When old fighter jets are retired from service, they're not necessarily mothballed — sometimes, they're turned into unmanned planes for test pilots to shoot down. And that's precisely what's happened with this F-16 retrofitted by Boeing, which was recently tested at Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base. The first of its model to be converted, the redesignated QF-16 has successfully made its first flight, taking off from the base and reaching 40,000 feet at supersonic speeds over the Gulf of Mexico. After completing a series of maneuvers, the plane landed safely. While the cockpit was empty, the jet was controlled by two Air Force test pilots.
For at least one pilot, working on the project is a mixed blessing. After all, the QF-16 isn't exactly getting a new lease on life: now that it's completed its flight testing, it's one step closer to being used for aerial training missions and, eventually, target practice. "To get something ready to take off on its own so somebody else can shoot it down makes it a little bittersweet," says Jason Clements.
Nonetheless, Boeing has already modified six F-16 jets into QF-16s, and the plane is following in a long tradition. Unmanned F-4 Phantom jets have helped pilots train for years; an article from aviation site Fence Check runs down the history of the program and notes that over 230 Phantoms have been turned into drones since 1995. And while the modified planes aren't meant for anything but testing, they're not always harmless: earlier this year, a pair of drones crashed at Tyndall, with one temporarily shutting down a local highway.
Update: A previous version of the article referred to a "Boeing F-16," not the correct Lockheed Martin / General Dynamics F-16 retrofitted by Boeing.