Service of General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon with USAF

Last revised September 23, 2015


The USAF accepted its first F-16 on August 17, 1978. The first operational unit to get the F-16A/B was the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah, which received its first machines on January 6, 1979. It built up to a strength of 102 F-16s by the end of 1980, and trained crews from both TAC and export customers. Hill AFB was designated as the worldwide F-16 system logistical center, with both USAF and European F-16 pilots receiving their initial training there.

In the beginning, some thought had been given to naming the F-16 Mustang II, even though the original Mustang was a North American Aviation product. The name Condor was also considered. On July 21, 1980, Deputy Defense Secretary Clements announced that the official name of the F-16 would be Fighting Falcon, which was the mascot of the USAF Academy. The prefix was considered necessary in order to avoid litigation by Dassault (which marketed an executive jet with the name Falcon), as well as to avoid confusion with the Hughes Falcon air-to-air missile. Pilots and ground crews almost never use the full name, usually referring to the F-16 simply as Falcon. The unofficial name Viper is quite often used for the F-16, as well as "Electric Jet", a reference to the fly-by-wire flight control system.

The 4th TFS of the 388th TFW achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on November 12, 1980. In March of 1981, this unit took twelve of its F-16s for a month-long deployment to Norway, marking the first deployment of the USAF F-16s overseas.

Next to get the F-16 was the 56th Tactical Training Wing based at MacDill AFB in Florida, which became the replacement training unit (RTU) for the entire F-16 fleet. They began to receive its first F-16A/B Block 1/5 aircraft on October 22, 1979.

In May of 1981, the USAF announced that completion of the 18-month Multinational Operational Test and Evaluation Program showed that the F-16 had exceeded expectations in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. In June of 1981, seven 388th TFW aircraft won the Royal Air Force-sponsored tactical bombing competition, winning out over RAF Jaguars and Buccaneer and USAF F-111s. They defended themselves against RAF Lightnings and Phantoms in simulated air-to-air combats, scoring 88 simulated "kills" against no losses.

In August of 1981, all USAF F-16s were grounded following a fatal crash at Hill AFB. The caused was traced to a problem with the bleed air valve on the 13th stage of the F100 engine. When the bleed air valve got stuck in the open position, bleed air was directed onto the emergency power unit, causing an electrical surge which shut down the flight control computer and caused an uncommanded pitchover.

First deliveries to the 8th TFW at Kunsan in South Korea took place in September of 1981. The 8th TFW at Kunsan had the 35th and 80th TFS re-equipped with F-16s, which replaced the F-4D Phantom. This marked the first American F-16 base overseas. This modernization program was aimed in part to compensate for US troop drawdowns that had taken place in South Korea during the Carter Administration. The first USAF F-16 unit in Europe was the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Hahn AB in Germany, with Block 15 F-16A/Bs replacing F-4E Phantoms in July of 1982.

By the spring of 1982, 345 F-16s were in service with TAC units.

After a period of initial training at Zaragoza in Spain, the 50th TFW's 313rd Tactical Fighter Squadron became operational at Hahn AB in Germany in December 1982. It was followed by the 496th and 10th TFS. Three more squadrons--the 417th, 512th, and 526th from the 86th TFW at Ramstein also switched to the F-16C from the F-4E Phantom. The first F-16s deployed to Europe were Block 15, with the larger horizontal tail surfaces and inlet hardpoints for AMRAAM missiles and LANTIRN sensors.

The 401st TFW at Torrejon in Spain began to receive Block 15 F-16s in 1983. However, in 1989 the Spanish government voted to evict all US combat units from its territory, and the 401st made plans to re-establish itself at Crotone AB in Italy. The 401st deactivated in 1991 after Desert Storm and the new wing was eventually formed in 1993 as the 31st Fighter Wing.

Production of the F-16A and B for the USAF ended in the winter of 1984/85. 785 F-16A/Bs were delivered to the USAF. Production of the first (Block 25) F-16C and D began in 1984, with the first example being delivered to the USAF in July.

