The F-16 fighter jet, flying solo

The F-16 is one of America's premier fighter jets-- used by the Air Force in operations from Desert Storm to Libya. Today we learn how the Fighting Falcon is being re-purposed -- as a drone.

A pilot runs through his pre-flight checks on an F-16 jet fighter -- then climbs out. The canopy comes down and the F-16 takes off without him.

The Air Force is modifying F-16 jets to fly as drones
CBS

It happened last week at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and although unmanned aircraft are everywhere these days, it still makes you do a double take.

The F-16 is being flown by remote control from a ground station. It is able to perform all the maneuvers it could if a pilot were in the cockpit -- climb to 40,000 feet, fly faster than the speed of sound, and turn so sharply the g forces could make you black out.

No, this is not a faster, more agile hunter killer drone. It's a faster more agile target for pilots to train against. The Air Force has been doing this for decades,

But the current model target, a remotely piloted version of the Vietnam-era F-4, just doesn't have the moves of a modern fighter aircraft.

No pilot! This F-16 is flying by remote control
CBS

Now pilots will start going up against the leaner, meaner F-16 in dog fights and occasionally even shoot one down, which is only sort of OK with Boeing test pilot Jason Clements.

"I love the F-16 and brag about it a lot and now to get something ready to take off on its own so that somebody else can shoot it down makes it -- makes it a little bittersweet in my eyes," Clements said.

So far Boeing has modified six F-16s to fly without a pilot but more will start arriving in 2015.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.

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