Look Ma! No Pilot!

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 2.07.08 PM

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.”



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