QF-106 Drone 'Pacer Six Program' 1990-1998

Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT)

White Sands Missile Range and Holloman AFB, NM and Tyndall AFB, FL

A USAF F-106 Delta Dart cruises in level flight.  Unobserved, another USAF aircraft falls in trail behind the Dart and fires an air-to-air missile at it.  The F-106 performs an aggressive slice in hopes of evading the missile, releasing countermeasures all the while.  But it's no use - tracking unerringly, the missile cuts the F-106 in half.  Debris rains from the resulting fireball, but there are no parachutes.  Why is one US fighter being shot down by another?  This is a typical day for the 82 Aerial Target Squadron (ATRS).  The 82nd flew the USAF's last active-duty Delta Darts as Full-Scale Aerial Targets (FSATs) for weapons tests.

Under United States law (Title 10, Section 2366 of the U.S. Code) a missile system must undergo lethality testing before it can enter full-scale production.  This means it must be fired at a combat-configured target, which for air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles is a full-size, fully capable aircraft. The cost and hazards of using a manned aircraft from the active-duty inventory for this purpose are obvious.  Instead, the target is an unmanned FSAT drone.  Our beloved Darts died to give birth to new weapons systems.

The "Q" prefix in QF-106 signifies a drone conversion.  In 1986, a contract was awarded to Flight Systems Inc., later Honeywell, as the prime conractor to modify 194 surplus Delta Darts stored at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona to QF-106A target drone configuration. This program came to be known as Pacer Six, and the first flight of a converted drone took place in July of 1987.  Following the completion of an initial batch of ten QF-106s in 1990 (the QF-106 Pacer Six program ran from 1990-1998), most of the work was transferred to the USAF itself. Much of the conversion work was done before the aircraft were removed from storage at AMARC, with further work being carried out at East Alton, Illinois by a sub contractor AEL Industries, American Electronic Laboratories (years later boguth out by Tracor.

The QF-106s began operating as a Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) in late 1991 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and later at the Eglin Gulf Test Range in Florida, based at Holloman and Tyndall. A typical mission would employ the QF-106 as a target for an infrared homing missile. The aircraft had burners placed on pylons underneath the wings to act as IR sources for heat-seeking missiles, but it must be admitted that no real enemy would be so accommodating as to add these burners to make their planes better targets. However, the intention of the program was for the QF-106 to survive repeated engagements with air-to-air missiles, to make it possible for each QF-106 to last as long as possible before it was destroyed. The last shoot down of a QF-106 (57-2524) took place at Holloman AFB on February 20, 1997.

The QF-106 was replaced by QF-4 Phantom drones, which will eventually be replaced by something else.  Almost 2/3, approx 199 aircraft, of all the Sixes produced were converted to QF-106 Aerial Target Drones under the 'Pacer Six' Program, most expended by the 82 ATRS at Tyndall AFB (Florida).  In the course of active operations QF106 drone ops, which extended to January of 1998, there were several flyable survivors which were able to return to AMARC for storage.

Last Surviving Six's "Swamp Things" The Final Chapter of the QF-106 Drones By CMSgt (Ret) Dick Lewis

There were also a few non-flying airframes left on the Tyndall ramp at the end of the 'Pacer Six' Program (7 aircraft), as well, and originally they were parked in that part of the Tyndall AFB ramp known as the 'Swamp', although in unflyable condition.

Purchase of these remaining airframes was subsequently negotiated by a private aviation enterprise based in Texas (David Tokoff's GRECO-AIR in El Paso) and a tentative deal was struck with DRMS to sell the aircraft for purposes of restoring them as non-flying, museum-display grade aircraft.  One of these aircraft was reportedly ear-marked for restoration as a fully operational flying specimen, although it appears that perhaps two of them may have been fully restored at this time for flight (including a two-seat B model); however, due to the fact that stringent 'de-mil' requirements for combat aircraft require cutting the airframe structural members to render them incapable of further flight applications, this stalled the whole purchase package for some time.

In Mar 2004 the non-flying survivors had all been trucked from the Tyndall ramp and shipped to GRECO-AIR's El Paso base of operations, where most of them awaited restoration. Since then, and as recent as Nov 2013, the "El Paso Birds" as most refer to them now are in the private hands of WESTERNAIR Inc. and are in the process of being sold.

MORE about the El Paso Birds here

More on the "Swamp Things" By CMSgt (Ret) Dick Lewis

In the spring of 1998, the last of the flyable QF-106's departed Tyndall AFB for their final destinations. Aircraft 59-0158, 59-0043 and 58-0774 flew to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, while 59-0023 flew to the museum at Dover AFB.  Left behind, were seven QF-106's, not in flyable condition, and relegated to the backline storage area known as "The Swamp."

In early 1999, an unnamed party contracted to remove the Swamper's and truck them to El Paso, TX, purportedly for air-museum displays. After three aircraft were prepared for transportation, work was halted due to a contract dispute. The aircraft were secured from wind and weather damage, the tools and equipment were put in storage and the work crew disbanded. Here's the list of those seven:

Tail # w/Link

57-2509 (B)
57-2517 (B)
57-2543 (B)
57-2545 (B)
58-0786 (A)
59-0047 (A)
59-0105 (A)
Last Unit

159th FIS
186th FIS
5th FIS
159th FIS
119th FIS
5th FIS

Ground Fire Damage
Crash Damage
Nose Gear Damage
Cracked Intake Duct
Cracked Wing Spar
Cracked Wing Spar
Cracked Wing Spar
From the Pilot Himself,Col Robert "Buzz Sawyer, 3 July 1999

On 21 March 97, Jim Fairhurst (one of my LM pilots) ferried AD256 (57-2517) to Tyndall, as we were sending all our 106s East, making room for our QF-4s. When he landed, his right brake was locked, and with just about 100 hours total QF-106 time, he couldn't keep it on the runway.  She hit the barrier housing and broke off the right gear, and spun around, almost flipping over on her back.  The other two gear collapsed, the nose was broken off (which threw the battery out of the jet), and he had to be cut out of the cockpit. The aftermath is attached.
   After being grounded and scrutinized by an accident board, our MC-11 maintenance was suspect, and we went through a big thrash replacing the air "dryers".  Well on 14 March 97, I flew AD199 to Tyndall, and my left brake was locked when I landed!  It felt like I rolled over a BAK-12 cable as I touched down (my tire blowing) and the jet started drifting left.  Tower says I have smoke coming from my left wheel, I appear to have blown a tire.
   My hands are full as I'm about to go off into the grass on the left side of the runway, as the tower now says my left wheel has caught fire.  Great! Well, with full forward and right stick, nosewheel steering hard right, and a little right brake, I got the plane parallel to the runway, and starting to correct back to the right a little.  I still thought I just had a blown tire, and was planning to turn off, when the jet just stopped.  I couldn't taxi any further, so I opened the canopy and looked out (getting ready to jump over the side if I was on fire) and saw my wheel was ground off almost to the hub.
   Well, I left it on the runway and got a ride back into ops with the WEG commander.  Having seen what happened to 256 three weeks earlier, he says, "nice job keeping it on the runway."  Thanks.  That was it.   My boss didn't even put me in for a $$ award!
   So, the next day I left her on the ramp, impounded.  At least they had the plane to intact to investigate, unlike AD256.  That was the last I saw her. I don't know whether it was shot down, or was one of the lucky ones that went back to AMARC.  I suspect she sleeps with the fishes, as it was a good flying drone. Buzz

QF-106 Delta Dart Mission Report Apr 1999 []