Secretary of the US Air Force Kendall pilots an AI-controlled aircraft in the cockpit.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall boarded the cockpit of an F-16 controlled by artificial intelligence on Friday, before the plane entered a dogfight with a human-controlled plane.

Secretary of the US Air Force Kendall pilots an AI-controlled aircraft in the cockpit.

On Friday, artificial intelligence-piloted fighter plane that was over the California desert carried U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall inside its cockpit.

Speaking to the defense committee of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last month, Kendall revealed his intention to fly an AI-controlled F-16 and discussed how autonomous drones will be essential to air warfare in the future.

The top Air Force commander carried out his intentions on Friday, potentially leading to one of the greatest developments in military aviation since the introduction of stealth aircraft in the early 1990s.

To witness and experience AI flying in real time, Kendall took a plane to Edwards Air Force Base, the same desert location where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.

After the flight, Kendall spoke with the Associated Press about the technology and the role it will play in air combat.

"It’s a security risk not to have it. At this point, we have to have it," the secretary said.

The Associated Press and NBC were granted permission to watch the secret flight with the agreement that neither would report on the matter until the flight was complete, due to security concerns.

The F-16 controlled by AI is called Vista, and it flew Kendall in maneuvers reaching over 550 mph, putting pressure on his body of nearly five times the force of gravity.

Flying alongside Vista and Kendall was a human-piloted F-16, and the two jets raced within 1,000 feet of each other performing twists and loops, in an effort to force their opponent into a place of submission.

Kendall grinned as he climbed out of the cockpit after the hour-long flight, saying he saw enough to trust the AI technology in deciding whether to fire weapons during a war.

Many oppose the idea of computers making that decision, fearing AI may one day be able to drop bombs on people without consulting with humans.

The same people who oppose AI-powered war machines are also seeking greater restrictions on its use.

One of the groups seeking stronger restrictions is the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"There are widespread and serious concerns about ceding life-and-death decisions to sensors and software," the group warned, adding the autonomous weapons "are an immediate cause of concern and demand an urgent, international political response."

Still, Kendall says human oversight will always be at play when weapons are considered.

The Air Force is planning to have an AI-enabled fleet of over 1,000 AI-operated drones, with the first being in operation by 2028.

In March, the Pentagon said it was looking to develop new artificial intelligence-guided planes, offering two contracts for several private companies to compete against each other to obtain.

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) project is part of a $6 billion program that will add at least 1,000 new drones to the Air Force. The drones will be designed to deploy alongside human-piloted jets and provide cover for them, acting as escorts with full weapons capabilities. The drones could also act as scouts or communications hubs, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

The companies bidding for the contract include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Anduril Industries.

Cost-cutting is one of the elements of AI that appeals to the Pentagon for pursuing the project.

In August 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said deploying AI-enabled autonomous vehicles would provide "small, smart, cheap and many" expendable units to the U.S. military, helping overhaul the "too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation."

But the idea is to not fall too far behind China, which has modernized its air defense systems, which are much more sophisticated and put manned planes at risk when they get too close.

Drones have the potential of interrupting such defense systems and could be used to jam them or provide surveillance for crews.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.