The F-16 first flew 47 years ago, and the Air Force may keep it flying decades longer due to problems with the F-35

Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet
A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon on a mission near Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 22, 2003.

  • Nearly 50 years after its first flight, the F-16 remains in service with air forces around the world.
  • The US Air Force was set to get rid of its F-16s in the coming decade, but delays on its new fighters mean the Fighting Falcon will fly on.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

February 2 was the 47th anniversary of the first official test flight for the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Designed by General Dynamics in the 1970s, the Falcon – or the Viper, as it is commonly and affectionately known by its American pilots – quickly became one of the best fighter jets in history.

Its lightweight, powerful engines, and groundbreaking electronics gave it an edge over almost all of its contemporary adversaries. Its modular airframe proved so adaptable that over a dozen different versions of the fighter have been made since its first flight.

About 4,600 F-16s have been built since 1974, and the fighter is currently in service with 26 countries.

The ‘fighter mafia’

Air Force F-16 YF-16 YF-17
A YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft.

The F-16 came about as a result of requests from a group known as the “fighter mafia,” a group of Air Force officers and civilian defense analysts who were unsatisfied with the performance of the F-4 Phantom II in Vietnam, and believed that the Air Force’s emphasis on larger, heavier fighters armed only with missiles was a mistake.

What was needed, they argued, was a cost-effective fighter jet that was small, lightweight, fast, and highly maneuverable. The need for a cheaper and lighter fighter grew when the operating costs of the new F-15 became apparent.

In 1969, after intense lobbying, the group was able to secure funding for the Lightweight Fighter program. By 1974, two prototype models from two companies were shown to the Air Force: the YF-16 from General Dynamics and the YF-17 from Northrop Grumman.

The YF-16 was selected as the winner in 1975, though the YF-17 would eventually see service with the Navy and Marine Corps as the F/A-18. By 1980, F-16s were in service with the US Air Force as well as with NATO members Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway.

A modern design

Air Force F-16 fighter jet canopy pilot cockpit
A US Air Force pilot in an F-16 Fighting Falcon at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina, April 12, 2008.

The Falcon featured a number of new technologies and systems that put it above its competitors. Its engine could push it to twice the speed of sound, and the cropped delta wings gave it incredible maneuverability, including the ability to pull 9g turns – the first US fighter to do so.

The bubble canopy gave the pilot unobstructed forward and upward vision and improved side and rear vision. The cockpit seat-back angle, set at 30 degrees instead of the usual 13, increased pilot comfort and gravity force tolerance, enabling high-g turns and maneuvers.

The F-16 was the first production aircraft to replace manual flight controls with a digital “fly-by-wire” system, increasing response time and pilot control. It also featured side-stick controls with a hands-on throttle-and-stick set up, giving better ergonomics and allowing the pilot to fly and perform multiple functions at the same time.

Brand-new radar systems and electronics, like concurrent head-mounted and heads-up display, enabled pilots to track and engage enemy aircraft quickly and efficiently with its large arsenal: up to 17,000 pounds of air-to-air missiles and bombs mounted on 11 hardpoints, as well as a 20 mm Vulcan rotary cannon.

A long service record

Israeli F-16
An Israeli Air Force F-16 moves into position for refueling during an exercise over the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 17, 2009.

The F-16’s combat debut was with the Israeli Air Force, shooting down a pair of Syrian Mi-8 helicopters in April 1981 and a MiG-21 in July that year.

On June 7, 1981, the Israelis showed the F-16 could conduct airstrikes, when, during Operation Opera, they destroyed Iraq’s unfinished Osirak nuclear reactor. In one engagement in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War, Israeli F-16s shot down 44 Syrian aircraft, 11 more than the Israeli F-15s that took part in the battle.

The F-16 saw combat in American service for the first time during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when 249 Air Force F-16s flew over 13,000 sorties, more than any other aircraft during the campaign. Only seven were lost, three to enemy fire.

The Desert Storm missions were mostly airstrikes, but American F-16s did score their first air-to-air kills during the ensuing Operation Southern Watch, downing a MiG-25 in December 1992 and a MiG-23 in January 1993.

US F-16s have seen action in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. F-16s in service with other countries have flown combat missions over Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

F-16s are also seen regularly over the Baltic and Black Sea as part of NATO’s air-policing operations and over the Taiwan Strait, where Taiwan regularly scrambles its F-16s to intercept Chinese military aircraft.

Future fighters

Taiwan air force F-16 fighter jet
A US-made F-16V takes off during an exercise in southern Taiwan, January 15, 2020.

About 1,300 F-16s are in service with the US Air Force, and the jet is still loved by its pilots.

The Air Force originally planned to retire its F-16s in 2025, but budget constraints and the slow delivery of its intended replacement, the F-35, forced the service to initiate a Service Life Extension Program for its F-16s, enabling the fighters to fly until at least 2048.

The Air Force is reportedly interested in buying brand new F-16s, as both F-16s and F-15EXs were in the service’s fiscal year 2023 budget request. These would be the first new F-16s to enter US service since 2005.

F-16s are still being built for international customers, and “that system has some wonderful upgraded capabilities that are worth thinking about as part of our capacity solution,” Will Roper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told Aviation Week in January.

It is not known what type of F-16 the Air Force may buy. The most advanced¬†version in active service, the F-16E/F Block 60 “Desert Falcon,” is flown by the United Arab Emirates Air Force.

Lockheed Martin, which bought General Dynamics in 1993, has developed the Block 70/72, the newest production F-16, which features large external fuel tanks and new, advanced avionics, notably the APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, which has already saved pilots.

Lockheed has also developed the F-16V, its latest, most advanced upgrade configuration, which several countries have purchased, including Taiwan.

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