Fang’s out: The venerable Viper turns 50, and keeps getting better with age

On Jan 20, one of the most significant combat aircraft of the modern era celebrated its 50th anniversary.

What makes it more remarkable is that the type is set to soldier on well into the 21st century, with newer variants rolling off the assembly line.

The General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) F-16 Fighting Falcon was the brainchild of a small, forward-thinking group in the United States Air Force, the Pentagon, and a handful of seasoned air combat practitioners fresh off of the conflict in Vietnam.

Calling themselves ‘The Lightweight Fighter Mafia’, these men took the bitter lessons from hassling with North Vietnamese MiGs, and pushed for a smaller, lighter, more manoeuvrable fighter that could tangle with the best that the Soviets could put up – at a time when conventional thinking dictated that a bigger, faster, and a more expensive platform was the way to go.

The biggest ‘bogeyman’ haunting conventional USAF thinking at the time was the MiG-25 Foxbat, a Mach 3.2-capable interceptor that no US fighter could intercept during its overflights over sensitive areas.

To counter the Foxbat, Pentagon planners called for a fighter that could do the job, which culminated in the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15 Eagle, a single-seat, twin-engined, twin-tailed, all-weather fighter.

The Eagle first flew in 1972 and entered USAF service in 1976, the same year that Russian Air Force Major Viktor Belenko defected to Japan with his country’s top-secret, and highly-prized Foxbat. It was only then – after closer inspection of the MiG-25 in Hakodate, where Belenko had landed – that the US learnt of the Foxbat’s true capabilities. Which was not much.

By this time, the die on the F-16 had been cast. In the increasingly austere fiscal environment of the late 70s and early 80s, and on the heels of the energy crisis of 1973, the USAF realised it needed a ‘hi-lo’ mix of fighters since it would be cost prohibitive to operate a fleet of highly capable, but highly expensive to maintain aircraft.

The initial studies on a light fighter, by this time, had progressed significantly, and on Jan 6, 1972, the USAF launched the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) programme and issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to five companies. Two companies were finally selected – General Dynamics and Northrop – and were ordered to field prototypes for evaluation.

Both designs were almost identical in size but differed significantly. The YF-16 was a single-engined, single-tailed fighter, while Northrop’s YF-17 was a twin-tailed, twin-engined design. After an extensive ‘fly-off’ competition, the USAF picked the YF-16 as the winner. The United States Navy, which was then looking for an aircraft in the same weight class as the YF-16 to supplement its massive Grumman F-14 Tomcat, chose the YF-17, which morphed into the F/A-18 Hornet.

When it was unveiled to the public, the F-16 boasted a number of significant ‘firsts’. It was the first aircraft to feature a ‘glass cockpit’. All the conventional gauges, tape instruments, and indicators – ‘steam gauges’ – had been replaced with two (now three) cathode ray tube (CRT) monochrome (now colour) displays. The pilot can ‘call up’ any number of ‘pages’ using the buttons on the bezels surrounding the displays – from weapons stores, to navigation, to flight information.

Staring in front of the pilot is a heads-up display or HUD that provides him with all the critical information necessary – from altitude to airspeed, heading, G-loading, angle of attack (or alpha) and weapons. This allows him to keep his eyes ‘out of the cockpit’, and on his adversary during combat.

The pilot sits high, on an ACES II ejection seat, reclined at 30 degrees. This improves his transverse-G tolerance, enabling him to better handle sustained high Gs during manoeuvres.

All-round visibility is excellent, thanks to a single-piece, Perspex bubble canopy, unobstructed by the heavy canopy bow, where the three rear view mirrors would traditionally be hung.

The most significant feature of the F-16 is its flight control system. Traditional cables and mechanical linkages have now been replaced by computers that dictate the movement of the control surfaces. The pilot makes inputs using a fixed sidestick controller on the right console. The computers would then calculate the stick inputs and pressure exerted, and then, send signals to the appropriate control surfaces. This system is called ‘fly-by-wire’.

The cockpit design adopts the HOTAS philosophy, or ‘hands-on-throttle-and-stick’. This means, all the necessary buttons and switches are located on the sidestick controller, and on the throttle, on the left console. This reduces the precious seconds a pilot would lose, fumbling inside the cockpit, looking for the appropriate switches. Instead, like a piccolo player, he now goes by ‘feel’.

Initially powered by a single, augmented Pratt and Whitney F-100 afterburning turbofan engine, the early model A through Cs were blessed with a high thrust-to-weight ratio, giving it blistering performance. Sustained turn rates were phenomenal. In the slow-speed and high alpha regimes, the F-16 also excelled, thanks to its chine, leading edge root extensions (LERX) and full-span leading edge flaps. As a pure dogfighter, it is a world-beater.

Over the years, the F-16, affectionately known as the ‘Viper’, has undergone several improvements. This includes a more powerful General Electric F-110 powerplant rated at 17,000 pounds (dry) (29,500 pounds in full reheat), a bigger air intake to handle the larger volume of air needed by the engine, newer cockpit displays, advanced active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, newer radar homing and warning (RHAW) gear, and the ability to carry a wide range of air-to-air, and air-to-ground ordnance.

From the YF-16’s initial weight of 20,000 pounds, the latest iteration, the Block 70/72, now weighs in at a staggering 48,000 pounds. Since 1976, roughly 4,600 F-16s have been produced for 25 customers worldwide.

Not too shabby for a 50-year-old.

Main image (left): Two F-16 Block 70/72s taxi out onto the runway. Of note is the infra-red search and track (IRST) turret just ahead of the canopy, and the advanced RHAW ‘blisters’ on the front fuselage, just below and forward of the pilot. The image on the right shows the fully ‘glass’ cockpit of the F-16 Block 60, with three colour multifunction displays (MFDs).

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