Our latest edition of Warbirds brings us to the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. This storied Cold War veteran took its first flight on January 20, 1974.
Requests for proposals in the 1972 Lightweight Fighter (LWF) initiative brought five companies into competition. General Dynamics and Northrop were eventually awarded contracts for prototype production. During a near disastrous taxi test the XF-16 was forced into an unscheduled first flight to avoid destroying the aircraft. Despite this, the Falcon went on to win the joint U.S. and NATO Air Combat Fighter competition – outperforming the Saab 37E “Eurofighter”, the Dassault-Breguet Mirage F1M-53, the SEPECAT Jaguar, and the Northrop P-530 Cobra (similar to the XF-17). Citing better maneuverability, greater range, and lower operating costs, the Secretary of the Air Force announced in 1975 its intent to order the first 650 F-16’s.
The first delivery of an F-16A to the USAF occurred on January 6, 1979. Operational deployment began on October 1, 1980 with the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB in Utah. Since then, over 4500 units of a variety of models have been built. Air forces of 25 nations have had the F-16 in their service.
The first combat experiences of the Falcon took place during the 1981 Lebanese Civil War. F-16s of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) successfully downed in air-to-air combat a Syrian Mi-8 helicopter and a MiG-21. Later that year, a combined flight of IAF F-16s and F-15s destroyed the nearly completed Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak.
In the 1980s, NATO and US deployment of the F-16 provided an effective counter to the massive deployments of Warsaw Pact aircraft in Eastern Europe. Innumerable aerial challenges occurred through the end of the Cold War, but no real combat. The first action seen by US and NATO F-16s occurred during the 1991 Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm. From January 16 to February 28, F-16s flew over 13,000 sorties with seven aircraft lost. Of these losses, only three were due to enemy fire. Despite their heavy operational tempo, it would be 1992 before the first USAF F-16 would get an air-to-air kill. During enforcement of the US/UK no-fly zones over Iraq, an F-16D shot down a Mig-25 with an AIM-120 AMRAAM. This event also marked the first kill by an AMRAAM missile.
F-16s continued to provide vital service throughout the next two decades. Action was seen in the Balkans in ’93,’94, and ’99 as well as Pakistan from ’86 to ’88 against Afghan Air Forces. Later, the Falcons saw combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom (’03-’10) and during operations of the IAF in Lebanon in ’06 as well as from ’08 to ’09. Today, Japanese and South Korean F-16s routinely deal with aerial challenges from Russian, North Korean, and even Chinese threats.
With the ongoing upgrade scheme, the USAF plans to keep the F-16 in service through 2025. However, with the delayed acquisitions of the F-35 Lightning II, the Fighting Falcon may see its US service extended well beyond that date. You should expect to see them in the air forces of other nations quite a bit longer.
This is a great documentary on the USAF Thunderbirds, their history, and the F-16. Enjoy!