An Air Force Thunderbird jet was the first Lockheed Martin F-16 to have a service life extension – modifications that will add more than 4,000 flight hours to the aircraft’s lifetime.

The aircraft is one of about 300 refurbished C and D models of the F-16s that will roll off the shop floor of the 573rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah after receiving structure-strengthening modifications, the USAF announced on May 3.

The F-16 service life extension programme is aimed at keeping the fighters flying until close to 2050. The jets became operational in 1979 and were originally deemed air worthy for up to 8,000 flight hours, but will have their life extended up to 12,000 flight hours as part of the programme. The jets will receive a dozen structural modifications, including changes to their bulkheads, wings and canopy.

Thunderbird F-16 with service life extension

“The Thunderbird jet presented some challenges. This is the largest structural upgrade we’ve ever done,” said Joe Gardenhour, civilian leader in the 573rd AMXS. “This programme moves beyond the usual modifications into a standard package of repairs, and it is going to bring stable workload into the depot for years to come.”

The Thunderbird jet was the first of four F-16s that will be used as validation and verification aircraft. Maintainers will use lessons learned from these first aircraft to better establish the cost, workflow and timeline for the modification of future aircraft.

Once the final processes and workforce are in place, the USAF’s goal is to complete each fighter in 9 months at a cost of $2.4 million.