You may think that when a plane is retired by the Air Force, the Department of Defense is simply done with it. The only options from here are being sold second-hand, getting scrapped, becoming a museum installation, or getting lucky and becoming a civilian warbird. Well, there is another option – planes can continue to serve, but that service usually comes to a fiery end.
That's because old fighters make for useful target drones. These eight successful fighters all found use well after retirement.
1. F6F Hellcat
Over 11,000 F6F Hellcats were produced, so it's no surprise that this classic ended up doing target drone duty. In the late 1950s, Hellcats served as targets for the early versions of the AIM-9 Sidewinder. Today, the FAA shows only 11 registered Hellcats.
A F6F Hellcat meets its end at the hands of an AIM-9B Sidewinder missile in 1957, more than a decade after the end of World War II.
2. F-86 Sabre
The most famous plane of the Korean War didn't leave service when the Air National Guard retired its last F-86 in the 1970s. Instead, F-86s served as target drones in the 1990s — long after they dominated MiG Alley.
The QF-86 Sabre was still in service with the United States military in 1991 - four decades after F-86 Sabres blasted Commies out of the sky.
(U.S. Navy photo by PH2 Bruce Trombecky)
3. F-100 Super Sabre
The F-100 Super Sabre also saw years of post-retirement service as a target for missiles. The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile's deadliness was honed on QF-100 Super Sabres.
A F-16 Fighting Falcon takes down a QF-100 Super Sabre in a test of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.
4. F-102 Delta Dagger
Former President George W. Bush's 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.
The F-102 served as a target drone into the 1980s.
5. F-104 Starfighter
This plane didn't see much service with the United States, but was purchased in large numbers by American allies. The QF-104 extended the F-104's otherwise brief service with the United States military.
The Air Force bought less than 300 F-104s, but some became target drones.
6. F-106 Delta Dart
The F-106 Delta Dart succeeded the F-102 as an interceptor in the 1960s, so it seems natural the QF-106 would succeed the QF-102/PQM-102 force as targets. The Delta Dart's last mission as a target drone was in 1997.
The F-106 Delta Dart was replaced by the F-15 in the 1980s, but those that were turned into target drones came within a couple of years of serving into the 21st century.
7. F-4 Phantom
The F-4 was a workhorse for the United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps for decades. However, it also put in roughly two decades as a drone. It finally flew its last mission in 2016.
The QF-4 Phantom served for over two decades as an oversized clay pigeon for various missile tests.
(Wikimedia Commons photo by Jon Hurd)
8. F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-16 replaced some F-4s in active United States Air Force service – as well as in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. Now, the first QF-16 target drones are taking flight as targets for missile tests.
The QF-16 Fighting Falcon will be serving as a target drone for the foreseeable future.
(USAF photo by MSgt. J. Scott Wilcox)
The fighters that end up as target drones meet a noble end. Though they no longer fly missions in-theater, they ensure that the missiles used by American military personnel are reliable.