The early years
The prototype YF-16 ( #72-1567) was rolled out at Fort Worth on December 13, 1973 and was air freighted by C-5A to Edwards AFB on January 8, 1974. Its first flight was an unintended short hop around the pattern on January 21, 1974 at the hands of test pilot Phil Oestricher.
John G. Williams, a structural flight test engineer on the YF-16, recalls:
During the first high-speed taxi test, a violent lateral oscillation had set in as a direct result of pilot-commanded oscillations (several maximum left/right commands) as the airplane reached rotation speed (~120 kt). Remember, this was the first airplane to have a fixed stick, and there was no opportunity for Phil to gain any feel for the airplane, until that high-speed taxi test. As the nose of the aircraft rose, the tailplane inadvertently scraped on the runway. The left wingtip missile and the right tail static probe also lightly contacted the runway. Phil chose to take off because the bird had begun to veer off to the left side of the runway, and he was faced with plowing through the desert or flying. Thankfully he chose to fly and possibly saved the entire program. After take off, Phil regained control and stayed up for six minutes, and landed uneventfully. Prior to the next flight, the stick sensitivity was reduced by 50% with gear down. Later, after complaints of not enough sensitivity, it was returned to the original."
The scheduled first flight was delayed until a new right stabilator could be fitted. It took eventually place on February 2, 1974, again with Phil Oestricher at the controls. He reached 400 mph and 30,000 feet.
The 2nd YF-16 prototype, seen with a load of 4 Sparrows. Given the absence of a radar (note the pointy nose; later to be enlarged to accomodate the radar), this configuration seems a bit odd. (USAF photo)
YF-16 no 2 (#72-1568) was flown for the first time on May 9th, 1974 with test pilot Neil Anderson at the controls.
On two occasions during these early test flights, the F100 engine went uncommanded idle while in flight, forcing a dead-stick landing. Temporary flying restrictions were imposed on the YF-16 until the problem could be corrected. The fault was traced to contamination of the fuel-control valve which caused the valve to jam in the idle position, but while the curbs were in effect, the YF-16 had to remain within dead-stick landing distance of the airfield.
The flyoff between the YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17 began as soon as flight testing started. The two YF-16s reached speeds of over Mach 2.0, maneuvers achieving 9g, and altitudes above 60,000 feet. Although the YF-16 was designed for 6.5g at full internal fuel, 9g capability at reduced fuel loads and non-critical mach/altitude combinations allowed the YF to easily demonstrate the advantages of the higher g in air combat and to verify the effects of the 30 degree inclined seat. There was an attempt to get as many pilots as possible to fly both the YF-16 and YF-17. The Lightweight Fighter prototypes never flew against each other, but they did fly against all current USAF fighters as well as against MiG-17s and MiG-21s that had been "acquired" by the USAF.
Air Combat Fighter
Within the Air Force staff, there was a strong institutional bias against the LWF, since they perceived it to be a threat to the F-15 program. To head off some of this suspicion, the program was renamed Air Combat Fighter (ACF) by the Defense Department. In the meantime, the governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway had begun to consider possible replacements for the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. They formed the Multinational Fighter Program Group (MFPG) to choose the successor. The prime candidates were the Northrop YF-17, the Dassault Mirage F.1, the SAAB JA37 Viggen, and the General Dynamics YF-16. The winner of the ACF contest would probably be the favored candidate, but the MFPG wanted to see if the USAF was going to buy the plane for itself before they made a decision. These countries wanted a decision from the USAF by December of 1974.
In the meantime, some US Navy officers had been expressing interest in a low-cost alternative to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, which was at that time experiencing severe teething troubles and suffering from a series of cost overruns. This program came to be known as VFAX. A stripped version of the Tomcat (named F-14X) had been proposed by Grumman, but had been summarily rejected by the Deputy Defense Secretary. In May 10, 1974 the House Armed Services Committee dictated that the VFAX would have to be a wholly new aircraft, but, apparently having forgotten the sorry experience with the F-111, they wanted the USAF and the Navy to purchase basically the same plane. However, the Navy (unlike the Air Force) wanted the VFAX to be capable of filling both air-to-air and ground-attack roles.
In August of 1974, the Congress took money intended for VFAX and diverted it to a new program known as Navy Air Combat Fighter (NACF), and directed that this plane make maximum feasible use of the USAF's LWF/ACF technology and hardware. It would be basically a navalized LWF/ACF. However, most Navy officers were solidly committed to the F-14 and wanted nothing to do with either the VFAX or the NACF. Nevertheless, Congress was insistent, and in September of 1974, the Navy announced that it would select a single contractor to begin engineering development of the NACF and requested bids from the industry. In response to this request, on September 27, 1974, General Dynamics announced that they would be teaming with Ling-Temco-Vought (also located in Dallas/Fort Worth) to propose a NACF design based on the YF-16. The navalized YF-16 was to have BVR radar, which was not part of the original planning for a USAF F-16. If both the Air Force and the Navy picked the YF-16, General Dynamics would be the prime contractor for the Air Force and LTV would be prime contractor for the Navy. However, in retrospect, since both contractors were located in the same state, there was little likelihood of receiving a contract.
