Monday, Nov. 23, 2015
By Cole Heath
An F-16 fighter jet, flying over Florida with no one at the controls, is used to train American pilots for air-to-air combat. The drones are built right in the River City.
A small contingent of engineers is turning retired fighter jets into flying targets at a highly secured hangar at Cecil Airport.
Air Force veteran Kiel Bryant heads a team transforming these '80s model F-16s into QF-16 training drones.
"This is absolutely the coolest job I ever had," Bryant said. "The hunters of the sky are now becoming the hunted."
This type of work with the QF-16s is only happening at Cecil Airport. Boeing Spokesman Tim Bartlett gave Action News Jax exclusive access, and Action News Jax had to keep a distance from the jets, as the equipment in the facility is very sensitive.
The Air Force has taken nine F-16s from storage in Arizona and flown them to the Cecil Airport to begin the five-month conversion process.
"They’re preserved, so if they get called back into service they’re ready, and that’s what we’re doing here," Bryant said.
The QF-16 is almost like a giant remote control plane. It allows the pilot to safely control the plane from the ground as it’s targeted by American fighter pilots training at bases in Florida and New Mexico. They eventually shoot the QF-16s out of the sky.
"It takes that training to a reality level that’s a notch above," Bryant said.
The project started earlier this year to replace converted Vietnam era F-4 Phantom Drones.
"Every 14 days or so, we pulse the line to the next step and each plane steps forward," Bartlett said.
The jets are eventually brought down to the final stage, where Bryant’s crew puts them through their final tests.
"We go in and test and make sure everything is proper," Bryant said.
Once the engines are reattached, the automated flight system is installed and the tail is painted orange, signifying this jet is a drone, and the QF-16 is ready for its final mission.
The Air Force has ordered 67 QF-16s so far. The repurposed warplanes will be given a warrior's death.
"It’s nice to see they’re going to have a fitting death, instead of rotting away in the boneyard," Bryant said.
Boeing officials said there is a lot of work left to do with the conversion program. But crews could be working on the QF16s at Cecil Airport for the next 10 years.