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Brains behind the QF-16 spearhead AF aerial target drone program

November 7, 2013 (by Chrissy Cuttita) - Although the Air Force QF-16 flies pilotless in the skies over the Emerald Coast, they are not void of human contact.

USAF QF-16A block 15 #83-1110 Full Scale Aerial Target from the 82nd ATRS takes off on its first unmanned flight at Tyndall AFB on September 19th, 2013. [USAF photo by SSgt. Javier Cruz]

Eglin's Gulf Range Drone Control System is used to track and control aerial target drones, collect and display time space position information data for aircraft and surface vehicles, and display aircraft control instrumentation.

The GRDCS development team of the 96th Range Control Squadron relies on their warfighting customers' feedback to make the QF-16 program a success for the Air Force and the warfighters operating the aerial target drones from subordinate units of the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group at Tyndall AFB, Fla. who reports to the 53rd Wing headquartered at Eglin.

"They took a basic F-4 and suited it for an F-16," said Matt Lacourse, an 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron pilot, who has been working with the software developers. "The team is very responsive to any requests we make. Every time we've found something, they quickly turn it around."

Local pilots help engineers ensure realistic warfighting capabilities are incorporated into the software development as they experience the product real time while controlling aircraft from their location. At Tyndall, controllers rely on this same software for tracking and controlling a QF-16 from wheels up to wheels down, including all maneuvers in between.

"Our QF-16 test pilot team of both government and contractor civilians provide post-flight feedback on the performance of the software to our partners at Boeing," said Lt. Col. Joseph Kendall, the 53rd Test Support Squadron commander. "They compare the actual aircraft response with what the ground controllers were attempting to accomplish and evaluate this against performance requirements. Our GRDCS experts work hand-in-hand with the QF-16 GRDCS team, who routinely travel to Tyndall, to help determine the root causes and appropriate software fixes."

Unique to Team Eglin is the capability for acquisition and engineering personnel to see their products deployed in a field environment versus other jobs where they may only be developing models and simulating a virtual scenario.

During auto control, the GRDCS system follows a flight path in the sky and using the navigation capability, uplinks pitch, roll, altitude, airspeed and other commands to the aircraft. Meanwhile on the ground, the controllers monitor the situation and stand by to take control of the aircraft in the event of an aircraft malfunction (perhaps one caused by a missile strike).

"They have the ability to manually control the aircraft from the ground just like they were in the cockpit," said Jeff Stebbins, Jeff Stebbins, GRDCS contractor and QF-16 Integration Team Lead who has watched controllers use the software his team developed in the field to get QF-16s airborne. "We control pitch and roll with a stick and throttle inputs provide engine control."

Developmental and operational testing for the Air Force's QF-16 program is performed by the 82nd ATRS at Tyndall and their detachment at Holloman AFB, N.M.

Boeing has modified six F-16s into the QF-16 configuration. Low-rate initial production is scheduled to begin by the end of the year, with first production deliveries in 2015.

The aircraft are initially delivered in the manned configuration, and are converted to the unmanned configuration prior to live fire missions. The unmanned configuration is called a NULLO , which stands for Not Under Live Local Operation.

"The QF-16 risk reduction efforts culminated in estimated savings of $350 million through early integration and involvement," said Rick Ulrich, the 96th Range Control Group director. "We also provided more than 40 software drops throughout the contractor testing and developmental test and evaluation phases, fine-tuning control algorithms for takeoffs, maneuvers, and landings that led to the 'picture-perfect' unmanned flight Sept. 19."

The software developed by Eglin engineers met all expectations during the first unmanned QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target flight, according to Mac MacWilliam, operational test and evaluation pilot for the QF-16 test program.

"It was probably the best landing I've ever seen," he said. "GRDCS had a big in hand in making that happen."

Not every pilot gets to fly the new aerial target drone from the ground. Currently, only three of the 11 QF-4 pilots at Tyndall are trained to pilot an unmanned QF-16. It takes controllers six months to a year to train on using the system developed by GRDCS.

"It is more difficult to develop and control an unmanned combat fighter jet (as an aerial target drone) than most drones in the Air Force inventory." said Stebbins. "The fighter is a high-speed highly-maneuverable aircraft while most drones are primarily used for surveillance. These drones typically fly much slower with little maneuverability."

The QF-16 leverages current F-16 Fighting Falcon combat capabilities to provide a realistic threat to aid in their training and weapons effectiveness evaluations.

"A fourth generation threat represented target is the capability we need," said MacWilliam. "The maneuverability and sustaining energy are much better. We are back in the 21st century."

Pilots at the 82nd have been flying QF-4s since 1997.

The 53rd WEG expects QF-4 missions start phasing out in 2015 and their pilots to be trained to transition to QF-16s immediately following. Their unit at Holloman AFB will continue to fly QF-4s until fiscal year 2017.

The 53rd WEG is responsible for conducting the Air Force's Air-to-Air Weapons System Evaluation Program known as Combat Archer and the Air-to-Ground version known as Combat Hammer. For future Combat Archer exercises, the 82nd will use the QF-16 in the full scale aerial target role along with their BQM-167 in the Sub-Scale Aerial Target role.

According to Boeing, 98 retired F-16s are under contract to be converted. They will be equipped to fly and land multiple times in manned and unmanned configurations before their final missions against live weapons on a controlled range.

Courtesy of Team Eglin Public Affairs

Additional images:

USAF QF-16A block 15 #83-1110 Full Scale Aerial Target from the 82nd ATRS flies over the Gulf of Mexico during its first unmanned flight at Tyndall AFB on September 19th, 2013. [USAF photo by MSgt J. Scott Wilcox]