In October of 1974, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger announced that that he was considering production of the winner of the ACF contest to satisfy USAF, Navy, and export requirements. Up to that time, the LWF/ACF program had been largely an academic exercise for the USAF. The design emphasis would now be changed to that of a multi-role aircraft. It would complement rather than supplement the F-15 Eagle in USAF service, easing somewhat Air Force fears that the ACF would somehow sidetrack their Eagle program. The production form of the LWF (by now known strictly as the ACF in Defense Department press releases) would have a larger radar antenna, giving the aircraft some BVR capability. The USAF announced plans to buy 650 ACF's, with the possibility that this order could be increased to 1400 or more. This move was designed to assure the potential NATO customers that the USAF would stand firmly behind the new fighter.
YF-16 selected as the winner of the ACF contest
USAF YF-16A prototype, #01568
in a blue and white camouflage scheme. (GD photo)
On January 13, 1975, Air Force Secretary John McLucas announced that the YF-16 had been selected as the winner of the ACF contest. The Air Force placed a contract for fifteen FSD (Full-Scale Development) airframes. Both single- and two-seat versions would be built, with the single-seater being designated F-16A and the two-seater F-16B. The reason given by the Secretary for the decision was the lower operating cost, longer range, and better transient maneuverability of the YF-16. Another advantage of the YF-16 over the YF-17 as far as the Air Force was concerned was the fact that the F100 turbofan of the YF-16 was the same powerplant as that of the F-15, and it was felt that buying more of these engines would advance the cause of the fighter that it REALLY wanted, the F-15. Political considerations also played a role, since with the F-111 program coming to an end, General Dynamics of Fort Worth needed the F-16 order to stay in business.
In the meantime, the F-16 still remained one of the contenders for the NACF order. One proposal from General Dynamics was for a single-seat naval fighter based on the two-seat F-16B but with the space ordinarily occupied by the rear seat being used for increased avionics or fuel. On May 2nd, 1975, the Navy announced that they had decided not to buy the navalized F-16, but opted instead for an aircraft developed from the YF-17, which was eventually to emerge as the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.
In February of 1975, the NATO consortium was offered the F-16 at a unit flyaway cost of 5.16 million dollars, based on a total production run of 2,000 planes for the USAF, NATO, and other countries. At the same time, the US government announced that it had cleared F100 engine technology transfer to these countries.
Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway join in
Neil Anderson belly landed the second prototype on the grass in front of GD on May 8th, 1975 while doing a practice show before Paris. On takeoff, he did what was then an unique maneuver... almost as the wheels left the ground, the gear was cycled, the aircraft put into a 270 degree roll, then immediately placed into a 9g turn. Unfortunately, one of the tires was slightly out of balance, and this combined with the abnormal torque on the gear from being in a roll caused one of the main gear tires to jam on a ledge when it entered the wheel well.
Neil had no choice but to put the wheels up, and put it down in the dirt, right in front of thousands of GD employees and their families. He was unhurt, but the damage to the hand-built prototype was too expensive to repair.
According to John Williams:
"Neal's gear-up landing was more embarassing than is generally known. The day before, during a practice air show, the landing gear hit a small bracket in the wheel well and knocked it off. No one thought much about why it happened, but were mainly concerned with preventing it from happening again. So, what did they do? Strengthen the bracket of course. Then, the next day, when the gear again struck the bracket, it jammed against it. No amount of high g or rolling maneuvers freed it, so it was landed gear up. Neal wanted to stay up longer and try to free the gear, but ran out of fuel. Only about 5 gallons were found in the tanks after the landing. There was a USAF KC-135 sitting at the end of the runway on alert with engines running, but it was not allowed to take off because it was over weight. It probably did not matter, as the gear was well-jammed into the bracket."
However, in May of 1975, the first YF-16 made its first transatlantic flight for a sales tour to its potential NATO customers, and put in an appearance at the Paris Air Show. On June 7th, 1975, armed with the assurance of a USAF commitment to the type, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway announced that they had agreed to acquire the F-16 as a replacement for the F-104G. A total of 348 were in the initial production contract. In its new form, the F-16 offered more new technology, superior performance, and a more attractive offset production package than any of its competitors. Initially, there was some criticism of the F-16s lack of BVR and all-weather capability, as well as some concern about the performance problems that the F100 engine was encountering at the time.
