There are approximately 3,000 operational F-16s in service today in 25 countries, a testament to what is easily the world’s most successful, combat-proven multi-role jet fighter ever produced. The fast and agile F-16 Fighting Falcon isn’t just one of the top fighters it is also amongst the most cost-effective. While it lacks the range and payload of the larger twin-engine F-15 Eagle, it also costs less than half – which is why the fourth-generation F-16 has been in use since the 1970s and will likely keep flying for many more years to come.
Since entering service in 1979, this “warbird” has been battle-tested, engaging in more than 400,000 combat sorties and has a combined 19 million flight hours. It has been adapted to complete a number of missions, including air-to-air fighting, ground attack, and electronic warfare. As a combat fighter, the F-16 has proven to be highly maneuverable while its combat radius exceeds that of its potential threats.
Along with the larger F-15 Eagle, the F-16 was one of the world’s first aircraft to withstand higher g-forces than the pilots. These are notable accolades for an aircraft that really began as a technology demonstrator to determine where it was possible to build a versatile fighter that could be cheaper than the F-15.
In 1972 the Air Force’s Prototype Program Office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, launched the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program, and the request for proposals (RFP) called for a highly maneuverable fighter with a significant emphasis on reduced weight but also cost. The program wasn’t originally intended to lead to a production aircraft, but rather to determine what was possible at what cost.
While five contractors competed for the LWF two finalists emerged – General Dynamics and Northrop, which would build two prototypes of their respective designs, the YF-16 and YF-17. As the program continued four European members of NATO – Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway – sought to replace the F-105Gs with a lighter and more affordable fighter.
In April 1974 this resulted in a revision to the LWF, which became the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) program and together the F-16 took shape – with final airframe assembly in Belgium and the Netherlands, while components came from all five countries.
The latest version of the Fighting Falcon is powered by a single-engine, either the General Electric F110-GE-129 or Pratt and Whitney F100-PW-229, and while it is a speedy fighter it can pack a serious punch. The F-16 has nine hardpoints for weapons payloads – including one at each wingtip, three under each wing and one centerline under the fuselage.
It has carried a variety of air-to-air missiles including the Lockheed Martin/Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder, Raytheon AMRAAM, Raytheon Sparrow, MBDA (formerly Matra BAe Dynamics) Skyflash and ASRAAM, and the MBDA R550 Magic 2; and in April 2004 it was the first fighter to fire the new-generation AIM-9X Sidewinder. Air-to-surface missiles carried on the F-16 include Maverick, HARM and Shrike missiles, manufactured by Raytheon, and anti-ship missiles include Boeing Harpoon and Kongsberg Penguin.
While Lockheed delivered the last F-16 from Fort Worth to the Iraqi Air Force in November 2017, ending 40 years of F-16 production, this old warbird will be taking to the sky for years to come.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.