A U.S. Air Force drone crashed shortly after takeoff in the Florida panhandle near Tyndall Air Force Base today, forcing the closure of U.S. highway 98.
The cause of the crash is not yet known, but authorities say that the highway will remain closed for 24 hours. The drone carries a small self-destruct charge designed to bring the plane down if it wanders off its programmed course. The battery attached to that charge runs down after about 24 hours, according to Air Force officials.
The drone in question is a QF-4, which is a full-sized fighter jet used primarily for testing weapons systems. It belongs to the Air Force's 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group. The QF-4 is an unmanned variant of the old F-4 Phantom II fighter jet. The F-4 was the primary air superiority fighter of both the Air Force and the Navy in the 1960s and 1970s, before being replaced by the F-15 Eagle in the Air Force and the F-14 Tomcat in the Navy. A few F-4s still see active service in the air forces of other countries, but those still owned by the U.S. military are almost exclusively QF-4 drones.
Witnesses told local media that the drone crashed during takeoff around 8:25 this morning, bursting into flames and sending up a large column of black smoke.
This is the second drone from Tyndall AFB to be destroyed recently. A week ago another drone was deliberately brought down by Air Force personnel over the Gulf of Mexico. The drone reportedly failed to respond to repeated attempts to land it, and its controllers feared that it could present a danger to civilians, so they steered it out over the gulf and detonated its self-destruct charge.
Officials say the crash presents no further threat to the local population, and that the closure of the highway is only a precaution until crews can begin recovering the aircraft.