The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
A FLYING GRAND PRIX RACER
The airborne equivalent of a Formula One Grand Prix racing car, the F-16 is the most responsive, nimble warplane ever produced. In fact, its turning rate (the number of degrees its nose sweeps through per second) is almost identical to that of a Grand Prix car, despite the F-16's far greater G loading. The F-16 can sustain nine G's in a turn almost indefinitely; certainly longer than its pilots, whose helmeted heads weigh over two hundred pounds in such turns.
Called "The Electric Jet" ("Electronic" would be more like it), this "fly-by-wire" aircraft is so dynamically unstable that pilots can't fly it directly—by hydraulics—the way other aircraft are flown. The pilots "fly" a computer, which in turn flies the plane. Ironically, it is this instability which allows the F-16 to fly (inside) rings around most of its opponents, provided the Falcon's computer doesn't hiccough (it is triply redundant).
The F-16 is tiny, as jet fighters go—much smaller than the dainty-looking F-117A Stealth, for example, or the huge A-10 Warthog—making it hard to see at a distance (the better to sneak up on you, Comrade), and hard to hit, even up close. Its thrust-to-weight ratio is so hot that a Falcon on afterburner can "go ballistic," that is, accelerate straight up. To give you an idea: it can go from the deck to forty thousand feet (eight miles straight up) in less than sixty seconds.
Also like a racing car, the pilot is in a "lay-down" position—the seat reclines at a thirty-degree angle, as opposed to fifteen or so degrees in most fighters (the better to help the pilot withstand the G forces). The bubble canopy (three-quarters-inch-thick polycarbonate) gives the pilot better all-around visibility than anything else in the sky. And instead of having the joystick between your legs, as in all other Western fighters, the F-16's "side-stick" is positioned like a racing car's gearshift along the right-hand "armrest."
The F-16's top speed is 200 knots below that of the F-15 Eagle, its range is half that of other "Big Iron" like the Su-27 flanker, and unlike its closest CIS (Confederation of Independent States, successor to the Soviet Union) rival, the twin-engined MiG-29—if the Falcon's single engine fails, you're in a heap of trouble. But it does one thing better than any other warplane, and that's scramble at the speed of heat and knock its opponents out of the sky.
The F-16 was developed after the Pentagon put the finishing touches on its premier air-superiority fighter, the F-15, and realized that the high-tech Eagle was so expensive that the United States could never afford enough of them. Also, while the F-15 is a modern "battle management" weapons platform, the F-16 is much closer to the World War II ideal of a lithe, scrappy dogfighter, like the P-51 Mustang.
After the first air battles over Vietnam, pilots begged the Pentagon to put guns back in "fighter" planes like the F-15's predecessor, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. "Remote control" warfare with long-range missiles looked good on paper, but in the knife fights over North Vietnam, what the pilots wanted was a racer, not a delivery truck.