This is the story of the Fighter Mafia and the birth of the aircraft they envisaged: the General Dynamics F-16 starts with the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
The Eagle is a magnificent combat aircraft. When it entered service with the USAF in 1976, it was intended as an air superiority fighter capable of engaging and destroying any enemy aircraft including what was then the most potent Russian interceptor, the MiG-25 Foxbat.
The two-seat F-15 was outrageously fast, could accelerate vertically, was capable of reaching an altitude of almost 100,000 feet and could engage enemy aircraft at a range of over 25 miles using the AIM-7F Sparrow air-to-air missile. But not everyone within the US Air Force was happy with it.
One problem was the cost. Each original F-15 cost in the region of $20 million (though it is very difficult to establish the real cost of any military aircraft). This meant that it would be problematic for the USAF to find the funding needed to build the numbers of F-15s it required to oppose the threat posed by the Soviet Union.
The F-15 also wasn’t designed to have good air-combat manoeuvrability. It was intended to kill enemy aircraft from medium and long-range, not in a close-up dogfight.
A group of renegade Air Force officers and civilian defence workers who became known as the “Fighter Mafia” wanted the US Air Force to develop something quite different; a low-cost, lightweight, highly manoeuvrable day-fighter. This is the story of the Fighter Mafia and the birth of the aircraft they envisaged: the General Dynamics F-16.
John Richard Boyd served in the US Air Force from 1945 – 1975 and he did a great deal during that time to earn the name by which he became known within the Air Force; the “Mad Major”.
It wasn’t his combat record that led to this name, though Boyd did briefly serve as an F-86 Sabre pilot during the Korean War, but rather his passion for a form of air combat that was thought to have become irrelevant.
Dogfighting, close-in manoeuvring to achieve a dominant firing position, had characterised air combat in World War One and Two. By the 1960s, the development of reliable air-to-air missiles had introduced an entirely new paradigm for air combat that most people believed had rendered old-fashioned dogfighting obsolete.
Boyd disagreed. Vehemently and sometimes with a passion that seemed only a step or two from physical confrontation. That’s where the name “Mad Major” came from. By the late 1960s, Boyd was working in the Pentagon on Project Blue Bird, which would lead to the development of the F-15. Boyd felt that the project was fundamentally flawed.
Instead of pursuing a top speed of Mach 2.5 (which predicated a powerful but heavy aircraft), he felt that a fighter with a maximum speed of around Mach 1.5 could be lighter, more manoeuvrable, cheaper and more effective dogfighter.
Mike Loh, another Air Force officer and pilot, first met Boyd in the mid-1960s and became intrigued with Boyd’s energy–manoeuvrability (E-M) theory of air combat.
This theory, developed with the assistance of mathematician Thomas Christie, developed a model of a combat aircraft’s performance as a function of potential and kinetic energy.
In 1969, after completing a tour in Vietnam, Loh requested an assignment to the Pentagon to work on Boyd’s staff.
During the day, Boyd and Loh worked on Blue Bird and other projects. In the evenings, they and a group of other Air Force officers and civilian analysts and designers worked on translating E-M theory into the design of a combat aircraft that could turn and climb faster than any other.
Boyd submitted a proposal to the air staff for the design and development of a lightweight, low-cost air manoeuvrability fighter. The proposal was ignored.
Somehow, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger became aware of this proposal. Concerned by the escalating costs of the F-15 project (and the high costs of other concurrent Air Force development projects for the C5 Galaxy and F-111), Schlesinger was very interested in the concept of a low-cost, lightweight fighter.
The Air Force reluctantly agreed to begin a new project, though it was clear that most senior officers remained committed to the F-15 and saw no need for a cheaper alternative.
Lightweight Fighter Program
What became known as the Lightweight Fighter Progam (LWP) began in 1969 when both General Dynamics and Northrop were awarded contracts to undertake design studies based on Boyd’s E-M theory.
The outcome of these initial studies was the issue of a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) in January 1972. Five aviation manufacturers responded but only two, General Dynamics and Northrop, were awarded contracts to produce prototypes.
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The General Dynamics YF-16 prototype first flew in January 1974. A few months later, the Northrop YF-17 took to the air.
It was agreed that the two new aircraft would be flown in a competitive trial. Many senior officers in the Air Force remained opposed to the development of a new fighter that they believed would deflect funds from the F-15.
However, they did recognise a need to replace aging fleets of F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers. In April 1974 it was agreed that the LWP would be refocused on an aircraft that would remain primarily an air manoeuvrability fighter, but would also have multi-role capability that would allow it to undertake tactical strike missions.
An Air Combat Fighter (ACF) competition was held to compare the YF-16 and YF-17.
The stakes were increased when the US Air Force announced that it would buy sufficient numbers of the winning aircraft to equip five tactical fighter wings.
The governments of Holland, Belgium and Denmark also announced that they would be interested in purchasing the rights to licence-build the new aircraft to replace their F-104G fighter-bombers.
