Boeing and the US Air Force flew a QF-16 target drone without a pilot for the first time at Tyndall AFB, Florida, on 19 September, the company says.

Before it was converted into a drone, the F-16 was originally built by Lockheed Martin.

 QF-16 - USAF

US Air Force

“It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around,” says Lt Col Ryan Inman, commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron. “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.”

The aircraft was controlled on its first unmanned flight by two USAF test pilots on the ground. The QF-16 reached an altitude of 40,000ft (12,200m), speeds of up to Mach 1.47 and g-loads seven times greater than the force of gravity.

 QF-16 over water - USAF

US Air Force

So far, Boeing has modified six F-16s into the QF-16 configuration. The effort is part of a USAF multi-year contract that was awarded to Boeing in March 2010. If all goes as expected, it should result in the production of 126 QF-16 target drones, which will be modified from retired F-16s.

The QF-16 will replace the dwindling inventory of BAE Systems QF-4 Phantom II drones, the airframe of which was built by McDonnell Douglas, a company later purchased by Boeing. The QF-16 should be able to replicate current fourth-generation fighter threats like the RAC MiG-29 or Sukhoi Su-30 much more accurately than the old Phantom airframe.

The next phase of flight testing will take place at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, where the drones will be subjected to live fire trials, during which operational jets – possibly even other F-16s – will unceremoniously shoot them out of the sky.

Source: Flight International