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Forget drones - F-16 makes unmanned flight

Thursday 26 Sep 2013 11:48a.m.

F-16 makes unmanned flight

The US Air Force has test flown an F-16 fighter jet without a pilot on board for the first time, in the latest sign of the military's increasing reliance on drones.

The robotic F-16 flew for 55 minutes with an empty cockpit from a base in Florida last week, as part of a program that will see the converted fighter jet used as a target for pilots in training, manufacturer Boeing said.

"It was really amazing to see an F-16 take off with nobody in it," said Michelle Shelhamer from Boeing, which has adapted the plane for the US military.

The aircraft is one of six "retired" F-16 jets that will be used as aerial targets for fighter pilots training for air-to-air combat, she said.

"They're basically built to be shot down," she told AFP. "It's full-scale, real world, real life, combat training - not with a simulator or anything else."

During the flight out of Tyndall Air Force base in Florida, the QF-16 reached an altitude of nearly 12,200 metres and flew at supersonic speeds over Mach one, according to Shelhamer.

There was no pilot on board to experience gravitational forces as the plane performed manoeuvres, including a barrel roll.

The plane was operated by two test pilots from a ground control station and the flight went off without a hitch, officials said.

It was not the first time the Air Force has adapted old fighters as drones for use in air-to-air combat training. Since 1997, the Pentagon used more than 80 F-4 Phantoms converted into robotic planes for targets.

But the F-16s offered a faster, "more realistic" training target than the slower F-4s, said Tyndall spokesman Herman Bell.

The Air Force, however, said the F-16 drones would only be used for target practice and not added to the growing fleet of unmanned aircraft.


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