A QF-16 aerial target is displayed at a Boeing ceremony at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla. Boeing says its work on the QF-16 program positions the company to compete for other F-16 sustainment and upgrade programs. (Marcus Weisgerber / Staff)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Boeing sees its work turning F-16 fighters into pilotless target drones as an avenue to boost its presence in the United States and international Falcon support and upgrade market.
Company officials see global F-16 upgrades being a billion-dollar business, particularly as the U.S. Air Force prepares to extend the life and upgrade more than 300 jets in the coming years.
The move shows one way the company is looking to diversify their support business beyond Boeing-built aircraft, particularly as military budgets shrink and fewer fighter procurement programs are on the horizon.
“We’re taking a look at the install base of airplanes that are out there,” Tony Parasida, the president of Boeing’s Global Services and Support business, said during an Aug. 29 meeting with reporters in St. Louis.
The F-16, which was built by General Dynamics and now Lockheed Martin, is at the forefront of planes Boeing wants to support. Boeing officials say the company’s recent work modifying F-16s into pilotless flying targets helps position it well for other types of work on the aircraft.
“We are confident with our experience on these aircraft, with all the different configurations we’ve gone through, that obviously our capability today [to perform work on the F-16] is considerably greater than it was a couple of years ago,” Torbjorn Sjogren, vice president of global maintenance and upgrades, said during an Aug. 31 briefing with reporters here.
Boeing held a ceremony at its facility in Cecil Field in Jacksonville this week to celebrate a number of QF-16 program milestones. To make the F-16 unmanned, Boeing installs new electronic control equipment on the aircraft, which had been retired from active service. BAE Systems also works on the program.
“The elbow grease is actually going on on the engineering side,” Sjogren said. “The engineering piece of this is very, very rich [and] very extensive.”
Six QF-16s, part of a pre-engineering and manufacturing development program, are of various configurations, meaning the modifications to make the aircraft pilotless might be different.
The Air Force currently flies unmanned F-4 Phantoms as full-scale aerial targets. The newer QF-16 will better replicate modern day threats. The QF-16s will use the existing ground systems used by the QF-4 targets.
Boeing is using backscatter X-ray technology to assess each aircraft.
The company plans to deliver the six QF-16s to Tyndall Air Force Base on Florida’s panhandle by the end of the year.
The aircraft, which have been in flight testing since June, have yet to fly without a pilot. Testers are getting “awfully close” to remote-controlled operations, Sjogren said.
Boeing officials say the company is growing its capabilities to support non-Boeing aircraft.
The U.S. military plan to purchase 2,443 Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighters — which will replace the F-16 and other military aircraft — however that program has experienced years of delays due to development issues, prompting the Air Force to upgrade and extend the lives of its F-16s.
“If we can provide an affordable life-extension program, and increase in some cases the missions of an aircraft, clearly that is an attractive option,” Sjogren said. “We are able on a number of platforms to do that. Our latest efforts on the QF-16 clearly provide us a platform with which to go broader.”
More than 4,500 F-16s have been built since the 1970s and more than 20 countries fly the aircraft.
“The largest install base of airplanes out there in the world is F-16s,” Parasida said. “We’re really thinking hard about F-16 support. Now that we’ve done a fair amount on the QF-16, we’re learning our way here. There are going to be [service life extension program] opportunities and mission systems upgrades opportunities around the world.”
Boeing already supports and upgrades several aircraft it did not build, including the C-130 cargo plane and A-10 attack jet.
“We’ve had a lot of lessons learned,” Parasida said. “Some of them have been really good lessons learned, some of them have been working through challenges.”
Boeing is the largest shareholder of the Saudi Arabian-based Alsalam Aircraft Co., which already does maintenance and repair work on C-130s.
In the United States, the company has installed new cockpits on legacy Lockheed C-130s. It also performs upgrades on the Fairchild Republic A-10 and holds a $2 billion contract to replace wings on 242 aircraft. Boeing also supports the T-38 jet trainer.
But Boeing’s performance on these programs has been mixed. On both the C-130 cockpit upgrade and A-10 wing programs, unforeseen problems led to schedule delays, however over time, performance improved.
The first rewinged A-10 flew for the first time in November 2011, nearly a year behind schedule.
The company, which has partnered on the effort with Korean Aerospace Industries, now delivers about two wings per month and is back on track, Sjogren said “We’re getting really up on rate in terms of our production,” he said. “We did have challenges. We are now ahead of schedule.”
Boeing had trouble with the first set of wings, which Sjogren called a “pretty challenging effort.”
Boeing provided transportation for reporters to Jacksonville and St. Louis.