Most aviation buffs know the story of how the General Dynamics YF-16 was chosen by the Air Force over the Northrop YF-17 in a lightweight fighter “fly-off,” going into production as the F-16 that today serves as the backbone of the U.S. Air Force as well as flying for more than two dozen other air arms. Many also know the YF-17 was developed into the Navy’s F/A-18. Not many, though, know the story of how the Navy had to fight to acquire a development of the aircraft that the Air Force had rejected.
After the F-16 had won the ACF competition, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) pushed hard for the Navy to procure the F-16 as well, presumably for economies of scale, along with the benefits a common aircraft would have to both maintenance and training.
It’s hard to believe that the F-16 is now more than 40 years old. When the Fighting Falcon, more popularly known as the Viper, was first introduced, it was a revelation. With features like a sidestick controller, seat inclined to 30 degrees to offset g forces, negative stability, and fly-by-wire controls running through a quadruplex flight computer, it made everything else look old-fashioned. As advanced as it was, however, the philosophy behind it went back to the basics of raw performance rather than high technology. To its originators, the F-16 was envisioned solely as a no-frills day fighter for air to air combat. Sometimes known as the “Lightweight Fighter Mafia,” they were determined to keep weight down, numbers up, and performance high by dispensing with everything they thought unnecessary, which they called “gold-plating.” Gold-plating, in their opinion, included things like a fire control radar, ground-attack capability, electronic countermeasures, and radar-guided missiles.
The YF-16 subsequently won its “fly-off” with the YF-17 in the Lightweight Fighter Program (LWF), later renamed the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) program, and was approved for production by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger in September 1974. By the time the production F-16A emerged, cooler heads had prevailed, and it had an AN/APG-66 radar and some ground-attack capability. On the other hand, it could still only fire Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and had no beyond visual range (BVR) capability.
After the F-16 had won the ACF competition, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) pushed hard for the Navy to procure the F-16 as well, presumably for economies of scale along with the benefits a common aircraft would have to both maintenance and training. Congress had already, in August 1974, directed the Navy to look to the LWF/ACF program’s competitors for its new Navy Air Combat Fighter (NACF) program, which had superseded the Navy’s own VFAX program, begun several months before, in April 1974, to replace the F-4, A-4, and A-7 aircraft on carrier decks. The Navy really wanted more F-14s, or at least something big enough to carry Phoenix missiles, but was now being forced to go with a lightweight fighter choice. Both General Dynamics and Northrop put forward proposals for navalized versions of their fighters, GD teaming up with Ling Temco Vought (LTV) and Northrop with McDonnell Douglas.
Making the necessary changes to allow the F-16 to operate at sea meant the V-1600 had a three-foot greater wingspan and was almost three feet longer than an F-16A. The structural and other changes added nearly 3,000 pounds to the empty weight of the aircraft, and increased the maximum takeoff weight over the F-16A’s by 10,000 pounds, from 35,400 to 44,421 pounds.
LTV produced three proposals derived from the F-16: The V-1600, V-1601, and V-1602, each of the three having a different engine (Pratt & Whitney F401, Pratt & Whitney F100, and General Electric F101, respectively). These F-16 variants, however, were F-16 variants akin to the way that the Super Hornet is a variant of the “Classic” Hornet.
The V-1600 was an overall larger aircraft than the F-16A, some three feet longer, with a fuselage stretched both forward and aft of the wing. Length was 52 ft. 4 in. overall, with wingspan increased more than two feet to 33 ft. 3 in. The wings were also increased in chord, with larger flaps, growing to 369 square feet in area. Likewise, the horizontal tail was wider, with increased area, and also lacked the anhedral of the F-16’s stabilators. The forward fuselage was flattened and broadened, its contours changed, and a refueling probe retracted into its right side. Interestingly, the canopy would have pivoted forward like the F-35’s does today. The landing gear was considerably beefed up, adding a twin nosewheel arrangement with catapult bar, and of course an arresting hook. Key parts of the aircraft structure were beefed up. A pulse-doppler radar for beyond visual range capability was added, the attendant AIM-7 Sparrow missiles mounted on pylons beneath the inner wings. Sidewinders were also to be mounted beneath the wings, on pylons farther outboard. Making the necessary changes to allow the F-16 to operate at sea meant the V-1600 had a three-foot greater wingspan and was almost three feet longer than an F-16A. The structural and other changes added nearly 3,000 pounds to the empty weight of the aircraft, and increased the maximum takeoff weight over the F-16A’s by 10,000 pounds, from 35,400 to 44,421 pounds.
The V-1601 had more commonality with the F-16. Powered by the F100, it had a 30.5-inch longer forward fuselage and a 16-inch fuselage plug added behind the wing, which was increased only slightly over the F-16A’s wing area of 300 sq.ft., to 312 sq.ft., according to Tony Buttler’s American Secret Projects. Vertical and horizontal tail area was the same as in the V-1600, but fuel capacity was reduced. It was to have had more austere radar capability than the V-1600, but retain underwing Sparrows as well as wingtip Sidewinder missiles.
The V-1602 was the greatest departure from the F-16A. With the heavier GE F101 engine, the V-1602 also had a redesigned and reconfigured wing, and the fuselage was widened behind the wing to the same width as the leading edge extensions ahead of it. Wing area was 399 sq.ft., with a span of 38 ft. 11 in., and the aircraft was 53 ft. 11 in. overall length.