After the YF-16 and YF-17 battled it out to become the next U.S. fighter jet, the winner, General Dynamics’ YF-16, which would become the F-16, made its debut in the pages of Popular Mechanics in November 1975. Described as an aircraft that “excited so much interest in the world,” the F-16 continued generating that excitement for decades and remains in use by air forces around the world.
Never before has a single military aircraft excited so much interest the world over. It’s the F-16, newest, hottest addition to U.S. air might and a plane that may well become the most sought after of all time, Scarcely off the drawing board, the fighter has not only been adopted, by our own Air Force, but has become the popular choice of four other NATO nations, beating out such stiff competition as the famous French Mirage and the radically new canard-winged Swedish Viggen.
Belgium, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have jointly signed up to purchase 350 of the sleek, multi-role supersonic jets, and other countries, including Canada, may follow suit. The U.S. Air Force has ordered 650, and the Navy is expected to buy 800 more for carrier use, bringing the initial total to 1,800. With anticipated additional purchases, production runs may eventually go as high as 3,000 to 4,000 possibly the greatest number of any one aircraft type ever manufactured.
What accounts for the F-16’s incredible appeal? It’s not the biggest, not the fastest, not the most powerful. In fact, by modern fighter standards, it’s a relative baby. Developed by General Dynamics, the single-engine single-seater represents a new concept in low-cost, high-performance lightweight fighters, designed to provide both air superiority and economy at the same time.
It’s fast, tough, deadly and versatile—all for what is considered the remarkable price of $4.6 million per plane. That may not sound “cheap” to those of us who cringe at a $50 grocery bill, but in the world of military hardware it’s a bargain—other comparable fighters go for $8 to $12 million apiece.
With an overall length of 47 1⁄2 feet and a wingspan of 31, the F-16 is considerably smaller than earlier fighters like the F-14 Grumman Tomcat (62 by 64 feet) and the F-15 McDonnell Douglas Eagle (64 by 43 feet). It’s also a lot lighter, grossing 22,500 pounds against 57,300 for the F-14 and 40,000 for the F-15. Its small size and low weight are actually the secret of the F-16’s phenomenal performance. Compared to other typical fighters, it has three times the combat range, nearly twice the acceleration rate, and less than two-thirds the turning radius at supersonic speeds—all of which mean it can outfly and outfight just about anything else around.
Mach 2 Speed at Combat Height
Powered by a 25,000-pound-thrust Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan engine, the F-16 is capable of speeds up to Mach 2-twice the speed of sound—or nearly 1,500 mph at combat altitudes. It is, in fact, one of the few fighters that can continue to accelerate while climbing straight up.
The F-16’s short turning radius and high acceleration allow it to “close” with an enemy aircraft and come out on top—the key to combat superiority in one-on-one dogfight-type situations. Standard armament consists of two wingtip-mounted Sidewinder missiles and a 20-mm Vulcan cannon capable of an awesome firing rate of 6,000 shots a minute. Up to 11,000 pounds of additional armament can be carried on under-wing pylons-extra missiles, bombs, napalm, special weaponry—whatever is required for the mission.
For long-range operation, there is provision for midair refueling or external auxiliary fuel tanks. It’s this kind of flexibility that makes the F-16 such a versatile, all-purpose plane—it can carry out air-to-air, air-to-ground, ground support, long-range bombing, fighter escort and carrier-based operations.
The F-16 is both complex and simple highly sophisticated in design, yet ingeniously simple in construction. Elevator panels, wing flaps and most of its main landing gear are interchangeable-a repair depot need stock only half as many parts as usual. Servo-actuators operating the controls are identical and interchangeable. The fuselage is designed in three modular sections-nose, midsection and tail. The modules can be built in different factories-even in different countries—then assembled when needed. If one module is damaged, it can be replaced with a duplicate-like changing a fender on a car—without keeping a valuable plane out of service for time-taking repairs.
The P&W F100 engine is the same time-proven one used in the F-15 so engine stocks, replacement parts and maintenance know-how are well established. Of the F-16’s 373 equipment components, 257 are stock off-the-shelf items. Only 50 types of fasteners are used—all standard—against up to 250 for other fighters.
Now you can begin to see why so many countries are intrigued by the F-16—its economy and simplification are an air force’s dream. The advantages of having a number of NATO nations operating the same aircraft are obvious-parts, training and manufacturing facilities can be pooled, urgently needed items can be shared, stockpiling of many components is reduced, and repair and maintenance are vastly simplified.
Entire Plane a ‘Lifting Body’
Aerodynamically, the F-16 is a masterpiece of engineering ingenuity. The flattened, oval fuselage blends into the wings so the entire plane becomes, in effect, a “lifting body.” Forebody strakes—narrow, flaring strips ahead of the wings—help prevent wing-root stalling at high angles of attack, adding lift and improving maneuverability. Leading-edge wing flaps, which also increase lift, are computer-controlled and function automatically according to speed and attitude—the pilot can concentrate on fighting without giving them a thought. Trailing-edge flaps and ailerons are combined into “flaperons” that operate independently as ailerons, collectively as flaps—another simplification.
All controls are electrically operated by so-called “fly-by-wire.” This eliminates mechanical linkages more prone to failure, provides more sensitive, responsive handling and increases pilot safety. Backup control wires continue to function even if other wires are shot away—not possible with cable linkages.
The special “high G” cockpit incorporates a sharply back-tilted seat—30° compared to the usual 13°—to help the pilot withstand high G forces in combat. A “side-stick” controller, found to produce more precise maneuvers, replaces the old between-the-knees control stick. Speed brakes that open out like a book near the tail let the pilot slow quickly for emergency maneuvers or short-field landings.
All in all, the F-16 is a lot of plane for the money. It’s expected to give the NATO nations air superiority through the ’80s and into the ’90s. Its purchase by so many other countries has already been hailed as “the sale of the century.” Actually, the F-16 may well turn out to be the buy of the century.
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