F-16 drones ready to replace Vietnam-era 'flying targets'

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The U.S. Air Force is preparing to officially retire its current line of life-sized drone aerial targets, and the replacement aircraft are coming from Arizona.

The QF-4 is the Vietnam-era fighter jet, converted into a remote controlled drone, that Air Force pilots have been using as moving targets for decades. The final QF-4 is set to be retired on December 21, clearing the way for the next generation of drone fighter.

"In some ways it's sad to think they're going to fly and be shot down," said Tim Gray, who is the director of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, located on David Monthan Air Force Base.

Gray is referring to the F-16s his maintenance engineers are restoring for flight. It takes roughly three months from mothballs to flightworthiness. From here, they'll head to Florida with a pilot on board. There, the final drone package will be installed at a Boeing facility.

The QF-16s, as the drone versions are called, are already flying, but will become live targets in February. Air Force officials say they will provide critical training for F-35 pilots, as the new generation of fighter jets take to the skies.

At first, the F-35 pilots will simply shoot dummy missiles at the QF-16s. But once these hi-tech drones reach a certain number of flying hours, the F-35 pilots will fire real missiles and destroy the planes, according to Air Force officials.

"It's the most realistic combat training a pilot can get, short of actual combat. They will actually get to go up and shoot a missile off the rail and actually blow the F-16 out of the air," said Gray.

Copyright 2016 KPHO (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

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Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards , two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. Last fall, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle, in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is a graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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