Warplanes: Retired Fighters Return as Zombies


March 11, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has ordered another 20 QF-4 drone aircraft. These are F-4 Phantom fighters modified to fly by remote control. The mods cost about $1.4 million per aircraft. The QF-4 first appeared when the U.S. Air Force retired it's F-4 fighters in the 1980s. After it converted F-4s into UAVs, to serve as aerial targets, they became the QF-4. Over 200 have been converted so far, but the air force is running out of them. There are only a few dozen left, and training operations destroy 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 fully 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.

The UAV version of an aircraft is superior, in some ways, to one with a pilot in it. This is mainly because pilots black out when the aircraft makes turns too sharply, at high speed. The air force discovered how effective this capability was during the 1970s, when they rigged some jet fighters to fly without a pilot, and had them go up against manned aircraft.


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