8 Aircraft That Were Recalled from Retirement As Drones

It is often rare that an aircraft is retired and disposed of with disregard to the resources, manpower, and flight hours that were spent on it. That is why storage facilities like the Boneyard in Arizona exist in the first place. Old fighters make for useful target drones.

The following eight chronologically-listed fighters found good use even after retirement.

A left side view of a QF-86F target drone aircraft of the Pacific Missile Test Center parked on the flight line

F6F Hellcat

Around 12,272 F6F Hellcats were produced from 1942 to 1945. This later allowed a large pool of this classic aircraft to be used in target drone duty. In the late 1950s, Hellcats served as targets for the early versions of the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. At present, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shows only 11 registered Hellcats.

F-86 Sabre

The Air National Guard retired its last F-86 in the 1970s. The journey of the famous nemesis of the MiG-15s during the Korean War didn’t end there though. Instead, F-86s served as target drones in the 1990s long after they dominated MiG Alley.

Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, leads a three-ship F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War in 1954

F-100 Super Sabre

The F-100 Super Sabre descendant of the F-86 also saw years of post-retirement service as a target for air-air missiles. The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) deadliness was honed on QF-100 Super Sabres.

F-100F Super Sabre
F-100F Super Sabre. Photo by wallycacsabre

F-102 Delta Dagger

This old steed saw some service as a target drone for a decade after its retirement. The last of the QF-102/PQM-102s were shot down in 1986 during training.

F-102A Delta Dagger
F-102A Delta Dagger. Photo from bertknot

F-104 Starfighter

Much like the MiG-25 to the Soviets, the F-104 didn’t see much service with the United States. It was, however, purchased in large numbers by US allies. The QF-104 extended the F-104’s otherwise brief service with the United States military by being target practice.

F-104 Starfighter
F-104 Starfighter. Photo by Alan Wilson

F-106 Delta Dart

The F-106 Delta Dart succeeded the F-102 as an interceptor in the 1960s, in the same way, the QF-106 would pass on the QF-102/PQM-102 force as targets. The Delta Dart’s final mission was as a target drone in 1997.

F-106A Delta Dart
F-106A Delta Dart. Photo by Staff Sgt. John K. McDowell

F-4 Phantom

The F-4 was a workhorse for the United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps for decades. However, it also lasted almost twenty years as a drone with its final mission had been in 2016.

An air-to-air right side view of a QF-4B Phantom II director aircraft carrying an AQM-37 air-launched target drone over the Pacific Missile Test Center range

F-16 Fighting Falcon

The F-16 replaced the F-4s still active in the United States Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve. The first QF-16 target drones are currently taking flight as targets for missile tests.

Better to meet their end serving their purpose than decaying in a field somewhere, fighters that end up as target drones do meet a noble end. Even though they no longer fly missions in-theatre, they still ensure that newer missiles developed for the US military are dependable.

The awesome F-16