Boeing flies F-16 fighter, minus the pilot

Refurbished F-16 fighter jets take to the air without pilots in the cockpit to help the Air Force train for combat.

QF-16 unmanned plane
Look closely at the empty cockpit. US Air Force photo by Master Sergeant J. Scott Wilcox

Google may have a driverless car, but Boeing has a pilotless F-16 fighter jet. As a matter of fact, it has six of them.

Renamed the QF-16, the retired fighter jets were refurbished and turned into empty-seated drones to act as flying targets for US Air Force training exercises.

A test flight of one of the aircraft took place at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida last week. The flight involved an auto-take-off and auto-landing and an array of aerial maneuvers -- including a barrel roll while pulling 7 G's -- as the QF-16 soared to 40,000 feet and Mach 1.47. The plane was controlled by two Air Force test pilots on the ground.

"It was a little different to see an F-16 take off without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around," said Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.

The fighter jets will act as more realistic and modern targets than the older-generation QF-4 unmanned aircraft (formerly F-4 Phantoms) from the Vietnam era. Air Force pilots will have the opportunity to engage and fire upon the QF-16 fleet. Having targets capable of supersonic speeds and 9-G performance should help hone pilots for real-world combat missions.

 

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