An F-16 took off from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., on Sept. 19 without a pilot in the cockpit.
You read that right. The first QF-16 drone flew over Florida last Thursday as a part of a program led by Boeing to convert retired F-16s into QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Targets for U.S. pilots to shoot down.
The pilotless F-16 took off and flew a 55-minute sortie as it executed maneuvers pulling up to 7G's, reaching an altitude of 40,000 feet, and breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.47.
“It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, in a release following the flight.
U.S. pilots had used retired F-4 Phantoms as shooting targets, but the Air Force is running out of Phantoms. The Air Force decided to dip into it's large fleet of retired F-16s to replace the Phantom. Lockheed Martin has built well over 5,000 F-16s since the fourth generation fighter's first flight in 1976.
It's not Lockheed Martin who won the $70 million contract in 2010 to covert six F-16s into drones. Boeing did and will likely reap the follow on contracts to retrofit over 100 more of these QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Targets.
Beoing will take the retired F-16s from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base boneyard where the Air Force sends most of its retired aircraft. The Air Force fires armed missiles at these full scale models to test out new munitions and train pilots.
“It’s a replication of current, real world situations and aircraft platforms they can shoot as a target. Now we have a 9G capable, highly sustainable aerial target," Inman said in the statement.
When Boeing first received this contract, and since unmanned aircraft have received quite a bit of notoriety over the past decade, defense analysts have wondered aloud if the Air Force should consider turning more current aircraft into drones for combat missions.
Air Force leaders have said the service can't depend on drones like the Predator or Reaper in a contested airspace for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that ground commanders have depended on in Iraq and Afghanistan. While an F-16 doesn't have the same loiter capabilities, it stands less of a chance of getting shot down by basic surface-to-air missile systems.
Defense leaders will pay close attention to see how the retrofitted F-16s perform and the technology to take pilots out of cockpits continues to advance.