November 20, 2005 (by Lieven Dewitte) - Early in development, critics called the plane too small and slow. The Air Force, at first, didn't want it. But now the U.S. military — and many of its allies around the world — can't live without the F-16.
The fighter, which started as an experiment more than three decades ago, has become one of the most important airplanes in the Air Force inventory. At nearly 27 years old, the plane has matured to become one of the world's premier and most popular fighters in history.
"Today when people think of fighter planes, most people seem to think of the F-16 first," said Joe Stout, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin in Forth Worth, Texas. "Every time I see it, I get worked up. It's a beautiful airplane."
Engineers initially envisioned the airplane as a basic air-to-air fighter best flown during daylight hours, but the plane has become much more than anyone anticipated.
The plane can fly in any weather, consistently wins bombing and gunnery competitions, and in air-to-air combat it has a perfect 71-0 record against enemy aircraft.
The F-16 on the outside — with its short, swept-back wings and large tail — looks almost the same today as the first one that rolled off the production lines in 1979.
On the inside, however, it's almost totally different.
More than 4,000 F-16s have been made in more than 110 versions and are used by two-dozen countries. The fighter has gone through six major changes, five different engines, five types of radars and five electronic warfare equipment overhauls in its lifetime.
Just as computers have grown in memory and power, so has the F-16s avionics processing capability. The plane's computer has more than 2,000 times the memory and more than 260 times the throughput — the amount of work that a computer can do in a given time — of the original, according to F-16 maker Lockheed-Martin.
F-16s with the 52nd Fighter Wing's 23rd Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem are among the first units to receive the most recent upgrades to the planes. Some of the new features include a targeting pod that gives pilots a clear picture of targets miles away. Computer screens inside the cockpit are color, making them more user-friendly for pilots when they're traveling at nearly the speed of sound.
Pilots also wear special helmets that display flight information inside the visors. All they have to do is look at an enemy target with the helmet system, get a lock and fire away. The helmets cost $100,000 each and allow pilots to focus their attention outside the cockpit, improving safety and accuracy.
"The uniqueness of it is, is this plane does so many missions," said Capt. Jesse Friedel, a flight commander and weapons officer with the 23rd.
"It is a much more robust system than it once was," he added.
Although the official name of the fighter is the Fighting Falcon, few pilots who fly it call it by the original moniker. Most refer to it by the more menacing nickname "The Viper."
Most pilots love the planes they fly, and F-16 pilot Capt. Chris "Stac" Moeller, a pilot with the 23rd, is no exception.
"It's just a beautiful aircraft," he said, taking a moment to admire the plane. "It just looks like a fighter, you know?"
In the beginning, some people weren't so sure pilots would like flying the F-16. The aircraft is the first to use fly-by-wire flight controls, have a cockpit that can withstand 9 times the force of gravity and a bubble canopy that give pilots an unobstructed view.
Despite its advances in design, some in the Air Force weren't sold on the lightweight fighter. Early on, critics who preferred bigger and faster aircraft that could launch guided missiles from miles away didn't see a need for the nimble, single-engine fighter.
When the plane went through a series of combat tests against various planes, however, it outperformed them all. Not only did it do well in the trials, the plane also turned out to be a much cheaper plane than its predecessor, the F-15.
The Air Force has bought the majority of the more than 4,000 F-16 built, but the fighter is used by many other nations.
Although the U.S. military received its last new F-16 earlier this year, Lockheed Martin will continue making the plane for other countries. Until the Joint Strike Fighter enters production, the F-16 is expected to represent 56 percent of the U.S. Air Force's fighter force through 2010.
The plane will fly for the U.S. military beyond 2020 and will continue flying for other countries until well past 2030.
A new F-16 goes for between $40 million to $45 million each, depending on the features the customer wants, making it an attractive weapon for allied countries on a budget.
"I think it will be remembered as one of the great fighters," said Stout, who has been touting the F-16 for 25 years. "It already is. It is a classic fighter."