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.”

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  68. Richard Walker

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  69. JIM McFALL

    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.
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  70. SayanIndia

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  80. Mike Marunchak

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    September 24, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  81. 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
  82. 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
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    September 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  84. asmail jeff

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

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

    September 24, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Reply

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