In October 1985, F-16 units took six of the top seven spots in Gunsmoke 85, the USAF worldwide fighter gunnery meet held at Nellis AFB in Nevada. the 419th TFW, AFRES won first place, whereas the 50th TFW took second.

The first European-based unit to operate the F-16C was the 86th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Ramstein AB in Germany, which switched to the Block 30 F-16C/D from the F-4E Phantom in December of 1985.

F-16s gradually replaced the older F-4 Phantoms in USAF service and soon became the USAF's primary ground attack aircraft. In 1987, the 52nd TFW began to deploy Block 30 F-16C/Ds as a replacement for its F-4Es. These planes operated in cooperation with F-4G Phantoms in the *Wild Weasel* SAM suppression role. By 1989 the USAF in Europe had traded in all of its F-16A/B aircraft for the newer C/D models. Night operations using the LANTIRN system started in West Germany in late 1989.

By 1990, about 1500 F-16s had been delivered, and production switched over to the Block 40/42 version.

In the late 1980s, two squadrons of F-16s were supplied to the 51st TFW at Osan AB in Korea.

The F-16 was used in the Persian Gulf war of 1991 in larger numbers than any other fighter, with 249 F-16As and Cs seeing action. Most of the F-16s sent to the Gulf were Block 40 models. Most of them were fitted with LANTIRN navigation pods. However, LANTIRN targeting pods were still in short supply and the F-15E force had the higher priority, so few were available for the F-16.

Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991, with coordinated air attacks against Iraq. The F-16 played a major role in the air campaign, performing 25 percent of all sorties and attacking a wide range of targets including fixed sites, radar systems, tanks, and other vehicles. The weapons delivered by F-16s were typically a pair of Mk 84 bombs, six Mk 82 bombs, CBU-52 and CBU-58 cluster munitions, the CBU-87 Combined Effects Munition, and the AIM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile. Most of the Mavericks used in the Gulf War were the AGM-65D infrared version, which proved ideal in dry desert conditions, although a few of the older AGM-65A/B television-guided Mavericks were also used. The kill rate for the Maverick was claimed to be about 80 percent, but its high cost limited its use against high-value targets such as tanks. Early in Desert Storm, it was thought that the F-16s might encounter significant air-to-air opposition, so they carried four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, one on each wing tip and one on each of the outboard underwing stations. As the Iraqi air-to-air threat diminished, the Sidewinder load was reduced to only two, carried at the wingtips. Only 72 of the F-16s used during Desert Storm were fitted with LANTIRN pods (most of them carrying only the navigation pod), so the majority of the F-16 force was used only during daylight hours. Three F-16S were loat in action, two to SAMs and one to a shoulder-launched SA-16 accidents. Other F-16s were damaged in accidents and by hostile fire, but were able to return to base and were repaired. In all, seven F-16s were lost douring Desert Storm combat operations between January 16 and February 28.

With the Iraqi air force having been knocked out during the first few days of the war or forced to flee to Iran, F-16s never got the chance to tangle with Iraqi fighters, and no air-to-air kills were scored by F-16s during Desert Storm. All of the Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft downed in air-to-air combat by USAF fighters were shot down by F-15C Eagles.

In March of 1982, it was announced that the USAF's Thunderbirds flight demonstration team would trade in its T-38 Talons for F-16 Fighting Falcons. Transition to the F-16 was completed in November 1982, with the first public demonstration being flown in April of 1983. In March of 1985, the team re-equipped with Block 15 F-16As, plus one F-16B which is used for media orientation flights. The space normally used for the gun on the F-16 is taken up by an oil tank which is used to make smoke during air show demonstrations. The Thunderbirds' F-16s have been modified with F100-PW-220 engines.

