The F-16 Fighting Falcon aka Viper
The Birth of the F-16
In the late 1960s the USAF started its Lightweight Fighter program (LWF). The program’s purpose was to see if it would be possible to build a credible fighter plane that was significantly lighter and less expensive than the F-15, which was under development. In April 1972 the Air Force awarded contracts for two prototypes. The prototypes became the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17. The YF-16 made its first flight on January 20, 1974.[i]
Meanwhile Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Norway were looking for an aircraft to replace their F-104Gs. This caused the LWF Program to become the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) program in April 1974. The YF-16 won the competition in December. The initial order was for 650 aircraft for the USAF. Orders soon came in from numerous other countries.[ii] The 1973 Yom Kippur War convinced the USAF aircraft quantity was as important as aircraft quality so the USAF increased its order to 1,388 aircraft.[iii] The F-16 would be a great success in terms of aircraft sales.
The cost for the F-16 rose from an initial estimate of $4.6 million to over $6 million in 1975. This rose to $12.322 million in 1978.[iv] The F-16 was being changed from a low-cost fighter to a multirole aircraft. Fred Kaplan, in a 1982 article published in the Boston Globe, lamented, “An Army general would never think of building something that could be both a tank and an armored personnel carrier. A Navy admiral would laugh at the suggestion that he order a vessel that could both submerge underwater and carry missiles that shoot down Backfire bombers. Yet it is a matter of course for the Air Force to design airplanes that can ‘dogfight,’ intercept other planes at long range and drop bombs on the ground. The problem is that aiming for so many missions at once makes it nearly impossible that the plane can perform any of those missions very well.”[v]
[i] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd., P.36.
[ii] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd., P.36-41.
[iii] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.
[iv] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.
[v] The Little Plane That Could Fly, If the Air Force Would Let It”, by Fred Kaplan, Boston Globe, March 14, 1982.
General Dynamics built the F-16XL as a technology demonstrator. This version of the F-16 had a cranked-arrow delta wing. General Dynamics hoped this F-16 design would win the Enhanced Tactical Fighter (ETF) competition. The General Dynamics believed the F-15 had the advantage in air-air combat but their F-16 had the advantage in air-ground capability. The F-15E Strike Eagle won the competition. This wasn’t the end of the F-16XL. NASA used the prototypes for aeronautical research.
In the 1980s the USAF set aside some F-16s to be A-16s. The A-16 would be equipped with a 30mm cannon and other anti-tank weapons. During tests the heat from the 30mm gun would singe components in the port fuselage. This caused the USAF to abandon the project.[i]
On November 26, 1990 the USAF decided to try an F/A-16 concept. The plan was to eventually replace the A-10 with attack versions of the F-16. The Air Force abandoned the F/A-16 project in 1992.[ii]
[i] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/f-16_versions_article18.html, last accessed 12/30/18.
[ii] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/f-16_versions_article18.html, last accessed 12/30/18.
Israeli F-16s in Combat
The first F-16 air victories happened on April 28, 1981 when Israeli F-16s shot down two Syrian Mi-8 helicopters. Syria countered by moving SA-6 surface to air missile (SAM) batteries into the Bekaa Valley. On June 7, 1981 eight Israeli F-16s, escorted by six F-15s, destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor.[i] The attack killed 10 Iraqi soldiers and French engineer Damien Chaussepied. Israel paid restitution to Chaussepied’s family. All Israeli aircraft returned safely.
On May 26, 1982 Israeli F-16s shot down two Syrian MiG-21s. Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee on June 6, 1982. In the Bekaa Valley the Syrians had 19 SAM batteries (15 SA-6, 2 SA-3, 2 SA-2). The Israeli Air Force F-16s and other fighter bombers destroyed or damaged 17 of the batteries in one day without loss. The Syrian Air Force joined in the fight. During Operation Peace for Galilee Israeli F-16s shot down 44 Syrian aircraft without loss. This brought the total number of Israeli F-16 air-air kills to 51 without a single combat loss.[ii]
In 2000 Israeli F-16s destroyed three power stations in Lebanon. On October 20, 2003 an Israeli Air Force F-16 destroyed a Hamas weapons factory. An Israeli F-16 shot down a Hezbullah Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), a Mirsad I, on August 7, 2006. Israeli F-16s shot down a UAV on October 10, 2012 and another on April 25, 2013.
