Air Force Academy cadets are designing what could end up being the service’s next stealthy jet. Yup, you read that correctly. Cadets are working on a twin engine, stealthy target drone meant to serve as live-fire targets for F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots.
While the service is already replacing its ancient QF-4 Phantoms with 1980s-vintage QF-16 Fighting Falcon drones, these unmanned “legacy” fighters don’t pose much of a challenge to fifth-gen fighter jocks. So, cadets are busy designing a cheap but stealthy target drone that could replace the QF-16s.
The 40-foot long plane would have stealthy angles designed to scatter radar beams but would use old GE J85 turbojet engines taken from retired T-38 Talon trainer jets as a way to keep costs down to about $3.5 million a pop, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette. (Hey, the drones are already doomed so why not put old engines on them.) One of the coolest things about the program is the fact that cadets are using a 3D printer to pump out models of the the plane
From the Gazette:
The printer fires a laser into a slurry of plastic resins, building objects microns at a time by hardening tiny amounts of the material. In a few hours, a 1/24th scale model of the plane suitable for use in the wind tunnel emerges, saving days or weeks of construction time.
The plastic models and a larger wooden model have been tested at the academy and at the aeronautics school at the University of Washington in Seattle.
After a series of refinements, data show the plane is almost ready for take off.
The project began about eight years ago when the service asked the Air Force Academy and other design teams to come up with a target drone that would pose a more realistic challenge to fifth-gen fighter pilots. Almost a decade later, only the academy and one other team remain in the competition and the Air Force may declare a winner later this year, according to the Gazette. After that, the design will be sent to an aircraft manufacturer to be put into production.
If only designing combat jets was this easy. Heck, considering the fact that it’s meant to be expendable and won’t need a ton of battlefield sensors built into it this drone may well beat any of the other stealthy jets — like the next-gen bomber or UAVs — that the Air Force is planning on buying into service.