Look Ma! No Pilot!

An unmanned F-16 takes to the skies…for target practice

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Staff Sergeant Javier Cruz / Air Force photo

The first flight of an unmanned F-16 over the Gulf of Mexico.

The F-16 has been the backbone of the U.S. Air Force’s fighter fleet for 30 years. It has also been flown by some two dozen other nations, ranging from Bahrain to Venezuela. Its assorted models, beginning with the F-16A, have flown through the alphabet to reach the F-16V (no, they didn’t use every letter).

The nearly 5,000 F-16s built — and millions of hours flown — have all shared something fundamental: since its maiden flight Dec. 8, 1976, there has always been a pilot planted in the F-16’s cockpit, his or her right hand firmly on the side-stick controller.

Until Sept. 19, that is.

After nearly 40 years of manned flight, an F-16 took off sans human from Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base last Thursday.

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Boeing photo

A view inside the F-16 cockpit during its first unmanned flight. A second F-16, complete with pilot, is to the left, serving as a chase plane to monitor the historic flight.

“It was a little different to see an F-16 take off without anyone in it,” Air Force Lieut. Colonel Ryan Inman said in an understatement released Monday. “But it was a great flight all the way around.” The zombie F-16 not only took off, but flew a series of maneuvers, pulling 7Gs as it made its way to 40,000 feet. It broke the sound barrier at Mach 1.47 before landing — on its own, of course — after a 55-minute sortie.

A pair of Air Force test pilots controlled the F-16 from a ground-control station.

General Dynamics was the first builder of the F-16 Viper (pilot nickname), at Air Force Plant No. 4 in Fort Worth, Tex. It sold its aircraft business to Lockheed Martin in 1993, which has been manufacturing the Fighting Falcon (official, government-approved nickname, which no one uses) for the past 20 years.

But the press release hailing this latest F-16 advance didn’t come from Lockmart. It was issued instead by Boeing, which won a $70 million Pentagon contract in 2010 to convert six early-model F-16s to QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Targets. Follow-on contracts are expected for up to 120 additional planes.

“The QF-16 full-scale aerial targets will be used to test newly developed weapons and train pilots for the rapidly changing nature of warfare in a safe and controlled environment,” Boeing has said.

Adds Inman, commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron: “Now we have a mission capable, highly-sustainable, full-scale aerial target to take us into the future.”

Boeing has noted that its QF-16 will replace the QF-4, modified Vietnam-era Phantom fighters that “will be depleted from inventory by 2015” — because many of them will have been blown to smithereens, as in this video:

“We shoot live missiles at it,” Air Force Lieut. Colonel Ron Miller says of the QF-4 in the video. “Talk about cradle-to-grave value out of an airplane, in terms of taxpayers’ dollars, I mean right up to the very end, this airplane is providing payback…as I kind of say sometimes, it’s going out in a blaze of glory.”

Many U.S. warplanes end up in storage at the Davis-Monthan Air Force base boneyard. It’s a safe bet that most of the QF-16s, rather than retiring to Arizona’s perpetual blue skies and warm weather, embrace Neil Young’s adage that “it’s better to burn out, than to fade away.”

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TSGT CARY HUMPHRIES / Air Force photo

Retired Air Force aircraft parked at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

6 comments
aConservative
aConservative

It won't be long before the manned aircraft can't stand a chance against an automated fighter.

Probably 10 years and everything will be automated.

Bye bye pilot............

fitty_three
fitty_three

Isn't this a blog about the GOP?

I could have sworn by the title that it was.

Sorry!

cent-fan
cent-fan

I'm all for drone planes in any form.  It will be a long time, if ever, that a robot plane will be allowed to fire on its own "initiative", if only because AI is relatively stupid in a non-controlled environment and not a particular advantage as far as an "edge" given the crazy mistakes that can happen.  Even if you look at it coldly the tactical advantage of taking humans out of the decision (flying, firing) loop doesn't make sense.

What is an advantage is not having a pilot in direct risk, not having to worry about human G-force limitations, not having to carry oxygen, not having to carry an ejection seat or survival kit, not having to worry about air/sea rescue or a POW, not having to worry about "rogue" pilot actions (much), not having to have on-board ergonomics, and a pile of other baggage that humans need that a remotely piloted plane doesn't need.  The modern pilot has all the information he can handle on the screen in Virginia.  Looking out the canopy with his own eyes tells him nothing at 45,000 feet.

I'd say the only big problem is communication.  If satellites can be destroyed, radio signals can be jammed, or computer controlled signals can be hacked then there is a vulnerability that perhaps a pilot in a self-contained machine can mitigate.

anon76
anon76

That picture at the bottom of the article is a testament to the absurdity of the MIC.  I can't believe that nobody can come up with a better use of those warplanes than "Let's drone-pilot them and then blow them up with live ammo".

cent-fan
cent-fan

@anon76   Some of these planes are 40+ years old.  They have no economical use even if they can fly except to be used as a relatively cheap moving object that a new missile can find and blow up.  Building a special drone to act as a target would cost a fortune and probably the cost of breaking the old stuff apart and salvaging the metal is far more expensive in the scheme of things then the risk of building very (very) expensive weapons systems that nobody can be certain actually work.

In WWII we went to war with torpedoes in our submarines and planes that had layers of problems that no one really looked at until the war had been going for a couple of years.  The torpedoes were never tested in live fire exercises because they "cost too much to expend".  In the end, given duds and missed opportunities, some figure the war went for another year longer because Japan could have been cutoff through lost shipping much sooner.

Anyway, my take given that wars and weapons will be with us as long as human nature exists.