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 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 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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