F-16 Fighter jet over South Korea

F-16 Fighting Falcon

Most-Produced Modern Day Jet Fighter

F-16 Fighting Falcon

The Lockheed Martin F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ is the most commercially successful jet fighter of its generation, with 4,540 built and counting. First flown in 1974, the trailblazing F-16 redefined frontline combat aircraft design. it also proved a hugely enduring and versatile type that, in a variety of versions, remains in widespread military service today with some two dozen nations.

Innovation, revolution and evolution – all have played a part in the F-16 story.

F-16 Origins

In the United States and elsewhere, jet power started to overtake piston power for good from the late 1940s onwards. Progressively, jet fighters were becoming faster and more capable but also heavier – a trend that some defence officials believed would hamper their agility. Expanding on this theory, the USAF launched its Lightweight Fighter (LWF) contest in 1972. Required was a sub-20,000-pound design boasting excellent manoeuvrability and that offered optimum combat performance within the 0.6-to-1.6 Mach and 30,000-to-40,000 foot ranges. Five designs were submitted, of which two were ultimately taken forward. They included General Dynamics’ LWF entry – the very first F-16 (named the YF-16).

 F-16 fighter jets

F-16 First Flight

The YF-16 was rolled-out on 13 December 1973. Barely one month later, on 20 January 1974, it had an ‘accidental’ first flight but the first ‘official’ flight occurred on 2 February that year. Launched from (famed USAF testing facility) Edwards Air Force Base, it lasted 90 minutes. The subsequent ‘fly-off’ against its LWF contest rival, the YF-17 – which had first flown four months later - saw two YF-16 prototypes accumulate 417 flying hours during 330 sorties (the YF-17’s corresponding figures were 345 hours and 288 sorties). On 13 January 1975, the cheaper-to-operate, range-optimised and more agile YF-16 was declared the contest’s winner. The YF-17, incidentally, went on to become the highly successful F/A-18 Hornet, while the LWF contest morphed into the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) programme.

 underneath the f-16

At the 1975 Paris Air Show, four European nations – Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway – together ordered 348 F-16s. Production lines subsequently opened up in Belgium and the Netherlands. On 8 December 1976, the first F-16A took flight. Compared to the YF-16, it was 10 inches longer, had enlarged wings, a widened nose profile and additional weapons rails. These and other changes added 25 per cent to its overall weight. By the end of 1980, all four European F-16 customers had examples in service, while deliveries to the USAF – the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing getting the very first airframe – had got underway in January 1979. 

Also in 1980, the F-16 was named, becoming known from that point on as the ‘Fighting Falcon.’ Lockheed – which later became Lockheed Martin – took over F-16 production from General Dynamics in 1993.

F-16 Features

Construction-wise, aluminium alloys make up circa 80 per cent of the F-16’s airframe alongside other materials including titanium, steel and composites. Features-wise, a host of pioneering elements made their way into the aircraft. A fly-by-wire system – paramount in boosting overall agility – was one such, alongside a seat reclined back 30 degrees – twice the previous standard angle – to part-offset mounting G-forces. No fighter, before the F-16, had actually been designed to withstand 9G turns but the F-16 broke the mould and showed the way to many that followed. The side-mounted control stick – moved right of the usual mid-cockpit position – was another innovation, providing F-16 pilots with a more comfortable way of flying than they’d experienced before.

f-16 over UAE

F-16 Versions

A vast number of F-16 variants have been evolved but there are six main production versions. Developed from the F-16A and its two-seat derivative, the F-16B, the F-16C and -D added modernised cockpit avionics, an all-weather radar and an enhanced weapons-carrying capability to the package. From these, various blocks were produced. Designated the F-16E and -F, the very latest Block 60 models boast a more powerful engine and better radar and are fitted with CFTs (conformal fuel tanks) to increase range. Another recent model is the QF-16 – an unmanned F-16. Flight-tested by Boeing and the USAF in September 2013, the ground-operated pilotless aircraft is set to equip the USAF in strength: 126 QF-16s are currently set to enter service. Only two F-16XL models, featuring a cranked arrow delta wing shape, were ever manufactured but, after unsuccessfully bidding to become the USAF’s new tactical fighter, they ended up as useful NASA research platforms. Both have since been retired.

All main production model F-16s are fitted with an M61A1 Vulcan 20mm cannon but, as the F-16 has evolved, so more sophisticated weapons have augmented its pylons-carried load. AIM-120 AMRAAMs are a more recent integration, supplementing the standard mixture of air-to-air (e.g. AIM-9 Sidewinders) and air-to-ground missiles (e.g. AGM-65 Mavericks), plus bombs (such as various Paveway models).

F-16 Operators

26 nations’ air arms have so far been supplied with F-16s. Those nations are Bahrain, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the UAE, the United States and Venezuela.

USAF F-16s

Operationally, the F-16 was more active in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm than any other aircraft type. B-52s dropped the most weapons but F-16s flew the most sorties, striking various ground-based targets including Scud missile launchers. Thereafter, F-16s took part in operations Northern and Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and Odyssey Dawn.

Away from the frontline, F-16s are used by several of the world’s major international military display teams. The USAF Thunderbirds is one such - it’s been an F-16-equipped unit since 1982 - while some air arms, those of Belgium, Greece and Turkey among them, operate solo F-16 display teams. In these and others’ hands, the F-16 has become an air display staple – the type’s exceptional manoeuvrability making it a highly dynamic performer and a firm favourite for airshow crowds.

At least in the USAF’s charge, the F-16 is set to serve on until 2025 at the earliest. By this time, the F-35 Lightning II will have entered service and taken over many of the F-16’s tasks.

 

Key Facts: F-16C 

Role:

Multirole fighter
Length: 49 ft 4 in (15.03 m)
Wing span: 32 ft 10 in (10.0 m)
Engines: One Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-100 producing 29,588 lb. thrust
Maximum speed: 1,320 mph (2,120 km/h)
Maximum range: 2,620 miles (4,220 km)
Maximum height: 50,000+ ft (15,240+ m)
Crew: One (pilot)
Weapons: AIM-120, AIM-9, AGM-65 missiles, Paveway bombs, M61A1 20mm cannon
First flown: 20 January 1974

 

All images copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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