During the ACF, the YF-16 was found to have better acceleration, climb ability, endurance and (at most altitudes) tighter turn rates than the YF-17. Another factor was that the YF-16 used a single Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan engine, the same engine used in the F-15.
Parts commonality would reduce operating costs for the YF-16. On 13th January 1975, John L. McLucas, the Secretary of the Air Force, announced that the YF-16 had won the ACF competition.
The main function of the F-16 was to be extremely manoeuvrable, and every aspect of its design reflected that aim. The pilot sat in a seat reclined at 30˚ to help withstand the 9g loads expected.
The seat was mounted high within a bubble canopy that gave superb situational awareness. Instead of a conventional control stick, a small joystick was provided on the right side of the cockpit, with an armrest so that the pilot’s grip wouldn’t be affected during high-G manoeuvres.
All the major flight and combat controls were accessible through a HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle And Stick) configuration that allowed the pilot to keep his hands on the controls during combat.
In terms of performance, the F-16 wasn’t just agile, it was deliberately designed to be inherently unstable. Maintaining controlled flight required constant input from four flight computers working in conjunction with a fly-by-wire system.
But when the pilot wanted to change direction quickly, that inherent instability made it happen more quickly than in a more stable design.
The F-16 was also relatively light; the loaded weight was around 12,000 kg, compared to over 20,000 kg for the F-15 (and around 30,000 kg for the US Navy F-14 Tomcat), which also helped with manoeuvrability.
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One issue for the F-16 when it was initially being developed for production was that the Air Force had decided that it would not be allowed to use the AIM-7F Sparrow air-to-air missile. That was to be reserved for use only on the F-15.
Mike Loh, who by that time was assigned to become director of projects for the F-16 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, found a novel way around this limitation; he designed a completely new lightweight radar-guided air-to-air missile that would fit on the AIM-9 Sidewinder stations provided on the F-16.
This would be developed to become the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile), one of the most potent air-to-air weapons in the USAF inventory.
When it first entered USAF service in early 1979, the F-16 was a revelation. It truly was a dogfighter, capable of out-manoeuvring virtually any other contemporary combat aircraft. The only thing that the new F-16 lacked was a name.
One of the most popular television shows of that period was the sci-fi epic Battlestar Galactica, launched in 1978. The show featured a manoeuvrable space fighter called the Viper. It didn’t take long for the F-16 to become known to those who flew it as the Viper.
Pilots began to sport “Viper Pilot” name tags based on those used in the television show. They were soon banned, but the name remained and is still used by many F-16 pilots, though the F-16 was formally named the Fighting Falcon in the early 1980s after the Air Force Academy mascot.
The F-16 in Operation
USAF F-16s have been used in combat in several theatres including the Middle East (during the first and Second Gulf Wars and over Libya in 2011), the Balkans (during conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo) and Afghanistan.
The F-16s of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been used in combat on several occasions including, in 1981, conducting a successful attack on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.
F-16s of the Pakistan Air Force has been involved in combat with aircraft from Afghanistan and the Indian Air Force on a number of occasions. F-16s of the Turkish Air Force was involved in several air combats during the Syrian Civil War between 2013 and 2020.
F-16s operated by NATO countries have been involved in combat over the Middle East and during the conflicts in the Balkans.
The F-16 has fundamentally changed since its first introduction with the USAF in 1979. It has become more sophisticated and complex, provided with new avionics and target tracking and acquisition systems.
These developments have made it heavier and more expensive, but it still retains the amazing dogfighting capability of the original version. It remains virtually the only modern military aircraft designed primarily to be extremely manoeuvrable for close-in combat.
The current version of the F-16 can deliver a range of air-to-ground munitions with extreme accuracy, over a range of more than 500 miles in all weathers, and can defend itself effectively against enemy air attacks if required.
The low-cost dogfighter has matured to become one of the most capable multi-role aircraft ever. It is not surprising that a total of over 4,500 F-16s have been manufactured (far more than the total number of F-15s produced) and around 3,000 remain in service around the world with the USAF and NATO countries including Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway as well as the Air Forces of many other countries around the world including Israel, Greece, Poland, Romania and Pakistan.
That is a very impressive record for what was initially intended simply as a low-cost, lightweight day-fighter.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 49 ft 5 in (15.06 m)
- Wingspan: 32 ft 8 in (9.96 m)
- Height: 16 ft (4.9 m)
- Empty weight: 18,900 lb (8,573 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 42,300 lb (19,187 kg)
- Payload: 15,800 lb (7,167 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × General Electric F110-GE-129 afterburning turbofan for Block 50 aircraft, 17,155 lbf (76.31 kN) thrust dry, 29,500 lbf (131 kN) with afterburner
(1 × Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 for Block 52 aircraft, 17,800 lbf (79 kN) thrust dry and 29,160 lbf (129.7 kN) with afterburner.)
- Maximum speed: Mach 2.05, 1,176 kn (1,353 mph; 2,178 km/h) at 40,000 feet, clean
- Service ceiling: 58,000 ft (18,000 m)