[i] Fighters over Israel by Lon Nordeen, © 1990.
[ii] Fighters over Israel by Lon Nordeen, © 1990.
Pakistani F-16s in Combat
Pakistan was the second country to use F-16s in combat. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan Soviet and Afghan fighters sometimes strayed into Pakistani airspace. On May 17, 1986 F-16s intercepted four Afghan Air Force Su-22s over Pakistani Air Force. F-16 pilot Squadron Leader Hameed Qadri attempted to fire his missiles but they failed to launch. He closed in and used his cannon and shot down two of the Su-22s.[i] On March 30, 1987 an F-16 shot down and Afghan An-26. Afghanistan claimed the An-26 was an airliner with 40 passengers on board.[ii] The first F-16 lost in air-air combat happened on April 29, 1987. It was shot down by another Pakistani F-16. Flight Lieutenant Shahid Sikandar Khan ejected safely when the Sidewinder missile struck his aircraft.[iii] In August 1988 an F-16 shot down an Su-25 Grach[iv] piloted by Soviet Air Force Colonel Alexander Rutskoy. Colonel Rutskoy ejected and Pakistani forces captured him. He was repatriated. An F-16 struck another Su-25 with a missile but the Su-25 was able to return to base.
The highest scoring Pakistani F-16 pilot is Group Captain Khalid Mehmood, 3 kills. He scored his first two kills on September 12, 1988 when he and another F-16 pilot attacked six MiG-23s. Then Flight Lieutenant Mehmood shot down two of the MiG-23s. On November 3, 1988 he shot down an Su-22.[v]
On February 27, 2019 the Indian Air Force claimed to have shot down a Pakistani Air Force F-16. The Indian Air Force credited Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, a MiG-21 pilot, with the kill. Wing Commander Varthaman was also shot down. Pakistan claimed he was shot down by a JF-17 "Thunder" and denied any losses. Pakistan using F-16s in this air battle would be a clear violation of Pakistan's sales agreement with the United States.
[i]Pakistani Air Force web site, http://paf.gov.pk/air_warriors.html, last accessed 1/5/19.
[ii] Afghans Shot Down Intruding Pakistani F-16 That Ignored Warnings, Kabul Says, by Rone Tempest, May 2, 1987, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-05-02/news/mn-3164_1_afghan-air, last accessed 1/4/2019.
[iii] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/f-16_users_article14.html, last accessed 1/5/2019. When an aircraft is shot down by a friendly aircraft it’s euphemistically called an “own goal”.
[iv] It means “rook”, the bird not the chess piece. The NATO codeword for the Su-25 is “Frogfoot”.
[v] Pakistani Air Force web site, http://paf.gov.pk/air_warriors.html, last accessed, 1/5/19.
F-16s in Combat with the U.S. and NATO Air Forces, from Desert Storm to Allied Force
The U.S., Belgian, and Netherlands F-16s saw combat for the first time in Operation Desert Storm. The 249 F-16s, 18 each from Belgium and the Netherlands, flew 13,500 sorties. This was more sorties than any other aircraft type.[i] Besides striking Iraqi military forces F-16s destroyed military production and support areas, chemical production facilities and airfields. Iraqi ground defenses shot down three F-16s. Another F-16 loss was not combat related.[ii]
After the war ended the Coalition aircraft patrolled areas they designated as “no fly zones”. Captain Gary “Nordo” North shot down an Iraqi MiG-25 in the “no fly zone” with an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile on December 27, 1992. It was the first USAF F-16 kill and the first kill with an AIM-120.[iii] An F-16 scored a second victory, also with an AMRAAM, on January 7, 1993.[iv]
On April 12, 1993 NATO started Operation Deny Flight which was enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia. Among the aircraft participating were F-16s from the USAF, Netherlands, and Turkey.[v] On February 28, 1994 USAF F-16s intercepted six Serbian Soko J-21 Jastrebs. Captain Robert Wright shot down three of them. This was time since the Korean Conflict that a USAF pilot scored 3 kills in a single day. Captain Stephen L. Allen Shot down a Jastreb with an AIM-9 Sidewinder. Captain Scott O’Grady damaged a J-21, flown by Captain First Class Zlatan Crnalić with an AIM-9.[vi] Another J-21 crashed from fuel starvation.[vii] On April 10 USAF F-16s struck targets in support of United Nations personnel. These were the first North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airstrikes.[viii]
On June 2, 1995 the commander of a SA-6 SAM system used a clever method to shoot down a USAF F-16. The colonel switched the system’s radar on just long enough to get altitude and other flight information on a pair of F-16 flying overhead. He fired two missiles and didn’t turn on their radar until the missiles neared the altitude of the F-16s. One missile destroyed an F-16 piloted by Captain Scott O’Grady. Captain O’Grady ejected safely and evaded capture. U.S. Marines rescued him on June 8. F-16s were among the 40 aircraft that supported the rescue mission. From August 30 to September 20 NATO carried out a bombing campaign against the Serbian military in Bosnia. F-16s carried out missions in this operation without losses.
