Davis-Monthan AFB turning F-16 fighter jets into drones
F-16 Fighting Falcons sit in a field along Miami St. at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group boneyard, Thursday, May 21, 2015, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. (Source: Matt York, AP)
The F-16 Fighting Falcons are the front-line fighters of the Air Force, but they were first brought into service in the mid-1970s. (Source: CBS 5 News)
F-16 Fighting Falcons covered in sealing paint sit in a field along Miami St. at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., on Thursday, May 21, 2015. (Source: Matt York, AP)
The 'Boneyard' at Davis Monthan Air Force Base (Source: Davis-Monthan Air Force base)
TUCSON, AZ (CBS5) -
The perfectly symmetrical lines of planes stretch out for at least a half mile in all directions. Welcome to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, also known as the "Boneyard" at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It's home to 4,000 mothballed military aircraft. Fifteen hundred of them are capable of being called back into flight-ready condition if need be.
"As the nation's wars rise and fall, we have to have somewhere to either send aircraft out to when they need them, or store them when they don't need as many. This is where all that happens," said Tim Gray, who is the director of AMARG.
One of the newest missions for the technicians who work here involves the F-16 Fighting Falcons. They are the front-line fighters of the Air Force, but they were first brought into service in the mid-1970s. They are an aging fleet. Four hundred of them are stored at AMARG, but the Pentagon has ordered Gray to restore 210 F-16s to flying condition.
"You can imagine, they've been in storage for 10 to 15 years and it's quite a task to get them out and inspect them and try to get them flying in 84 days," said Gray.
The mission will take eight to 10 years to complete.
"Many will have some maintenance problems that we will have to get past," said Leroy Sykes, who is the director of the 576th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Squadron. Sykes worked on many of these very planes when he was in the military, and as a civilian employee afterward.
So the new mission is bittersweet for him. This is the first step in turning these Fighting Falcons into flying targets. They are set to become drones, to be used to help train new pilots in the fighters that will replace the F-16.
"It does get emotional for me. But the end mission is the most important thing and the purpose they will serve for our national defense," said Sykes.
From here, the jets will head to Florida, where technicians from Boeing will add the drone packages, which will allow pilots to fly the jets remotely. They will still get about 300 hours more of piloted flight. But once their manned missions are over, they will fly over the ocean somewhere, and become targets for new F-22 or F-35 pilots.
"In some ways, it's sad to think they're going to fly and then be shot down. But the thing that's rewarding is to think that they can either go out and have parts picked off of them until they're out in a shredder, or literally go out in a blaze of glory and their last mission could be to train pilots to take on our foreign adversaries," said Gray.
But there is one more potential future mission for these jets, and it has an even more heroic ring to it. The Department of Defense is pursuing technology that would allow drones to accompany F-35s into combat. The jet that has been mentioned the most for that mission is the F-16. It's called the Loyal Wingman Initiative, and it could send F-16 drones into combat with the latest generation of piloted fighter jets within just a couple of years.