So the US has retired its last operational F-16A, the first version of the Electric Jet, just shy of 30 years after it entered service and just as Lockheed Martin is about to sign a contract for the first two production F-35As – the aircraft that is to replace the F-16 in US Air Force service. Thirty years seems a long time between clean-sheet fighters, but 30 years from now will probably seem short.
There are lots of F-16Cs and Ds still flying in US colours, and everything from As through Fs flying internationally, but it was the A that introduced that space-age profile, which has changed so little over the years – a sure sign of a sound design. And it has to be, as the USAF needs to keep the until 2025 – maybe longer if F-35 production gets slowed any more.
No bowing out yet
I cut my teeth in aerospace journalism reporting on the F-16, writing about fly-by-wire, relaxed stability, trapezoidal wings and vortex lift. Back then I didn’t know about stealth, power-by-wire, active electronically scanned arrays and sensor fusion – things that make the F-35 a generational leap over the F-16.
I made no secret back then that I preferred the naval heft of the F-18 over the graceful lines of the F-16, which to me looked too fragile for combat. I was proved wrong, of course, many times over. This time round I do think the F-35 is the right aircraft – in large part because of all the F-16 experience it embodies. I hope I am right this time…
The F-35 is having its troubles, technical and fiscal, but the F-16 programme was not problem-free in its early days. The first flight of the YF-16 prototype in January 1974 was inadvertent and the second prototype made a textbook belly landing in May 1975. In service, early F-16s suffered the stagnation stall problem that afflicted the F100 engine. Now the “Viper” is viewed as a model of technical maturity, operational excellence and international cooperation.
All that lies in the future for the F-35 – if it can survive the present.