The ‘Viper’, as the F-16 Fighting Falcon is affectionately known, is a combat proven, compact, tough and versatile fighter. Also, due to its massive commercial success story, it is one of the most recognisable fighters in the world. It is definitely worth a closer look.
The need for agility
During the Vietnam War, the F-4 Phantom personified the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) approach to fighter design and combat tactics. Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM or dogfighting) was thought to be a thing of the past, therefore the F-4 was big, fast and lacked an internal cannon. It was believed that all dogfights would be settled by air-to-air missiles. The result, of course, was rather catastrophic. A surprisingly high number of Phantoms were lost to more primitive and seemingly obsolescent North Vietnamese MiGs. As a result, ACM schools, such as the famous Top Gun, were started to fine tune fighter pilots’ dogfighting skills. However, that was not the only direct development from lessons learned in Vietnam. The legendary F-15 Eagle was developed as an advanced, powerful fighter that could out outmanoeuvre and outperform any contemporary fighter in the world.
A LWF (LightWeight Fighter) programme was started in the early 1970s, in order to augment the efficiency of the F-15 programme. A requirement for a light, simple, air-to-air day fighter was announced and five companies responded. In the end, only General Dynamics and Northrop were awarded contracts to produce prototypes of their respective YF-16 and YF-17 aircraft. Interestingly, the YF-16’s maiden flight took place by accident. On 20 January 1974, test pilot Phil Oestricher performed a high-speed taxi trial, when the aircraft suddenly became unstable, with the wingtips touching the runway surface. The pilot elected that the safest thing to do, was take off. He completed a circuit and landed a few minutes later. The problem was due to a glitch in the fly-by-wire system, which was easily repaired. The YF-16's official maiden flight only took place during the following month. General Dynamics’ YF-16 was chosen as the winner, mainly due to lower operating costs and better performance. The completed F-16s’ engines would also be virtually identical to those already in use by F-15s. Development of the YF-17 was not in vain, as a scaled-up version would later be used to develop the FA-18 Hornet. Soon, the USAF changed its lists of requirements that had to be met by the F-16, to include multi-role capabilities, specifically referring to close air support.
Design and upgrades
The F-16 design was a sleek, single engine fighter with its wings’ leading edges swept back 40 degrees. As with the F-15, wing-body blending meant that the F-16’s body provided some of its lift. The F-16’s engine air intake allowed sufficient air to enter the engine at various angles of attack. More than 200 access panels made the aircraft easy to maintain. The pilot’s seat was reclined 30 degrees in order to make it easier for the pilot to endure high G manoeuvres. Some say that was only a side benefit, as that was the only way General Dynamics was able to fit the seat into the fuselage. Nevertheless, F-16s were cleared to sustain 9 G turn rates. The F-16 has often been described as a ‘fighter pilot’s aircraft’. An ergonomic HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) system could be found on a throttle on the left side of the cockpit and a fly-by-wire side stick on the right hand side. At the time, side sticks and fly-by-wire systems were ground-breaking concepts. A one-piece canopy ensured that the pilot had 360 degrees of unobstructed view. The F-16 was one of the first modern fighters to be designed to fly with dynamic instability. That made the aircraft more agile, but required an automatic flight control system to keep the aircraft airborne. Unlike the F-4 Phantom, the F-16 had an internal 20 mm. cannon with 500 rounds of ammunition, which is always useful in any given combat situation.
During its lifespan, several F-16 variants and many ‘block’ upgrades have been introduced. In the designation ‘F-16 B Block 15’, for example, the ‘B’ would refer to the two-seater variant, whilst the ‘Block’ number would refer to specific modifications or upgrades. In this case, ‘Block 15’ referred to the addition of two new hard points, larger fins and provision for medium range air-to-air missiles. With the introduction of the Block 30 upgrade, F-16s gained the ability to fire High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), allowing the aircraft to participate in Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions. Block 40 aircraft could attack targets with precision weapons by night, using Low Altitude, Navigation and Targeting, Infra-Red for Night (LANTIRN) pods. Israeli Air Force F-16D Block 40s were further modified by fitting avionics into a dorsal spine. The United Arab Emirates’ F-16 C/D Block 60 Desert Falcon first took off in 2003, making it the most advanced F-16 type in the world. The Block 60 aircraft was structurally 70 % different to other C/D models and featured superior performance and avionics.
Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway showed interest in buying F-16s right from the beginning of the programme. Israel was the first non-European customer and soon became the first country to use F-16s in combat. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) used eight F-16As to destroy a nuclear reactor in Iraq during Operation Babylon in 1981. During 1982, Israeli F-16s destroyed 44 Syrian aircraft in air-to-air combat, without losing any planes. In 1989, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Pakistani F-16s downed no less than eight enemy aircraft that entered its airspace.
The USAF first used its F-16s in combat during the 1990s in Operation Desert Storm and Desert Fox. During both operations, F-16s were used almost exclusively in an air-to-ground role. Even so, an Iraqi MiG-25 and MiG-29 were shot down by USAF F-16s. Four Serbian aircraft were also shot down by F-16s over Bosnia during the mid-1990s. Later, during NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Operation Allied Force in the Balkans, A Dutch and American F-16 each shot down a MiG-29. In 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, most F-16s were used to conduct SEAD operations and to participate in precision attack missions. More recently, during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, American and Dutch F-16s have been very active in SEAD and LANTIRN operations.
Whilst it is true that USAF F-16s are set to be replaced by F-35 Lightning IIs, rest assured that F-16s will be flying for many more years. Almost 4 500 of these agile, versatile fighters have been in service with more than twenty countries. These Vipers are not only a commercial success story, but also a combat success story. The F-16 Fighting Falcon will no doubt go down in history as one of the greatest fighters ever designed.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2009 - www.africanpilot.co.za
Photographs courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.