TechF-16 turns 50: Unraveling the enduring appeal of a half-century-old combat aircraft design

F‑16 turns 50: Unraveling the enduring appeal of a half-century-old combat aircraft design

F-16
F-16
Images source: © Public domain
10:10 AM EST, February 2, 2024, updated: 4:28 AM EST, March 7, 2024

In addition to the 148 F-16s currently on order and in manufacturing, another 40 units are poised to join them, this time from Turkey. This implies that the total units produced are set to significantly exceed 4,000. And, with its continued production, the F-16 remains popular worldwide and the final tally is still uncertain.

What makes a 50-year-old design like the F-16 one of the most desirable combat aircraft in the world? What secures it new orders and has Lockheed Martin, its manufacturer, advertising it as a more cost-effective option than 5th generation aircraft?

Understanding the F-16 phenomenon requires acknowledging that its current version — apart from its appearance — has little in common with the prototype flown in 1974. Modern F-16s are fully multi-role aircraft, equally adept at air combat, ground attack missions, anti-aircraft defense penetration and electronic warfare.

The foundation of the F-16’s extraordinary versatility lies in its concept, which perceives it as an aerial predator: a combat aircraft designed for air combat that was likely the first to fully harness the potential provided by jet engines.

John "40 Second" Boyd

The idea for the F-16 originated from an analysis undertaken after the Korean War, where American F-86 Sabre aircraft downed 792 MiG-15 fighters, losing only a tenth of their number in the process. Considering this astounding result, an essential inquiry was posed: why?

Theoretically, nothing justified such a considerable success. Despite the propaganda narrative from the communist side, Sabre's most formidable adversary, the Soviet MiG-15, was, in theory, a better aircraft with higher technical specifications, and experienced and highly skilled pilots were also present.

John Loyd, creator of modern aerial combat theory
John Loyd, creator of modern aerial combat theory© Public domain

John Boyd, an extraordinarily talented pilot, nicknamed "40 seconds", tackled this issue. His expertise was evident in his stress-testing, as it was the time it took him to outmaneuver any opponent, transitioning from prey to predator, despite the opponent being in an optimal firing position.

Do We Need Fighters?

The analysis of data collected showed that far more important elements than conventional equipment value were the cockpit ergonomics, visibility angles, and exhaust formation behind the aircraft, for example.

All these data were encapsulated within different maneuver descriptions, which tied aerial combat down to one fundamental issue: energy management. Those most efficient at it typically emerged victorious. John Boyd discussed this in his works "Aerial Attack Study" and "Energy-Maneuverability Theory," and later, in his extensive OODA (Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action) Loop decision-making theory, which transcended aviation.

However, implementing this knowledge was challenging. As Marcin Moderzewski, from "Aviation" magazine, underlined, the skyline of the 60s was dominated by strategic bomber aviation, with the rapidly expanding space program absorbing the best pilots. Instead of fighter to fighter combat, bomber pilots primarily practiced atomic bomb deployment. Hence, maneuver combat was marginalized.

YF-17 (later F-18) and YF-16 (later F-16) - experimental designs competing for the order of a light fighter.
YF-17 (later F-18) and YF-16 (later F-16) - experimental designs competing for the order of a light fighter.© Public domain

Aircraft for Air Combat

The unconventional group known as the "fighter mafia", however, still ardently pursued the creation of a new fighter, one that leveraged the wealth of accumulated knowledge and recent technological advancements, despite the prevailing trends in the US aviation industry.

In the mid-60s, two projects aimed at developing fighter aircraft were spearheaded by the United States. Project FX aimed to creating an air superiority fighter, later known as the F-15. The ADF project focussed on developing a lighter, more affordable machine.

Analyses indicated that intense fights with the Soviets could quickly exhaust long- and medium-range air-to-air missiles, necessitating aircraft capable of defeating the enemy in maneuver combat to secure air superiority. This need gave birth to the concept of what would later become the F-16.

Primarily, Maneuverability

Thanks to innumerable tests, the fighter mafia gathered an extensive database detailing the maneuverability properties of various aircraft and the specific speeds required for optimal energy consumption for specific maneuvers. For different machines, this range was quite narrow.

From this foundation emerged the revolutionary concept that cemented the F-16's success: the need for an entirely new aircraft design, capable of performing energy-efficient maneuvers over a decidedly wide range of speeds. The crafting of the new aircraft abandoned previous dogmas: the main focus was no longer achieving the highest speed or deploying refined long-range missiles. Instead, the focus shifted to designing an aircraft so maneuverable and aerodynamically perfected that it could outflank enemy-fired distance missiles, approach them and win in aerial combat.

Taking Care of the Pilot

While prioritizing maneuverability, the design also considered an important aspect: the situational awareness of the pilot. This directly affected how quickly the pilot could decide to perform a maneuver with the aircraft. The layout of the cockpit was redesigned and the pilot's seat was tilted into a semi-reclined position for maximum comfort, with all essential functions within reach, eliminating the need to move hands away from the control stick and throttle. The then-revolutionary fly-by-wire control system was also incorporated, eliminating mechanical connections between the cockpit instruments and the aerodynamic surfaces.

Unplanned Maiden Flight

As a result of these groundbreaking improvements, the YF-16 prototype was born and underwent various tests, including the rapid taxiing test on January 20, 1974. During this test, it quickly became clear that the plane was highly responsive, leading to an unexpected, albeit controlled, flight when an increase in thrust caused the plane to slightly bounce off the ground. The unplanned flight ended with a gearless landing.

The F-16 cockpit canopy provides excellent visibility.
The F-16 cockpit canopy provides excellent visibility.© Public domain

The next — officially planned and intentional — flight happened on February 2, 1974. After flying for an hour and a half, pilot Phil Oestricher could only praise the prototype: the superior cockpit visibility, high maneuverability, and unprecedented ergonomics made the aircraft extraordinary, ensuring that piloting the machine was not tiring.

By 1975, the US air forces had officially declared their intent to incorporate this new aircraft into their arsenal. And by 1977, F-16 had commenced mass production.

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