An awkward thing happens late in the life of a fighter jet. It becomes too decrepit for combat but too functional for the junkyard. Don't worry though. The US Air Force has a plan: convert them all into drones in order to offer fighter pilots in training more realistic target practice.
The latest fleet to get the drone treatment is the famous but fading F-16. Outside of combat, this Cold War-era jet is perhaps best known for being the plane of choice for the Air Force Thunderbirds air show team. Those days are numbered, so Boeing is on deck to convert as many as 126 F-16s into so-called QF-16s, unmanned "aerial targets". So far, Boeing says, the aircraft are capable of "a series of simulated maneuvers, reaching supersonic speeds, returning to base and landing, all without a pilot in the cockpit."
This is hardly the first fighter jet to be converted into drones for target practice, though. Before the F-16s became QF-16s, the Vietnam-era F-4 became the QF-4. And before that, pilots took aim at converted jets like the PQF-102 Delta Dagger, the QF-100 Super Saber and the QF-106 Delta Dart. The Air Force prefers the drone approach because nothing simulates actual combat fighting like a full-sized fighter jet pulling real-world manoeuvres in the sky, and the lack of a pilot (somewhat ironically) lets them test the lethality of their weapons systems. Now that the supply of QF4s and other converted jets is dwindling, it's time for the F-16 to meet its maker. [Register]