The F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the primary fighter jet of the U.S. Air Force for almost three decades, with 1,000 of them -- more than any other warplane in the U.S. inventory --  currently in service, and thousands more flying for the air forces of two dozen other nations. Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) and overseas partners have produced 4,500 so far. With those numbers, seeing one fly isn’t unusual.

What is extremely strange, though, is seeing an F-16 fly without a pilot.

Yet that’s exactly what happened at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida recently, when a modified  QF-16 drone flew without a pilot for the first time, demonstrating its ability to fly under remote control and do the same things a jet with a real live pilot could do.   

According to a statement by Boeing (NYSE:BA), which converted the jet to a remotely piloted drone, the QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target demonstrates “the next generation of combat training and testing.”

Continue Reading Below

The unmanned plane reached an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,000 m) over the Gulf of Mexico and a speed of Mach 1.47, almost one and half times the speed of sound or about 1,100 mph (1,770 kph). The controllers were Air Force test pilots in a ground station.

“It was a little different to see an F-16 take off without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Inman, Commander, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron. “Now we have a mission-capable, highly sustainable full-scale aerial target to take us into the future.”

And being used as a target is ultimately what these expensive drones are meant for. They are highly effective training tools for pilots, who try to shoot them down with live weapons -- and don’t always succeed: Drones converted from fighter jets are as fast and agile as the real thing.  

Boeing said in 2010 that it had received a $69.7 million contract from the U.S. Air Force for the first phase of the QF-16 program. The first six unmanned jets have been delivered, and up to 126 will be converted beginning in the fourth quarter.

QF-16 Drone The first QF-16 drone flies over the Gulf of Mexico Photo: U.S. Air Force / Master Sergeant J. Scott Wilcox