On March 23, 1999 a Dutch F-16AM shot down a Yugoslavian MiG-29 with an AIM-120B missile. It was the first air-air victory for the Royal Netherlands Air Force since World War II. The next day NATO began Operation Allied Force.[ix] USAF and other F-16s from NATO countries flew a wide variety of missions in this operation.
On March 27 a SA-3 of the Yugoslavian 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade, commanded by Colonel Zoltán Dani, shot down an F-117 Nighthawk piloted by USAF Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko. Lt. Col. Zelko ejected safely. In what seemed a ludicrous scene the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) hadn’t acknowledged they lost the F-117 even though the U.S. television networks were showing live coverage of Yugoslavian civilians dancing on the wreckage. The DoD acknowledged the loss six hours after the shootdown when NATO forces rescued Lt. Col. Zelko. F-16s participated in the rescue operation.
The second and last manned NATO aircraft lost to enemy action happened on May 2. It was an F-16, serial number 88-0550, shot down by a SA-3. An MH-60 helicopter rescued the pilot, Lt. Col. David Goldfein. Steve Laushine led both of these successful rescue missions.[x]
On May 5, F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Michael H. Ceczy shot down a MiG-29 piloted by Puk. M. Pavlović.[xi] This was the last enemy aircraft, six MiG-29s, shot down by NATO aircraft. All these air-air kills were done from beyond visual range.[xii]
F-16s destroyed at least one aircraft, a MiG-21, on the ground. An F-16 destroyed a SA-6 training facility. F-16s attacked tactical and strategic targets. Operation Allied Force was the first time in history an armed conflict was won exclusively by using airpower.
[i] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992.
[ii] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992.
[iii] This Pilot Scored Both the First U.S. F-16 Kill and the First Kill for the AIM-120 AMRAAM, by Dario Leone, https://theaviationgeekclub.com/pilot-scored-first-u-s-f-16-kill-first-kill-aim-120-amraam/, last accessed 1/5/19.
[iv] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/timeline_1993.html, last accessed 1/8/19. The claim was against a MiG-29 but it may have been a MiG-23. In air combat misidentification occurs often. Pilots tend to claim the best aircraft in the enemy’s arsenal.
[v] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/timeline_1993.html, last accessed 1/8/19. The claim was against a MiG-29 but it may have been a MiG-23. In air combat misidentification occurs often.
[vi] Revolvy.com, Banja-Luka incident, https://www.revolvy.com/page/Banja-Luka-incident, last accessed 1/8/19.
[vii] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/f-16-news-article1010.html, last accessed1/8/19.
[viii] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/timeline_1994.html, last accessed 1/8/19.
[ix] F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/timeline_1999.html, last accessed 1/12/19.
[x] Manned Aircraft Losses over the Former Yugoslavia, 1994-1999, by Daniel L. Haulman, PhD, October 5, 2009, https://www.afhra.af.mil/Portals/16/documents/Airmen-at-War/Haulman-MannedAircraftLossesYugoslavia1994-1999.pdf?ver=2016-08-22-131404-383, last accessed 1/12/19.
[xi] Lista gubitaka/ostecenja vazdulhoplova u Ex-JRV od 1945 godine do danas, https://web.archive.org/web/20040320204505/http:/www.avijacijabezgranica.com/jrvudesi.html#prof, last accessed 1/12/19.
