Smoke rises Wednesday near Highway 98 outside of Mexico Beach, Fla., after a QF-4 drone crashed on takeoff from Tyndall Air Force Base. Officials said no one was injured. The highway remains closed because of possible fires. (Dylan Dunaway / AP)
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, FLA. — A remote stretch of Florida Panhandle highway closed early Wednesday after an Air Force drone crashed near the area.
Tyndall Air Force Base said the QF-4 drone crashed on takeoff early Wednesday. No one was injured in the crash.
The Air Force closed Highway 98 west of Panama City and east of Mexico Beach because of possible fires from the crash. Officials said the drone has a limited, 24 hour, battery life and would be inactive after the battery depleted.
The remote stretch of highway was expected to remain close through Wednesday night.
According to an Air Force fact sheet, the QF-4 is tested at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle and at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The QF-4 is based on a modification of the F-4 Phantom aircraft, which has been in use since the 1950s.
Public information officials at Tyndall Air Force Base released a brief statement about the crash and declined to answer specific questions about the drone or the reason for the crash.
"The QF-4 is a remotely controlled target, which simulates enemy aircraft maneuvers," the Air Force Fact sheet on the drone states. "The drone can be flown by remote control or with a safety pilot to monitor its performance. The drone is flown unmanned when missiles are fired at it, and only in specific over-water airspace authorized for unmanned flight. When flown unmanned, an explosive device is placed in the QF-4 to destroy the aircraft if it inadvertently becomes uncontrollable."
The Air Force said Wednesday that the highway was being closed as a precautionary measure. Highway 98 hugs the Gulf Coast and is a popular route for tourists looking for scenic drive from Panama City to Florida's Big Bend region.
James Lewis is a military technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Lewis said the QF-4 was likely used for target practice by Tyndall's F-22 Raptor pilots.
"It is an older fighter plane they have modified for use as a target," Lewis said. "The QF-4 is not a drone in the way we normally think of drones. It is not used for anything other than to be shot down. It is an old aircraft that would otherwise be sold for scrap."