The F-16 is a lightweight multi-role jet aircraft, although it was firstly designed to be only a fighter. It was developed by General Dynamics, and flew for the first time on February 2, 1974. Its production started in 1976, resulting as the largest western fighter program, with over 4,400 aircraft built, entering service in 1987. Lockheed Martin is the owner of the F-16, from the moment it bought the General Dynamics Corporation in 1993.
The plane was built by the request of both U.S. Air Force and Navy for a low cost, long range, high speed jet fighter that will make good use of the new sophisticated missiles and large radar systems. For this task, two concept development studies were initiated in 1965: the Fighter Experimental (FX) project, which led to the creation of the F-15 Eagle, and the Advanced Day Fighter (ADF). Studies of these projects led to the Light-Weight Fighter (LWF) (later changed to Air Combat Fighter (ACF)) project, which led to the competition between General Dynamics’ YF-16 and Northrop’s YF-17 for the title of the perfect fighter: an airplane made to be only a fighter, that’s small, light-weight, and has low-drag, high thrust-to-weight ratio with increased payload.
The YF-16 won the ACF because it had better range and maneuver performance than the YF-17’s, and also due to the fact that it employed the same engines the F-15 used (the Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan engine), which helped cutting expenses of its manufacturing. However, the F-16 failed to fulfill the Navy’s needs, which found more interest in the YF-17. By the Navy’s requests, developments of a new aircraft based on the YF-17 took place, bringing McDonnell Douglas’ F/A-18 Hornet.
The YF-16 is the world’s first aircraft intentionally designed to be slightly aerodynamically unstable, which means that if there is a disturbance, instead of returning to its original attitude it continues to fly uncontrolled. This technique (called "relaxed static stability”) is used to increase maneuverability. Yet, in absence of control input it will readily depart from level and controlled flight. To counter this problem, the F-16 was equipped with a quadrupled (four-channeled) fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, which stabilizes the flight by correcting it according to the thousands of altitude measurements it takes every second. It made many F-16 pilots agree with the common idea that “You don’t fly an F-16; it flies you”.
The F-16’s flight commands rely solely on electronics and wires, since it doesn’t use any mechanics. Its airframe is estimated to withstand the pressure of 8000 flight hours, and up to 9-g maneuvers on full internal fuel. This proved to be very helpful when the F-16 was modified to multi-role operations.
The F-16’s first kill was made by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which destroyed a Syrian Mi-8 helicopter with cannon fire on 28 April 1981. A year later, on 9 June 1982, during an initial air battle of the 1982 Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force achieved the first F-16 "missile kill" with a successful Air to Air Missile shoot-down of a Syrian MiG-21.
The Israeli Air Force also used the F-16’s air-to-ground abilities on 7 June 1981, when eight of its F-16s (escorted by F-15s) executed Operation Opera (one of the only two attacks in history on a nuclear plant-also called “Babylon”, and “Ofra”), and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osiraq, which Saddam Hussein (president of Iraq) planned to use to create nuclear weapons against Israel. The operation was strongly condemned, until it was clear that Saddam Hussein would have used the nuclear weapons during the Gulf War. The F-16 also participated in Israel's Operation Orchard (the second ever-made aerial attack on a nuclear reactor). The strike took place in September 6, 2007 and was carried out by eight Israeli Air Force aircraft which raided the secretly built Syrian nuclear reactor a little after midnight. Intelligence reports state that the reactor was capable and meant to produce unconventional weapons, with nuclear materials brought from North Korea.
Moreover, the F-16’s aerial abilities were proven by the Israeli Air Force between 9th-10th June 1982 (during Lebanon War) when Israel used F-16s to shoot down in aerial combats 44 Syrian jet fighters (mostly MiG-21s and MiG-23s), while suffering no losses at all!
The F-16 proved itself reliable and efficient while also being relatively cheap. It is with no doubt a successful airplane, but it must clear some space for its newer and better substitute-the F-35 Lightning II, scheduled to enter the service of the United States’ Air Force in 2011. The F-16s will be replaced by the F-35s gradually, until they will be completely decommissioned in 2025.