[xii] Manned Aircraft Losses over the Former Yugoslavia, 1994-1999, by Daniel L. Haulman, PhD, October 5, 2009, https://www.afhra.af.mil/Portals/16/documents/Airmen-at-War/Haulman-MannedAircraftLossesYugoslavia1994-1999.pdf?ver=2016-08-22-131404-383, last accessed 1/12/19.
F-16s in Combat with the U.S. and NATO Air Forces in Afghanistan
On October 7, 2001 the United States started Operation Enduring Freedom. F-16s flew many of the USAF and allied missions. On April 17, 2002 F-16 pilot Major Harry Schmidt of the Illinois Air National Guard (ANG) mistakenly dropped a bomb on soldiers of 3 Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Battle Group. The bomb killed four Canadian troops and wounded 8. This incident strained relations between the U.S. and Canada.
On December 19, 2002 a Danish Air Force F-16 crash landed at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Tow Norwegian F-16s supported ground forces in a battle on January 27-28, 2003. One of the Norwegian F-16s dropped two 500lb bombs. It was the first time a Norwegian aircraft fired in anger since World War II. On February 4, 2003 two F-16s were the first Danish aircraft to fire in anger during Operation Enduring Freedom. They dropped four 250 kg laser guided bombs. The six F-16s that participated in Operation Enduring Freedom flew over 260 missions and logged over 1,600 hours. European F-6s logged over 4,500 Operation Enduring Freedom hours.
A flight of F-16s won the Mackay Trophy for a mission from August 12-13, 2007. It was a 4,200 mile, 10.9-hour mission. The flight originated from Iraq and involved covertly flying over six foreign nations. The flight struck 16 high value targets in the Tora Bora region. The F-16s destroyed 15 entrenched enemy positions. This cleared the way for ground forces to raid a high-level Taliban meeting.[i]
Among those killed by F-16s was Mullah Mohibullah and other Taliban troops that shot down a CH-47. The CH-47 shootdown killed 38, 30 were U.S. service members. One December 30, 2011 two F-16s flew overwatch for two downed Apache crew members.
On October 13, 2015 Enemy small arms fire struck a USAF F-16. The pilot had to jettison two fuel tanks and three weapons. On March 29, 2016 a turbine blade failure caused an F-16CM to crash during takeoff. The pilot ejected safely.
[i] Naa.aero, https://naa.aero/awards/awards-and-trophies/mackay-trophy/mackay-2000-2009-winners, last accessed 1/13/19. The winners were Colonel Charles L. Moore, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen C. Williams, Captain Lawrence T. Sullivan, and Captain Kristopher W. Struve.
F-16s in Combat with the U.S. and Allied Air Forces in Iraq and Syria
On March 20, 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom started. For many that was a renewal of the conflict with Iraq. For the F-16s and other U.S. military aircraft the conflict hadn’t ended. F-16s were among the aircraft on a strike mission in Iraq on September 10, 2001. It did mean a great boost in their operations tempo.
During the initial phases of the operation U.S. Army Patriot missiles shot down an RAF Tornado, and a U.S. Navy F/A-18.[i] A Patriot missile battery locked onto an F-16. The F-16 pilot fired an AGM-88 at the missile battery. There was no damage or casualties.
On June 26 2003 an engine bearing came apart on an F-16 piloted by Captain Michael Matestick. He made an emergency landing in Baghdad. Captain Matestick received the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy for this incident.
On March 2, 2008 F-16s assisted in rescuing two U.S. hikers who were lost in Iraq. On December 18, 2011 F-16s piloted by Colonel Rodney Petithomme and Lt. Colonel Jason Plourde flew overwatch for the last convoy out of Iraq. It was the last U.S. combat mission by crewed aircraft over Iraq until the U.S. resumed combat missions over Iraq in August 2014.
F-16s from many nations carried out missions against the Islamic State. F-16 pilots Captains Gregory R. Balzhiser and David A. Kroontje were awarded the 2014 Mackay Trophy for carrying out four attacks on Islamic State forces in Iraq. The attacks destroyed three blockages, multiple armored vehicles, and an observation post. The Islamic State forces were firing on 40,000 trapped Yazidi civilians.[ii] A USAF F-16 crashed on November 28, 2014. The crash killed the pilot, Captain William H. DuBois. On December 25, a Jordanian F-16 crashed. Islamic State forces captured the pilot, Lieutenant Moaz Kasasbeh. The Islamic State murdered him on February 3, 2015.
