Boeing Turns Retired F-16s Into Drones

Credit: Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway/wikimediaCredit: Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway/wikimediaA retired Cold War-era F-16 flew over the Gulf of Mexico last week after being retrofitted by Boeing.

According to the BBC the jet was flown by two U.S. Air Force pilots on the ground and flew at an altitude of 40,000 feet at a speed of Mach 1.47. The BBC also reports that there are six of these retrofitted jets, now called QF-16s, which the U.S. military plans to use for live fire tests.

Watch a video of the flight below:

Over at Gizmodo Adam Clark Estes points out that these F-16s are not the first jets to be converted into drones:

Before the F-16s became QF-16s, the Vietnam-era F-4 became the QF-4. And before that, pilots took aim at converted jetslike the PQF-102 Delta Dagger, the QF-100 Super Saber and the QF-106 Delta Dart. The Air Force prefers the drone approach because nothing simulates actual combat fighting like a full-sized fighter jet pulling real-world maneuvers in the sky, and the lack of a pilot (somewhat ironically) lets them test the lethality of their weapons systems.

More from Reason.com on drones here

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I won't accept any F-14 Tomcat drone conversions. You'll never replace Maverick!

  • fish||

    Tom Cruise is so short you couldn't see him in the cockpit anyway....well not without phonebooks anyway!

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Not even with the greatest F-14 ace in history?

  • fish||

    Nice!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I think Lt. Cmdr. Harmon Jag might have something to say about that.

  • mr simple||

    Oh no, that planes been taken over by a ghost!

  • mr simple||

    It also stole my apostrophe.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Patrick Swayze is piloting the plane?

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Nobody puts an F-16 in the corner.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    "They're too stupid to have a good fly"

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    the lack of a pilot (somewhat ironically) lets them test the lethality of their weapons systems.

    Wait, it's ironic that the Air Force doesn't fully test its weapons against aircraft crewed by Air Force pilots?

  • PD Scott||

    "We will have fewer but better pilots."

  • Loki||

    I was coming here to make a similar observation. Obviously the author didn't realize that the purpose of converted drone aircraft was to serve as targets for pilots to shoot at to test new missiles.

    The Air Force prefers the drone approach because nothing simulates actual combat fighting like a full-sized fighter jet pulling real-world maneuvers in the sky

    I'll also point out that the converted drones do not perform real-world maneuvers either. They're literally just flown along in a straight line and used for missile target practice, not for dogfighting practice.

    Obviously yet another case of a "jounalist" not even bothering to getg the basic facts straight.

  • Almanian!||

    QF-16s

    I hereby dub the drone version of this plane the "Queef 16"

  • fish||

    We can just end the thread here!

  • Almanian!||

    "You've been Queefed, motherfucker!"

    *line from ad for the new movie 'Top Gun II'*

  • widget||

  • widget||

    As I was saying... The USG no longer has to field an army to exercise its will.

  • ||

    As scary as this is it is still pretty cool for two real pilots fly these things against each other guns/missiles armed for training.

    Though one would think a flight simulator could do the job just as well.

  • db||

    You think this is scary, wait until the A-10 gets modified to drone capability.

  • db||

    I wonder if the drone planes can outfly their manned performance due to the lack of physiological barriers to extreme flight regimes. I wouldn't be surprised to.see the era of the manned fighter (or bomber, or cargo, or...) be over within twenty years. And all that money spent on the F35...

  • Gray Ghost||

    I wouldn't be surprised to.see the era of the manned fighter (or bomber, or cargo, or...) be over within twenty years.


    I'd be interested to read someone like Francisco's take on that. I was recently arguing with a guy in the defense industry about the utility of the F-35: specifically, whether it was worth the ~110-165M per copy, or whether we should just leapfrog that step and go right to autonomous drones. He was pretty big on the F-35 concept, saying that the AI and targeting/acquisition for auto. drones is nowhere near robust enough, and that SAM systems like, e.g., S-300 and -400, will smoke anything non-stealthy. To which I asked, 'won't the -300 also kill F-35s?' So if these SAMs kill both non-stealthy (F-15/16/18F) and sorta-stealthy a/c (Typhoon, F-35), why spend the extra $$$ if you're going to need the full suppression package anyway?

    Interesting debate, especially as countries like India and Brazil start to get in on the advanced military development market. I too, think the drones are going to show up a lot sooner than anyone thinks. Hopefully, it won't be because some other country used them to punch the USAF/USN in the nose.

  • db||

    An interesting strategy against SAMs would be to send a buttload of drones: some, fully loaded and combat capable on a mission; others, with similar radar and heat signatures but cheap, to act as decoys; and some, basically flying radar targeting bombs to suicide attack the SAM stations and make them think twice about activating their targeting radars. There's no way these would have to be expensive, and even if they cost $10,000,000 apiece, you could afford to lose 15 of them before they accounted for the cost of even one F35. Only the combat capable ones would need remote pilots to ensure they hit their intended targets.

  • TheZeitgeist||

    I think manned aircraft have another generation in them; but given the dangers of S-300/400/Triumf etc. they will be a very sophisticated machine.

    Instead of pure interceptor, they will be machine designed to blow up anything that goes after aircraft, not just other aircraft. Sort of SEADS/interceptor combined in one.

    After that gadget does its thing, you can send in all the A-10's (which should be an Army vehicle in Army units) and drones you want. Overall, much cheaper. Especially if you end up in Afghanistan - just use the A-10's. Its stupid and wasteful using supersonic pseudo-spaceships to JDAM camels. Which is what the F-35 is. Only the government...

  • Gray Ghost||

    Instead of pure interceptor, they will be machine designed to blow up anything that goes after aircraft, not just other aircraft. Sort of SEADS/interceptor combined in one.

    I have wondered if it was possible to design something like Sidewinder, but that could go after an actively-illuminating, rapidly closing threat? Like an AIM-120. An anti-missile, missile, if you were. (I've wondered the same thing with submarines: is it impossible to design an anti-torpedo, torpedo?)

    It's just that, from what I've read, it takes something like a fully-stealthed CALCM or maybe an F-22 or B-2 to slip near a radar like those powering the various uber-sams, and an F-35 doesn't cut it. Smaller acquisition range than if the pilot were riding an F-16, but he's still getting killed absent him killing the radar first. Not that's stopping the, say, Israelis from putting in F-35 orders, but that's because we won't sell anyone the F-22.

    As to the drone question, why is it so impossible to program a drone to go out to a given area of airspace, periodically communicate with a mother ship (like an AWACS), and kill whatever the AWACS or satellite tells it to? Or give it authority to kill if it picks up a particular stimuli? (S-300 radar, enemy AWACS, N011 radar with intensity above X, etc..) With Moore's Law, is it really that far away?

  • Mike Laursen||

    Gosh, wouldn't want to make a fuel efficient drone...

  • Timon 19||

    Yikes, this comment thread is a mess already.

    1. Retired aircraft as live-fire drones is not anything remotely new.
    2. While the F-16 is easily capable (in theory) of pulling dangerous Gs beyond the capability of a human to sustain without passing out or worse, it's not easy to actually make one do that in normal flight situations.
    3. Simulators are widely used for a vast variety of uses, none of which really overlap with the missions these sorts of drones are used for. These drones are not a replacement for mission rehearsal, tactics or really anything but missile and gunnery tests.
    4. We are a very long way from effective air-to-air drones, and we're a really long way off from autonomous aircraft that would be effective at wild weasel-type missions.

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