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Boeing Turns Old Fighter Jets Into Drones

September 25, 2013
Image Credit: Boeing

[ Watch the Video: Drone Fighter Jet Makes Debut Flight ]

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Boeing has begun repurposing old fighter jets as drones with plans to use them as airborne targets. Six retired Lockheed Martin F-16s have been retrofitted with the appropriate equipment to allow them to be flown from the ground.

In a test flight last week, two US Air Force pilots controlled the QF-16 as it flew from Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. While in the air the jet performed a series of simulated maneuvers and reached supersonic speeds before returning to Tyndall for a landing. As drone technology becomes more sophisticated, Boeing is looking for ways to take advantage of this growth and create test aircraft which can be fired upon by fighter pilots in-training.

“It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around,” explained US Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Inman in a statement describing the test flight.

“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 QF-16 was trailed by two chase planes which followed it as it conducted the in-flight maneuvers. Boeing also packed the jet with self-destruction equipment should something have gone awry during the test.

Boeing says this project is an important one which allows fighter pilots the ability to engage in mock combat with a modern jet. As the QF-16 can reach 7Gs of acceleration and execute maneuvers at 9Gs, training programs will now be able to push their training pilots to the limits without asking their trainers to perform these risky operations.

The Lockheed Martin F-16 is also a more modern jet and replaced the F-4 Phantom. Using this newer jet in training scenarios means young pilots have the opportunity to engage in realistic situations in the air. In a video, the project members interviewed seemed pleased with the turnout of the test flight.

“It flew great, everything worked great, [it] made a beautiful landing – probably one of the best landings I’ve ever seen,” said Paul Cejas, the project’s chief engineer.

The F-16 in question, which Boeing renamed the QF-16, had spent the previous 15 years in retirement at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Boeing has retrieved another five of these fighter jets and has retrofitted them with the equipment necessary to pilot them from the ground.

The next step is to take the QF-16 for live fire testing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

According to Boeing, the military ultimately plans to use the QF-16s as training vehicles, though they do not say whether they’ll ever be used to carry out real-world missions.

Drones have been a sticky issue both politically and technologically. Pilot-less aircraft, like anything else with computerized components, are subject to glitches and hackers. These aircraft have already been shown to be vulnerable to such hacking attacks. For instance, last summer a University of Texas researcher was able to hack an overhead drone and take complete control of the aircraft. Once in his control, the researcher sent it hurtling towards the ground before pulling it back up at the last second.


Source: Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online



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