Aircraft manufacturer Boeing and the US Air Force have completed the first ever unmanned flight of a former combat F-16 fighter jet.
The successful flight of the adapted F-16, called the QF-16, took place on Sept. 19 when the pilotless aircraft took off from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The QF-16 is a supersonic reusable full-scale aerial target modified from a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. Control systems for remote operation from the ground have replaced the gun on this former combat F-16.
Before take-off all appeared normal as a human pilot conducted pre-flight checks in the cockpit. But, with the aircraft’s jet engine running, the pre-flight pilot left the F-16’s cockpit as control of the aircraft passed to two remote USAF pilots elsewhere on the ground.
The remote pilots then executed a flawless take-off and the aircraft headed out over the Gulf of Mexico to be put through its paces. These included a series of simulated manoeuvres, part of the flight at supersonic speeds and finally a pilotless landing back at base.
Commenting on Boeing’s website, Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron said, “It was a little different to see an F-16 take off without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around. Now we have a mission capable, highly sustainable full scale aerial target to take us into the future.”
The inaugural flight of the QF-16 was the first stage of operational evaluation of what will ultimately be an initial squadron of six pilotless aircraft. USAF, along with the US Navy and Army, will use these for weapons testing and other training.
The $70 million Department of Defense contract to convert early-generation F-16 jets into full-scale aerial targets will see production of the adapted fighters commence in the fourth quarter of this year with the first delivery to the armed forces scheduled for 2015, reports Aviation Today.
According to USAF, the QF-16 is designed to replace the aging QF-4 as an aerial target. Commenting on the upgraded target craft, Lt. Col. Ryan Inman said, "The QF-4 did a good job for many years, but it's time to turn the page in the aerial target program. This program will bring us into the 4th generation aircraft and will provide us with a mission capable, very sustainable aerial target to take us into the next 10 to 20 years."
After successful testing at Tyndall Air Force Base, the focus will now shift to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, where testing of the QF-16’s air to ground systems will commence.