Air Force turns mothballed F-16s into drones for training

Posted at 9:50 AM, Sep 25, 2013
and last updated 2013-09-25 09:54:07-04

(CNN) - 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 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."