wikimedia

Davis Monthan Air Force Base is located in a very dry desert climate, which makes it perfect for keeping ageing warplanes. They can sit there until someone decides to take them apart for parts or returns them into services. Hot and dry desert air protects these airplanes from corrosion and allows some of them to be used again. For example, just this year 32 F-16s were rescued and turned into QF-16.

QF-16 is a target drone. Quite literally, it is just a flying target, designed for training pilots of other fighters and operators anti-aircraft weapons. Unlike other drones, QF-16 is bigger and looks just like a fighter jet, making it easier for soldiers to immerse themselves into the training scenario. It is also capable of taking off, maneuvering and landing, although it being a target drone typically does not require a landing.

QF-16 and QF-4 target drones together – these planes can fly with or without a pilot. Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Chris Cokeing via Wikimedia

There are other similar target drones, like QF-4 Phantom. But the F-16 is much easier to convert. In fact, this job is pretty quick, using a Boeing-designed Drone Peculiar Equipment kit. This is because F-16 has a fly-by-wire system – control surfaces are moved by electronically-controlled system rather than mechanical linkages. The pilot is just pressing the buttons and even the joystick is basically functioning as a switch. This means that no additional actuators and motors are needed when F-16 becomes QF-16.

QF-16 have been around for pretty much a decade. In the future, they may get new roles however. They may become unmanned weapon-carrying wingmen for a F-22 or F-35 fighters. Time will show what future holds for F-16, but its history is likely to continue for at least a couple more decades.

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