It was not until after Desert Storm that the F-16 was to get its first kill with the USAF. This was during Operation Southern Watch, the enforcement of a no-fly zone over southern Iraq. On December 27, 1992, a pair of Iraqi Air Force MiG-23 Floggers were spotted flying in violation of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. They were intercepted by a pair of USAF F-16Ds from the 363rd TFW/33rd TFS. The Iraqi fighters were given a verbal warning, but they turned to confront the American aircraft. One of the MiGs was shot down by a single AIM-120A AMRAAM fired from a range of about 3 miles. The other MiG fled to Iran. This marked the combat debut of the AIM-120 AMRAAM and was also the first air-to-air combat for a USAF F-16. The victorious pilot was LtCol Gary North, flying F-16D Block 42 serial number 90-0778. On January 27, 1993, a USAF F-16C shot down an Iraqi MiG-23.

F-16s were also active during NATO operations during Bosnian peacekeeping operations in 1994-95. Under Operation Deny Flight, instituted on April 12, 1993, Serbian aircraft were forbidden to fly over Bosnian territory. On February 18, 1994, two USAF F-16Cs from the 86th Tactical Fighter Wing/526th Tactical Fighter Squadron shot down four Serbian Soko G-4 Super Galebs over Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was the first offensive action ever performed by NATO warplanes. Six Galebs had been spotted by an E-3 Sentry while bombing targets in the town of Bugojno. They were warned twice to land or leave the UN no-fly zone, but both warnings were ignored. Two USAF F-16s were then vectored in to intercept the Galebs. Two more warnings were given, and the F-16Cs were given clearance to fire. F-16C 89-2137 flown by Capt. Robert Wright fired a single AIM-120 AMRAAM which dispatched the lead Galeb, and then fired two Sidewinders which destroyed two more Galebs. The second F-16C flown by Capt. Scott O'Grady fired a Sidewinder at the fourth aircraft, but this missile missed. A second flight of F-16Cs was vectored in by the AWACS, and the lead aircraft from this flight (89-2009) , destroyed a fourth Galeb. The remaining two Galebs managed to escape Bosnian airspace via Croatia. On Jun 2, 1995, and F-16C sas shot down by a Serbian SA-6 "Gainful" missile, and the pilot, Scott O'Grady ejected and was rescued by a USMC CH-53 Sea Stallion six days later.

Operation Deny Flight continued until December 20, 1995, when control of Bosinian peacekeeping was handed over to NATO. During 26 months of operations from Aviano, more than 400 missions were flown.

In March of 1995, the 23rd FS operated Block 50 Wild Weasel aircraft in support of Operation Provide Comfort, the enforcement of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. A number of HARMs were fired at Iraqi SAM sites that were attempting to illuminate coalition aircraft.

USAF F-16s alao participated in Operation Deliberate Force, which began on August 30, 1995, which consisted of attacks against the Bosnian Serb army which threatened "safe" areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They also participated in Operation Allied Force over the entirety of Yugoslavia from March to June of 1999. The 1999 bombings led to the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo and the establishment of a U.N. mission in Kosovo. On May 2, 1999, a USAF F-16CG was shot down over Serbia by a SA-3 missile near Nakucani. The pilot, Lt Col David Goldfein ejected and was later rescued by a search and rescue team. The rmains of this aircraft are on display at a museum at the Belgrade International Airport. A Yugoslav MiG-29 was shot down by a pair of F-16CJs on May 4, 1999.

F-16s have been used in Afghanistan in operations against the Taliban since 2001. This was under the code name Operation Enduring Freedom, which actually covers all US worldwide actions against terrorism. A USAF F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield on Apr 3 2013, killing the pilot. Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian F-16s have also participated.

US F-16s participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the only loss suffered over Iraq during this phase was an F-16CG of the 388th Fighter Wing’s 421st Fighter Squadron that crashed near Baghdad on 12 June 2003 when it ran out of fuel. USAF F-16s also participated in subsequent actions agains ISIS militants in Iraq. On November 27, 2006 one F-16 was lost near Falluja during a close air support strafing run when the pilot remained focused on the target instead of pulling up. On 15 June 2007, a F-16C\ crashed when the pilot lost spatial orientation during a night close air support mission. The pilot was killed in the crash. On 15 July 2007, another F-16C crashed and burned out during take off when a tire blew. The pilot ejected safely.

