New unmanned F-16 fighter jets take flight as drones

The F-16 is one of America’s premier fighter jets– used by the Air Force in operations from Desert Storm to Libya. Today we learn how the Fighting Falcon is being re-purposed — as a drone.


A pilot runs through his pre-flight checks on an F-16 jet fighter — then climbs out. The canopy comes down and the F-16 takes off without him.




It happened last week at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and although unmanned aircraft are everywhere these days, it still makes you do a double take.

 The F-16 is being flown by remote control from a ground station. It is able to perform all the maneuvers it could if a pilot were in the cockpit — climb to 40,000 feet, fly faster than the speed of sound, and turn so sharply the g forces could make you black out.

 No, this is not a faster, more agile hunter killer drone. It’s a faster more agile target for pilots to train against. The Air Force has been doing this for decades,

 But the current model target, a remotely piloted version of the Vietnam-era F-4, just doesn’t have the moves of a modern fighter aircraft.


Now pilots will start going up against the leaner, meaner F-16 in dog fights and occasionally even shoot one down, which is only sort of OK with Boeing test pilot Jason Clements.

 “I love the F-16 and brag about it a lot and now to get something ready to take off on its own so that somebody else can shoot it down makes it — makes it a little bittersweet in my eyes,” Clements said.

 So far Boeing has modified six F-16s to fly without a pilot but more will start arriving in 2015.


Boeing has announced that it has retrofitted a number of retired Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets with equipment enabling them to be flown remotely without a pilot. In conjunction with the US Air Force, the company recently flew one of these unmanned jets, performing combat maneuvers and a perfect center line landing.


One of the major advantages of not having a pilot on-board a jet fighter, is the ability to stress the plane to higher limits without fear of losing human life. During this flight however, the aircraft was only tested at 7Gs of acceleration even though an unmanned, fly-by-wire F-16 should be quite capable of performing maneuvers at 9Gs.

Boeing and the US Air Force revealed that the converted F-16s, re-designated as QF-16s, would be used in the training of pilots, providing drones for target practice and live fire tests. “Now we have a mission capable, highly sustainable full scale aerial target to take us into the future,” Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, is quoted as saying in a Boeing press release.

The US Air Force has been using jet fighters as target drones since the mid-1970s. Most recently, Phantom F-4s (QF-4) have been re-fitted for this purpose, however the number of F-4 airframes that are capable of being converted without excessive rework is declining. More importantly, the QF-4’s ability to represent the performance of a modern day fighter has decreased over the years. The QF-16 is its newly-designated replacement.