The Biggest Bang for the Fighter Buck
The F-16 Falcon, AKA Viper, is a maverick, borne of
mavericks and for years was at odds with much of the Air Force establishment.
They resented the fact that the airplane had been literally rammed down
their throats by congress as the result of the persuasive lobbying efforts
of what has become known as the Fighter Mafia, which included, among
others, legendary fighter pilot/tactician John Boyd and test pilot Chuck
Right after Vietnam a lot of coffee was consumed in a lot of smoke-filled
rooms while the fighter community de-briefed what had been a nearly
embarrassing lack of dominance in their chosen profession. Both services
had been ripping around in the terrifically expensive, unbelievably
fast, super sophisticated and pretty darned big Phantoms yet it was
sometimes all they could do to maintain a 2:1 kill ratio against the
motley collection of MiG’s North Vietnam threw against them.
The Navy started work in a new direction that eventually produced the
F-14, while the Air Force developed the F-15, which the Fighter Mafia
felt confirm that The Establishment hadn’t been listening to the
lessons learned in ‘Nam. The Phantom had proved that killing a
target beyond visual range (BVR) with missiles wasn’t practical
because radar couldn’t tell whether the target was ours or theirs.
It also proved speed was highly over rated because, after one turn,
all fights burn down to sub-sonic levels where the super light, highly
powered MiGs could turn inside a Phantom and eat him for lunch. Plus
the tiny MiGs were practically invisible while the hulking Phantoms
were hard to miss.
The F-15 was bigger than the Phantom and cost even more so fewer could
be built. The Fighter Mafia argued for a much lighter, higher powered
airplane that could be built for nickels and dimes (government nickels
and dimes are bigger than yours and mine) and could pull a solid 9 G’s
at the speeds at which it would be fighting . Prior to that, 7 G’s
was about the limit and the Phantom burned so much speed in a high G
turn that it practically came to a halt.
The Mafia won and a contest was held with the finalists being Northrop’s
XF-17, that eventually became the Navy’s F/A-18 and General Dynamic’s
At little over half the weight of an F-15 with similarly reduced costs,
the F-16, despite its rocky acceptance has proven to be an unqualified
success. A relatively small airplane, its blended wing configuration
gives it much more internal fuel storage than would be expected, and
its 30 degree reclined seating lets the pilot pull heavy G’s without
blacking out. Its one-piece canopy, a fighter first, gives better visibility,
but because it is thicker precludes ejecting through it. The side stick
controls of the Viper/Falcon take some getting used too, as they are
really not meant to move: they sense pressures that are then transmitted
to the computers that are actually flying the airplane.
For maximum maneuverability, the airplane is designed to be so unstable
that, should all four of its computers fail, it would almost instantly
tumble from controlled flight and be torn to shreds. That hasn’t
What has happened is that the airplane has become one of the most universally
accepted (it’s operated by over 24 countries), most cost effective
fighters of this generation. It will be many decades before the F-16’s
are forced out by a more able successor. It’s going to be a hard
act to follow, as it’s still the biggest bang for the fighter
Peanut Pirep? Return to PEANUT.