A highly maneuverable, lightweight, air-to-air and air-to-ground attack fighter first developed in the United States and adopted by many world nations.
The F-16 is a single-seat air superiority and multirole fighter. Its wingspan is 32 feet, 10 inches, and its length 49 feet, 6 inches. Its power plant is one 25,000-pound thrust Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 (3) turbofan. When empty, it weighs 15,580 pounds; it weighs 35,400 pounds at gross capacity. The F-16’s range is 2,000 miles and its service ceiling is 50,000 feet. The plane can reach a top speed of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. For armament, it carries one 20-millimeter multibarrel rotary cannon plus two wingtip mounted sidewinder missiles, as well as seven external pylons for fuel tanks and other selected air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
The F-16 was first planned and designed in the late 1960’s by Pierre Spray, a civilian working in the office of the assistant secretary of defense, and John Boyd, an Air Force major and flight instructor, along with Harry Hillaker of the General Dynamics Corporation. The project received further support from the 1972 Lightweight Fighter Prototype program sponsored by the U.S. Air Force. The plane was conceived to be smaller, lighter, faster, more maneuverable, and less expensive than the U.S. Navy’s F-14 Tomcat and the F-15 Eagle of the U.S. Air Force. Another idea was to sell the plane to allied nations worldwide in order to increase production and lower the cost of the plane.
In August, 1972, the U.S. Air Force appointed General Dynamics Corporation and Northrop, another United States corporation, to build concept prototypes, one of which would be selected for production. On December 13, 1973, the first two General Dynamics prototypes, called YF-16, were ready to be tested and evaluated by government-appointed test pilots Phil Ostricher and Neal Anderson. On January 13, 1975, U.S. Air Force secretary John L. McLucas announced the YF-16 as the winner of the lightweight fighter competition and in February of that year, a North American Treaty Organization (NATO) consortium offered $5.16 million each for the production of two thousand F-16’s for the United States and NATO allies. In December, 1976, the first test flight of the single-seat F-16A occurred and in January, 1979, the first military operational F-16’s were delivered to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The U.S. Air Force special demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, adopted the F-16 in November, 1982, and the U.S. Air Force increased its planned F-16 purchase total to 3,047 in February, 1986.
One technical innovation of the F-16 was the fly-by-wire electronic computer-assisted steering system, which was less vulnerable to damage from attack. This system had faster and more precise steering and maneuver capabilities compared to the old hydraulic systems.
The F-16 also had a new advanced radar system with look-down capability to track small high-speed objects below the airplane at treetop level, such as ground-to-air antiaircraft missiles.
Another innovation was the heads-up display (HUD), which projected data from the control panel onto the windshield, enabling pilots to keep their eyes on the sky and more quickly evaluate the data.
On Sunday, June 7, 1981, eight F-16’s of the Israeli air force successfully bombed a nuclear reactor power plant located 11 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, without suffering any losses of human life or airplanes. The mission is noteworthy in that the F-16’s low-altitude flying eluded radar detection and the bombs dropped were precisely on target, thereby completely destroying the entire power plant facility.
During that same month, Israel launched a full-scale land and air campaign that removed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from occupied territories in Lebanon. On a single day, June 9, 1981, a total of ninety Israeli F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, and Kfirs (Israeli-built versions of the French Mirage V) shot down about thirty of sixty Syrian MiG warplanes and bombed sixty SA-6 SAM ground-to-air missile sites. During air combat over the next two days, an additional fifty Syrian fighter planes were shot down, and by the end of the month, the Syrian total aircraft losses were numbered at eighty-five. During the entire month of June, 1981, not one single Israeli airplane was shot down.
In the Gulf War, 249 F-16’s were deployed against Iraq during the forty-three-day air war in January and February, 1991. They flew the most missions or sorties of any coalition aircraft against ground targets, including parked Iraqi aircraft, airfields, Scud missile sites, and production facilities manufacturing weapons and chemicals.
Following the Gulf War, F-16’s from several nations played a key role in enforcement of the United Nations sanctions and no-fly zones over Iraq and Bosnia. On December 27, 1992, the first United States Air Force F-16 to score an air-to-air victory occurred when an Iraqi MiG-25 was shot down by an F-16 over Iraq. In 1994, F-16’s shot down three Serbian jets over Bosnia.
Drendel, Lou. Viper F-16. Carrollton, Tex.: Squadron/Signal, 1992. A comprehensive, well-illustrated factual review of the F-16 and its development, including personal essays of U.S. pilots who flew the F-16 in Operation Desert Storm. Walker, Bryce. Fighting Jets. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983. A historical and technical survey of jet airplanes from their development in the 1940’s to the F-14, F-15, and F-16, with many illustrations and battle accounts. Yenne, Bill. The History of the U.S. Air Force. New York: Bison Books, 1984. A study of civilian and military aircraft development.
Air Force, U.S.
Many experts consider the F-16 Fighting Falcon to be the best multirole, cost-effective fighter aircraft ever made.