The Outrageous Adolescence of the F-16

The Viper was small, fast, and in your face

Tough-guy F-15s flank a grown-up F-16 over Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in 2007. (USAF/MSGT KEVIN J. GRUENWALD)
Air & Space Magazine

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Everyone agreed the F-16, like many younger brothers, was fun to have around, although many believed he would never earn an honest living. In 1980, the F-16 still didn’t have an official name. Pilots had dubbed the jet the “Viper” after the fighter spacecraft in the TV series “Battlestar Galactica.” Many pilots wore “Viper Pilot” name tags. Leadership demanded the pilots remove the tags, but the unofficial nickname stuck. Most everyone can agree it was far better than the aircraft’s eventual official name, Fighting Falcon, which could be the name of your middle school football team.

The reality of the F-16 didn’t quite meet the expectation for some pilots, especially those who transitioned from the lumbering F-111 fighter-bomber. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Dana Purifoy, part of the initial F-16 cadre at Hahn Air Base in Germany, remembers his surprise at doing more air-to-ground work than air-to-air. In addition, to F-111 pilots flying air-to-ground missions in Europe, the F-16 seemed like a giant step backward. Purifoy says, “I thought I’d traded one bad deal with an airplane I thought had at least some possibility of survival [when battling Warsaw Pact forces] for an airplane I thought had zero possibility of survival.” In the F-111, Purifoy enjoyed an all-weather radar and automated terrain-following system that enabled him to fly a mere 200 feet above the ground. The early F-16 was more like a Cessna 172, with a basic instrument landing system and no radar altimeter.

Before long, pilots who flew the F-15 taunted F-16 crews about their scrappy airplane, but Viper pilots knew what the jet could do, especially when dropping bombs. Visual bombing was so accurate that Ettinger says the test pilots called the pipper on the head-up display the “death dot.” In June 1981, during a precision bombing competition against F-111s, SEPECAT Jaguars, and Blackburn Buccaneers at the Royal Air Force Lossiemouth base in Scotland, the F-16 destroyed all ground targets, recorded 88 air-to-air kills, and had no losses while achieving a near-perfect score.

By the early 1980s, improvement programs began to materialize. The most important was LANTIRN, Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night. In addition to turning “night into day” and providing low-altitude terrain-following guidance, LANTIRN promised to improve the F-16’s rudimentary precision-guided weapons capability. Retired Colonel Dave Martin, an early LANTIRN test pilot, says the forward-looking infrared technology was so good that when they later added night vision goggles, the goggles just added weight without any real benefit. He recalls that on his first flight he had a hard time trusting the terrain-following guidance, but his instructor coaxed him down to 200 feet while screeching along at almost 575 mph. “That was the first time I’d imagined doing something like that in an airplane at night,” he says. “After some practice, it just became second nature.”

But full LANTIRN capability wasn’t available to the F-16 during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The few production pods that existed went to the more-capable F-15E strike aircraft. Without the LANTIRN targeting pods, F-16 pilots mostly dropped unguided weapons from high altitudes, resulting in many targets being missed. In addition to demonstrating the need for more precision-guided weapons, the Gulf War showed the ascendancy of the radar missile—29 of the confirmed or probable 44 air-to-air kills (none by F-16s) were made by Sparrows. Some felt the F-16’s performance in the war was marginal—a few F-4G Wild Weasel aircrew, charged with destroying enemy surface-to-air-missile sites, suggested the Viper be stamped “For training use only.”

As the F-16 approaches middle age, the “supplemental airplane” has become a multi-role rock star for 26 countries. More than 4,500 Vipers have been built. Within a few months after the Gulf War, F-16s began receiving many of the planned upgrades, including the long-coveted LANTIRN pods and the AMRAAM radar missile. On December 27, 1992, an F-16 patrolling the post-war Iraqi no-fly zone shot down a MiG-25 with the first-ever air-to-air kill for both an F-16 and an AMRAAM.

Throughout the 1990s, the airplane continued to improve, despite a last-ditch attempt by the F-4G Wild Weasel community to keep the SAM-site killing mission for themselves. The current F-16 Block 50/52 Wild Weasel capabilities include an improved radar, suppression of enemy defenses, and even a missile for destroying ships. The spunky little brother finally grew up.

About Eileen Bjorkman

Eileen Bjorkman, a retired U.S. Air Force flight test engineer, is working on a book about the history of homebuilt aircraft.

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