Painted bright orange and measuring 20 feet long, an unmanned military aircraft drifted about 800 miles through Florida waters before being recovered off Key Largo.
"It's like a big, remote-control airplane with a jet engine," said Steve Powers of Sea Tow-Key Largo, the salvor who recovered the target drone owned by the U.S. Air Force.
"I've never seen one like it," Powers said Tuesday. "It's a first for me."
Boaters who alerted the U.S. Coast Guard about the possible hazard to navigation on Sunday were warned to stay away from it. But boaters who avoided hitting the aircraft — officially a BQM-167A Air Force Subscale Aerial Target — were in no real danger.
"This target is used to be shot at. It doesn't do the shooting," said Lt. Col. Lance Wilkins, commander of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City in the Panhandle.
The Air Force sent a truck to Key Largo to recover the $570,000 flying drone so it can be refurbished to fly again. "As soon as we heard, we had people on the way," Wilkins said.
All of the Air Force's BQM-167s — about 30 of them — are based at Tyndall so the jet-powered drones can "test and evaluate air-to-air weapons, the effectiveness of counter-measures during sorties and the effectiveness of the weapons systems," an Air Force news story reported.
The aircraft reach speeds of 600 knots at sea level, flying from 50 feet above ground level to 50,000 feet. Typically the target drones deploy a parachute and wind up in the designated Gulf of Mexico W151 Live-Fire Range, about 45 to 85 miles off the Panhandle, where the military's teams recover them.
"Since 2007, we have launched BQM-167s over 600 times," Wilkins said. "Only 16 targets have been lost, and nine of those have been found."
The drone found bobbing in about 15 feet of water a mile off the Port Largo Canal went down in late January, and apparently was carried by Gulf currents to the Florida Straits.
Built of carbon fiber and other composite material, the drones weigh relatively little when not carrying fuel. They can be equipped with "target payloads" that indicate electronically when they have been hit by attackers during drills. They also can fire chaff to confuse systems trying to target them.
"You would think that they would have awesome beacon tracking or at least GPS enabled on the thing," said Roger Grimes, who of the boaters who radioed the Coast Guard.
"Safety is paramount to everything we do here in the 82nd," Wilkins said. "It's our intent to remove these from the water as quickly as possible in order to ensure the safety of the Gulf and its mariners.