September 24th, 2013
03:25 PM ET

No pilot! No problem: Pentagon uses mothballed jets for UAV training

The Pentagon is spending billions on unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones” so it’s understandable if military pilots feel like an endangered species.

And now there’s a new reason for pilots to worry.

Instead of designing UAVs from the ground up, Boeing is taking old mothballed jets and tweaking them so they can fly without a pilot.

Last week at Tyndall AFB in Florida, a pilotless F-16, for the first time ever, roared into the sky with an empty cockpit, according to Boeing.

The QF-16 the pilotless jet didn’t just take off, turn around and land. It climbed to 40,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico, broke the sound barrier and performed maneuvers like barrel rolls at more than 7Gs.

“It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron.

Ryan’s unit will “fly” the QF-16 as a target to train live pilots who are learning how to engage enemy fighters. Those trainees will be able to shoot down the unmanned target jets, knowing there’s no one inside.

“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,” Ryan said.

You might think that shooting down an F-16 is a bit expensive for a target.

In 1998 dollars, an F-16 cost nearly $19 million. But this wasn’t a jet pulled out of service just to be shot down. It’s been mothballed in the Arizona desert for 15 years. All the planes that will be converted into pilotless fighter targets will come from the Air Force’s long-term storage.

Still some who have spent their lives flying the F-16 will miss the old “Fighting Falcon.”

“I love the F-16 and brag about it a lot,” said Jason Clements, a test pilot for Boeing. “Now to get something ready to take off on its own so somebody else can shoot it down makes it a little bittersweet.”

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Willie Wisenbaker

    March 4, 2021 at 10:49 am | Reply
  2. Italian Orlando

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    February 18, 2021 at 8:16 am | Reply
  3. Christinia Spinetti

    January 21, 2021 at 4:02 am | Reply
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    January 10, 2021 at 11:39 pm | Reply
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    December 20, 2020 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  7. Taylor

    Thanks for just about any other great post. %KW%

    November 8, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  8. Richard Walker

    The tyndal plane crash landed , causing all kinds of problems, haven't seen one in theairsince
    this seems to be a stretch the word drone

    October 20, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Reply

    The QF-16 wasn"t the first fighter to be "droned" or will it be the last.
    The F-106 Interceptor was converted in the 1980's by AEL at Bethalto Illinois, at the now named St. Louis Regional Airport.
    I worked as a Fire Control Tech. (32251) 1966 – 1970 at Duluth Air Force Base.
    There was a recent "All Troops" F-106 reunion at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio.
    Ah, memories, and the sound of a "Six" going burner is a sound that I will never forget!

    October 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  10. SayanIndia

    CNN has failed to interpret the twist in the “tale”.

    Boeing has converted a (rival) Lockheed Martin product (F-16 in this case, could be of Block 15/20 variant) for target practise.


    September 28, 2013 at 9:08 am | Reply
  11. cadet

    sucks for the pilots

    September 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  12. Khfdfg Frtyu

    The Word PARANOID is a doubt..

    September 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  13. Khfdfg Frtyu

    The Word CONTROLED is a plant dought...

    September 25, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  14. Khfdfg Frtyu

    The Word DELUTIONAL is a dougbt...

    September 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  15. Khfdfg Frtyu

    Granted the Navy yard shooter can not and did not and will not every be able to speak for himself through the Media because he is dead...yet the Narative continues and grows from the Gov. lable making machine...lables that the Gov. steals from others and applys to yet another target e.g. the would be American Citizen... my advice to others do not ever join the Military and do not ever work in Politics its a "dead end" at not quote me on that BIG BROTHER...

    September 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  16. Khfdfg Frtyu

    Navy Yard shooter continues too apear too be a complex fabrication based on a inside Job originating from the very top down...

    September 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  17. Pjhgctukl Hrthuktkl

    Drop your rocks & grab your crocks...

    September 25, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  18. jason

    they have been doing this for 30 years why is this news it is just using a new airframe.

    September 25, 2013 at 8:55 am | Reply
  19. Rthuk Ddfhkl


    September 24, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  20. Mike Marunchak

    This is not the innovation that people seem to think it is, and it's not news; other retired US fighter aircraft have been converted into drones over the years, and they have in fact been used for their stated purpose which is to give fighter pilots experience of firing live air-to-air missiles at actual aircraft, and to give operators of ground-based anti-aircraft missile systems similar training. The US military has been flying QF-4 drones (modified from the F-4 Phantom fighter) in this role for the past couple of decades. Previous to that it was the QF-102. It helps to know what you're talking about before breaking a sensational news story about something that's been going on quite openly for decades, as though it's something new..

    September 24, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  21. George patton

    Good, now we can kill more people than before! Hip, hip hurray of should I say, SIEG HEIL? At any rate, our tax money could be spent for far greater things like cancer research or finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease!!!

    September 24, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • Diana

      Couldn't agree more George

      September 26, 2013 at 10:33 am | Reply
  22. Sharpie

    Love the idea of rigging these planes for training and other uses, but seems like a major waste to then blow them to bits over the water I presume. Why waste the metal, parts, planes and tech rigged in the machine to fly it? As a farmer who saves most machines for future use and recycling, shouldnt we keep these old birds around. Never know what other good uses they could serve. Seems very wasteful.

    September 24, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
    • Portland tony

      These planes , for the most part, have reached or exceeded their planned operational lifespan. They are retired to the desert and are routinely cannibalized for parts that are not available ot too costly to manufacture in support of newer F-16's.

      September 24, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  23. J Fusco

    Reblogged this on From the Bridge Blog.

    September 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  24. asmail jeff

    finally he has arrived!! the precursor to UCAV – EDI (Extreme Deep Invader). This is the future of modern warfare..

    Pilots take note it will replace us all!!

    September 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  25. Al

    Soon it will be used over the continental US....

    September 24, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Reply

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