The 2nd prototype aircraft was taken to the Paris Air Show in 1975. This picture was taken in June, just before the Air Show, at Bitburg AB Germany. (Lt. Col. L. Danner)
A large network of manufacturers were contracted to build the F-16 under license in Europe, with the final assembly taking place at SABCA's Gosselies plant in Belgium, at the Fokker plant at Schiphol in the Netherlands, as well as at the parent General Dynamics plant in Fort Worth, Texas. At the same time, the Belgian company SONACA (formerly known as Fairey SA) was reconstituted with new management and was contracted to build the aft fuselage. Fokker was to build fuselage center sections, leading edge flaps, the trailing edge and flaperon and other assemblies for US production, and was to carry out the final assembly of machines destined for Dutch and Norwegian service. SABCA was to build the wing structure box and other parts and was to handle assembly of the complete wing. SABCA was also to be responsible for final assembly of planes destined for Belgian and Danish service. The vertical fin box and the wing and centerline pylons were to be built in Denmark by Per Udsen. The undercarriage was to be built by DAF in the Netherlands and the wheels by Raufoss in Norway.
The Belgian Fabrique National (FN) plant was to be responsible for final assembly of the F100 engines for the European aircraft. Kongsberg of Norway was to build the fin drive turbine module whereas Phillips in Holland was to handle the augmentor nozzle module.
MBLE of Belgium was assigned the overall responsibility for the APG-66 radar, with Signaal and Oldelft of the Netherlands being responsible for the radar antennae and the HUD display. Neselco and LK-NES of Denmark were to supply the fire control computer, the radar displays were to be built by the Danish company Nea Linberg, and Kongsberg of Norway was to handle the inertial navigation system.
The manufacture of the first production F-16 began at General Dynamics's Fort Worth plant in August of 1975. This involved General Dynamics in a major modernization of its huge Fort Worth plant, which had originally been built during World War 2 for B-24 Liberator production and had not been updated since the 1960's. The production F-16A differed from the YF-16 in having a fuselage stretch of 26 inches, 10 inches in the center fuselage (permitting a higher fuel load) and 16 inches in the nose to accommodate the Westinghouse APG-66 radar. The wing area was increased by 20 square feet and an additional underwing hardpoint was fitted. A total of nine external points were now available (3 under each wing, one at each wingtip, and one on the fuselage centerline) for up to 10,000 pounds of fuel or weapons. The horizontal tailplane was increased in size, and a jet starter was added to the F100 turbofan.
The need for FSD aircraft dropped to six single-seat F-16A's (serial numbers #75-0745/0750) and two two-seat F-16B's (serial numbers #75-0751/0752). The first F-16A/FSD was flown on December 8, 1976, with Neil R. Anderson at the controls. The first two-seat F-16B (fourth of the FSD aircraft) took off on its maiden flight on August 8, 1977, with company test pilots Neil Anderson and Phil Oestricher at the controls.
Fighter-bomber instead of lightweight day fighter
In 1977, the Air Force announced plans to buy an additional 783 F-16A's and B's. At this time, the USAF specified that the plane was to serve as a fighter-bomber, in contradiction to its initial plans for the LWF as a lightweight day fighter.
The Belgian production line opened in February of 1978, with the Dutch line opening in April of 1978. The first F-16 to be delivered to Europe arrived at Gosselies on June 9th, 1978. It was a Fort Worth-built machine, and was used for assembly tests at the SABCA plant.
Large-scale production for the USAF began with FY '78 funds, and the first full production F-16A coming from the Fort Worth production line flew for the first time in August of 1978. The first flight of a European-built F-16 took place on December 11th, 1978 from Gosselies. This was a two-seat F-16B, flown by Neil Anderson and Serge Martin. The first Fokker-built F-16 (#J-259, #78-0259) flew for the first time on May 3rd, 1979.
The first F-16A/B's were delivered to the 388th TFW at Hill AFB in Utah in January 1979. The same month, the first F-16A/B's were delivered to the Belgian Air Force. The first Fighting Falcons were delivered to the Royal Netherlands Air Force in June of 1979. Deliveries to Denmark, Norway, and Israel began in January of 1980. In July 1980, the name 'Fighting Falcon' was officially adopted for the F-16.
In Europe and the USA, an intricate Mutinational Staged Improvement Program (MSIP) was initiated to handle the upgrading of the F-16 aircraft on a planned, gradual basis. MSIP not only covers progressive modifications to aircraft on the production line, but also implements these improvements retroactively in existing aircraft.