Yesterday, a story concerning a US Airways CRJ-200's near miss with a mystery drone while on approach to Tallahassee Regional Airport made big news. The aircrew stated that the aircraft looked like a small unmanned F-4 Phantom wearing camouflage paint. The event occurred at around 2,300 feet.
Some very elaborate radio controlled jet aircraft exist, even highly detailed turbine powered scale replicas of the F-4 Phantom as you can see in the video above.
Yet 2,300 feet is very high up for one of these toys, worth thousands of dollars, to be operating at, and guidance is not exactly accurate once a small aircraft like this is so far out of sight of its radio control operator. It is possible that such an elaborate model could have been outfitted with a front facing camera and a line-of-sight video link for enhanced control, but what would be the purpose of flying at that altitude beyond a nefarious one?
There is no doubt that remote controlled aircraft and even more utilitarian hobby "drones" have and will be used by bad guys to do bad things.
But trying to fly an RC model into a jet airliner's flight path at over 2,000 feet is not really a relevant evil plan as the chances of success are quite low. Still, if a model plane made contact with a CRJ sized jet while it was on approach the effects could be quite deadly.
What I find interesting about this story, and what nobody in the mainstream press has pointed out (surprise surprise!) is that Tallahassee Regional Airport is just 75 miles east of one of just a handful of sites in the US where the DoD operates Full Scale Aerial Targets (FSATS). The vast majority of these drones and optionally manned aircraft are of old F-4 Phantom stocks, known as QF-4s after being pulled from the boneyard and converted by BAe at their depot in Mojave CA.
The QF-4s are used as experimental and training aerial targets for America's weapons development apparatus, and they test everything from new missile systems to infrared countermeasures. Additionally, the QF-4s support live-fire training exercises for front line units such as Combat Archer training events.
The majority of the time, missiles fired at QF-4s in testing pass within just feet of these aircraft, which would register as a kill if the missile had been equipped with a warhead. This allows the drone to be returned to base and flown again for additionally testing flights. The service that the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron and its FSAT program provides is essential in keeping America's edge when it comes to air combat in the 21st century. You can see below how these jets are tested, and destroyed in some cases:
Some of the QF-4 jets are flown by pilots for hundreds of hours before their time is up and they are used for full scale destructive testing. These "optionally manned" QF-4s have appeared at air shows around the US for decades, especially with the USAF's Heritage Flight program. The QF-4s are just now beginning to be replenished as they are replaced by the new QF-16.
The QF-4s, and soon the QF-16s, operate from an auxiliary airstrip just to the east of Tyndall AFB, which is located just 75 miles from Tallahassee Regional Airport. From here, takeoffs and landings are remotely controlled with a fairly rudimentary system that has been effective for years, although mishaps have occurred, one at as recently as July of last year at Tyndall AFB and another just last February of this year at the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron detachment at Holloman AFB in New Mexico.
When QF-4s head out on unmanned tests they are equipped with a self destruct charge should they go astray. Yet one has to wonder about this particular event, could a QF-4 have gone astray during departure or takeoff and this remote charge was either not functional or the operators did not want to toggle it over a populated area?
What is more interesting is that the QF-4 program does have some of their F-4s painted in "historic" Vietnam green camouflage and these aircraft are now reaching the end of their extended service lives and can be seen sitting on the ramp at Tyndall AFB awaiting their final flights.
Although the US Airways pilots reported the aircraft as being small in size, seeing a camouflaged F-4 zoom by without a pilot inside, especially at altitude where scale can be deceiving, does not totally discount the possibility that it could have been a QF-4. This is especially relevant considering there are very few Phantoms plowing the skies these days for commercial airline pilots to become accustomed to seeing. Additionally, the F-4 can appear much larger in photos and videos as it does it real life. It is not a "flying tennis court" like the F-15, and head-on it actually has a fairly small profile.
The mystery aircraft involved in this event could very well have been some elaborate radio controlled model aircraft that went wildly astray or was being hazardously operated. On the other hand, maybe it was being used as a weapon instead of a toy. Yet the fact there there are throngs of unmanned F-4s, some of them still wearing Vietnam era camouflage, based fairly close by seems oddly coincidental.