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Boeing converts F-16 fighter jet into an unmanned drone

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September 27, 2013

Unmanned F-16 fighter jet going through combat maneuvers in the Gulf of Mexico

Unmanned F-16 fighter jet going through combat maneuvers in the Gulf of Mexico

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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.

The converted F-16, one of many that had been "mothballed" for 15 years at a site in Arizona, was controlled remotely by two US Air Force pilots located at a ground control facility. During the test flight, the plane cruised at 40,000 ft (12,200 m) and reached speeds of Mach 1.47. It then performed a series of maneuvers, including barrel rolls and a "split S" (where the pilot rolls his aircraft upside down and flies a descending half-loop, achieving level flight in the opposite direction at a lower altitude).

The unmanned jet took off from a base in Florida and flew to the Gulf of Mexico, and was trailed at all times by two chase planes monitoring its course. "It flew great, everything worked great, [it] made a beautiful landing – probably one of the best landings I've ever seen," said the project's chief engineer Paul Cejas. Should the need have arisen however, the F-16 was equipped with a ground-operated self-destruct mechanism.

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.

Boeing now has six modified QF-16s and plans an initial low-rate production schedule beginning fourth quarter of this year, for delivery in 2015.

The video below shows the QF-16 unmanned flight, combat maneuvers and landing.

Source: Boeing

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10 Comments

Before they used drone F-4 Phantoms, they burned through a large amount of the surviving F-86 Sabers.

Gregg Eshelman

Nice! Just when quad copters were getting boring, along comes something new. Uh, you forgot to include price and availability:)

MBadgero

It's the resourceful way to go in our times of economic turbulence.

I suspect as well that removing the human limitation will make these old machines a nasty piece of kit to skirmish against, even if the human opponent is in a new euro fighter. To put it simply, they now have the luxury of filling the pilot's cabin with an array of toys to level the playing field.

Best of all, the airframe is proven, well understood and very maintainable.

Nairda

What would go through a pilot`s mind when he finds himself in a dogfight that he cannot win?

Defeat a computer and you have not beaten anyone.

And if it wins, it kills you and it can could not even care less.

John Abrams

Cannon(missle) fodder next time we have to fight someone with a real air defense system

Richard D. McDowell

Think Autopilot, becomes Pilot In Command, ... With a swarm mentality that truly knows NO FEAR!

CaptD

It seems you all have missed the point, this is not for combat purposes. As the article mentions, this has been done for over 50 years. The purpose is training pilots against live targets. Previously, they were using F4 Phantoms, but real world performance has made them obsolete. The military needed a more up to date target drone for training.

John Waller

Privitize when decomm, microsize drone avionics & give Fee rides alone, Be awesome

& retro fit drone gear to F15, F14, etc planes too even Mig 29

Radical experience, right.

Stephen Russell

While I agree the stated intention is to use these as training aids, the fact remains that the F16 remains a potent combat aircraft, and it would be silly not to consider the combat effectiveness of a squadron of QF16s...

Who needs stealth when you can out-manoeuvre a manned fighter in a fighter drone made from mothballed "obsolete" or end of life airframes.

Ian McIntosh

Does anyone have a list of former fighters, bombers and trainers that were converted into target drones? So far I've only been able to find these ten:

QB-17 (former bomber, in use until the 1960s)

QT-33 (former training aircraft)

QF-80 (former fighter aircraft)

QB-47E (former bomber)

QF-100 (former fighter, used as a target drone 1981-1992)

QF-102s (former fighter, used as a target drone 1973-1986)

QF-104A (former fighter, used as a target drone until 1972)

QF-106 (former fighter, used as a target drone 1990-1998)

QF-4 (former fighter, a total of 238 aircraft being converted)

QF-16 (2013-)

I see Gregg Eshelman says in one of these posts that F-86s were also converted into target drones. Does anyone have a citation for this?

Thanks to anyone who can add to this list.

Also, does anyone know what the per plane conversion cost is for the F-16? Given the way Big Government throws away money these days, I wouldn't be surprised if it's more than what it cost to buy the aircraft in the first place (not adding inflation though).

Michael Geronime
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