USAF F-16s participated in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn. This was done to prevent government forces loyal to Muammaar Gaddafi from carrying out attacks on rebel forces.

The Air Force has announced plans to convert as many as 200 Block 30 F-16C/D Fighting Falcons for high-intensity daylight close-air support. An additional 200 Block 40 F-16C/Ds will be provided with enhanced capability for night CAS patrols. The Block 30 F-16C/Ds will have an improved data computer, a laser spot tracker, and possibly a missile approach warning system. The Block 40 F-16C/Ds will be given an upgraded LANTIRN system which will have a laser spot tracker to enhance identification of ground targets. The primary weapon for CAS will be the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile.

The F-16 will probably remain in service with the USAF until at least 2025. The planned replacement for the USAF F-16 is the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. But due to delays, USAF F-16s will get service life extension upgrades. In 2012, the USAF allocated $2.8 billion to upgrade 350 F-16s while waiting for the F-35A to enter service. One of the upgrades was the introduction of an automatic ground collision avoidance system, to reduce the instance of controlled flight into terrain.

USAF units operating the F-16 Fighting Falcon:


Air Force Reserve:

In March of 1982, the USAF announced that the Air Force Reserve would be supplied with F-16A/B Fighting Falcons. The Air Force Reserve, like the Air National Guard, has in recent years been assigned a greater responsibility for supplementing frontline units, and has been assigned the latest aircraft types and equipment to support active duty units if needed. Initially primarily a transport-oriented unit, the AFRes now operates a variety of combat aircraft as well as aeromedical evacuation, rescue, and air evacuation aircraft. The AFRes has even been assigned strategic bombers.

In January of 1984, the 419th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Hill AFB in Utah became the first Air Force Reserve unit to operate the F-16, taking delivery of F-16A/B blocks 1, 5, and 10 aircraft transferred to it from the 388th TFW, also based at Hill. They replaced F-105 Thunderchief fighter bombers.

AFRes F-16s have flown a number of missions over northern Iraq under Operation Provide Comfort.

The Air Force Reserve is scheduled for drastic cutbacks under the current defense drawdown following the end of the Cold War. The seven surviving F-16 units will reduce their complements from 18 to 15 aircraft, and the 89th Fighter Squadron at Wright Patterson AFB will retire its F-16A/Bs in exchange for C-141B transports and will join the 356th ALS, 907th AG.

USAF Reserve Units operating the F-16 Fighting Falcon:


Sources:


  1. Combat Aircraft F-16, Doug Richardson, Crescent, 1992.

  2. General Dynamics Aircraft and their Predecessors, John Wegg, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  3. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  4. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  5. F-16 Fighting Falcon--A Major Review of the West's Universal Warplane, Robert F. Dorr, World Airpower Journal, Spring 1991.

  6. The World's Great Interceptor Aircraft, Gallery, 1989.

  7. Lockheed F-16 Variants, Part 1, World Airpower Journal, Volume 21, Summer 1995.

  8. Continental NATO Air Forces, Paul Jackson, World Airpower Journal, Volume 1, Spring 1990.

  9. Modern Military Aircraft--F-16 Viper, Lou Drendel, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992.

  10. The Fury of Desert Storm--The Air Campaign, Bert Kinzey, Tab Books, 1991.

  11. F-16 Operators: Part 1, David Donald, World Airpower Journal, Volume 23, 1995.

  12. United States Air Force, Tom Kaminski and Mel Williams, Combat Aircraft Vol 2 No. 8, March-April 2000.

  13. General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon operational history, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Dynamics_F-16_Fighting_Falcon_operational_history

  14. General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Dynamics_F-16_Fighting_Falcon