Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon First Spread Its Wings 50 Years Ago!

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USAF Thunderbirds F-16Cs

Story and photos by Ken Kula
The United States-designed F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter, more commonly called the “Viper”, first took to the skies by accident on January 20, 1974 some 50 years plus a few months ago. During a high-speed taxi test of the first YF-16 prototype, an unplanned oscillation led to General Dynamics’ test pilot Phil Oestricher’s decision to lift off of the runway under control, instead of the likely result of veering off of it and crashing alongside the surface.

Fifty years and some 4,600 airframes later, the Viper is quite relevant in many of the world’s air forces. In fact, the aircraft model is still in production. Through continuous upgrades and incremental increases in performance (each version is commonly called a Block, signifying various changes from the original), the aircraft has gained weight, carries a more powerful engine, has had armament capacity and capabilities increased, and stayed current with avionics and communications equipment.

Large, heavy and specialized USAF aircraft operated throughout the Vietnam and Cold Wars. Improvements to power plants, radar and aeronautical engineering/design promised a leap in capability and survivability. The single seat, single-engined Viper has a Fly By Wire control system, a first in U. S. fighter design and production. The aircraft was rated at a then-unheard of +9Gs, helped with the semi-reclining pilot seat. This all equates to a “Fourth Generation” multi-role (fighter and bomber) jet that has been improved with some “Fifth Generation” capabilities.

YF-16B number #1 at the 25th Anniversary celebration of the F-16’s first flight

In the beginning, the YF-16 was designed to win the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) portion of the Advanced Day Fighter competition, where it would ultimately be teamed with the heavyweight McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. The YF-16 beat out the Northrop YF-17 jet (which was later developed into the F/A-18 Hornet) in the LWF competition in early 1975. Additional full-scale development test aircraft were ordered; parts of the YF-16 were redesigned in these airframes. The first single seat, Pratt and Whitney-powered F-16A first flew in December, 1976, and the initial twin-seat F-16B first flew in 1977. Production F-16As entered service with the U. S. Air Force in 1980. By then, the LWF had been merged into a multi-role aircraft program and was not the lightweight day-fighter first imagined in the LWF program.

Turkish Air Force F-16C flight demonstration aircraft

In 1975, four European air arms ordered a total of 348 F-16s, with some production taking place in Europe. Other licensed production lines in Turkey and Korea would follow years later. Japan produced a modified variant, known as the Mitsubishi F-2.

More than two dozen countries have or will operate F-16s, some receive second-hand aircraft which are modernized and less expensive to procure.

The main Block numbers denote an increase in capability, and/or an engine and airframe upgrade. The general Block and variant numbers include:

Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM (MLU) display jet

Pakistani Air Force F-15B Block 15

F-16A/B: The A version is a single seat fighter, the B version has tandem seats and dual controls for training. The main blocks include the -1, -5, -10, -15 and -20.
European variants of the A/B versions (operated by Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway) received an upgrade through a MLU (Mid-Life Update). These are known as F-16AM/BM versions. These are easily identified by the drag chute containers found at the base of their vertical stabilizers.

F-16A Block 15 ADV

A major U. S. update of many Block 15s was the ADV (Air Defense Variant). During the early 1990s, several hundred early F-16s received airframe and computer upgrades to become interceptors, more or less. An internal spotlight was added, as was the capability of utilizing Beyond Visual Range missiles. Multiple Air National Guard Fighter Groups/Wings gained an air defense mission with these during the latter part of the Cold War.

Polish Air Force F-16D Block 52+

F-16C/D: The main Blocks are the -25, 30, 40 and 50. In the latter three versions, the -32, -42, and -52 variants were powered by Pratt and Whitney engines; the -30, 40, and -50 carry General Electric power plants. More specific models include the Block 50/52CJ and DJ (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses). Some later versions are known as Block 50+/52+ versions, capable of additional conformal fuel tanks.

UAE F-16E BLOCK 60

F-16E/F: Block 60 upgrades include computer and radar upgrades. An infrared tracking device and conformal fuel tanks are also noticeable features.

Navy TF-16

F-16N/TF-16N: U. S. Navy and Marines Aggressor training aircraft. One batch was operated before the turn of the century and were retired when airframe fatigue cracks were identified. In early 2003, a group of undelivered ex-Pakistani F-16s were transformed into a second group of Navy/Marine Aggressor jets.

F-16V: The most current version of the F-16 is the Block 70/72. New airframes will be built, but a number of F-16 Block 50/52 airframes will be modernized as well.

QF-16 uncrewed photo by USAF MSgt. J. Scott Wilcox

QF-16: Early Block versions of the F-16 are being converted into Full Scale Aerial Targets (FSAT) with remote control/uncrewed operation.

USAF NF-16D VISTA of the Test Pilot School

Special test aircraft: NASA and U. S. Air Force test programs have resulted in several modified (a few with major alterations) F-16 aircraft. The Fly By Wire controls add to the test aircraft’s capabilities in some cases.

For a front line fighter design to remain in service for half of a century is a testament to the technological advances made after the Vietnam War. Fifty years after its accidental first flight, the Viper has become a multi-tasked, best-selling fighter whose full retirement is still decades (and possibly another half-century) away.
Here are 50 more photos of Vipers around the world:

And, a few tail views too…

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 35 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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