On October 7, 2015 two USAF F-16s diverted their course to avoid getting close to a Russian fighter. On October 16 a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian drone. On November 24 a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24. The two crew members ejected and Islamic State terrorist killed the Su-24 crew members as they descended in their parachutes.
[i] Flight Lieutenants Kevin Barry Main & David Rhys Williams, and Lieutenant Nathan D. White died in these incidents.
[ii] United States Air Force Crew of Ironhand 41 Flight To Receive 2014 Mackay Trophy, https://naa.aero/userfiles/files/documents/Press%20Releases/Mackay%20Trophy%202014.pdf.
Other Operations and Incidents
On September 11, 2001 after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon Reserve Air Force Major General David F. Wherley Jr. ordered two F-16s to defend the skies over Washington, DC.[i] The F-16s were unarmed. The plan was to down a terrorist-controlled jetliner by ramming it. The heroic actions of the passengers on United Airlines Flight UA93 made this action unnecessary. After September 11, 2001 the United States started Operation Nobel Eagle where military aircraft would intercept aircraft flying over restricted U.S. airspace. There was a blackout in the Washington DC area on August 14, 2003. U.S. Northern Command launched two F-16s out of Andrews AFB, Maryland as a precaution. Once a pair of F-16s forced down a Piper Arrow that flew too close to a nuclear plant. Citrus County Sheriff’s Deputies met the Arrow on landing and arrested those on board when they found the aircraft was carrying 65 pounds of marijuana. On April 21, 2006 two F-16s escorted an A-320 jetliner to Denver IAP after a bomb scare. On April 6, 2009 two F-16s tracked a Cessna-172 that was stolen in Canada and flown to the United States. In April 2010 Qatari diplomat Mohammed Al-Madadi made a joke on a United Airlines flight about trying to set of a shoe bomb. Two F-16s were sent up and escorted the jetliner. On February 16, 2012 two F-16s intercepted a Cessna-172 that intruded into Marine One airspace over Los Angeles. The plane was carrying 40 pounds of marijuana. During the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery on February 25, 2011 F-16s redirected four civilian aircraft that strayed into restricted airspace. On September 11, 2011 two F-16s were scrambled when a jetliner reported passengers acting suspiciously. An unruly passenger caused the pilot to declare an in-flight emergency on a jetliner on August 28, 2015. Two Colorado Air National Guard F-16s were scrambled to escort the jetliner.
On May 23, 2006 a Turkish and a Greek F-16 crashed into each other. The Greek pilot was killed.
In July 2006 three Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNAF) F-16s assisted in the search for missing American tourist Natalee Holloway.[ii] On August 18 an Italian F-16 escorted and Excel Airways Boeing 767, that was the victim of a bomb threat, to Brindisi. On August 23 two RNAF F-16s escorted a U.S. Northwest Airlines DC10-30, Flight NW0042 to Schiphol Airport after an in-flight incident.
On January 8, 2010 two Venezuelan F-16s intercepted a U.S. Navy P-3. On November 23, 2010 South Korean F-16s patrolled the skies near the Northern Limit Line after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island.
On January 30, 2011 Egyptian F-16s flew over Cairo as a show of force during mass rioting. On July 25, Taiwan scrambled two of their F-16s when an Su-27 crossed the “dividing line” between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. The Su-27 was one of a pair of Su-27s that forced a USAF U-2 to abandon its mission.
On October 9, 2012 Turkish Air Force F-16s forced down a Syrian Airbus A320 that was carrying weapons from Russia. In 2014 a Turkish F-16 shot down a Syrian Mi-17 helicopter.
On January 26, 2015 a Hellenic Air Force F-16 crashed into a group of French and Italian combat aircraft at Los Llanos AB, Spain. The Greek crew members were both killed as was nine French Air Force personnel. The crash also injured 21 French and Italian airmen and 8 USAF airmen.
In May 2015 a Moroccan F-16 crashed in Yemen. The crash killed the pilot. A Bahrain F-16 crashed in Saudi Arabia during operations in Yemen in December 2015.
[i] General Wherley and his spouse Ann Wherley died in the June 22, 2009 metro train accident.
[ii] She went missing in Aruba on May 30, 2005. She was never found.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi