In the Viper

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As a journalist covering the transition for the U.S. Air Force to the stealthy F-35 fighter, I thought it would be useful to understand more fully what the experience of today’s fighter pilots is from the cockpit. Aviation Week has a long history of publishing insightful, technical pilot reports. A pilot, I am not. So, my experience flying in the F-16D won’t be published in the pages of Aviation Week. But, I thought it worth sharing the details and my impressions with our web audience, who often track the progress of programs and technology and generally like to read about the fun side of aviation.

The U.S. Air Force offered to fly me in a sortie on the F-16D Block 50, the so-called Wild Weasel aircraft used for the service’s ground radar suppression and destruction missions. But, as a multi-role fighter, the aircraft is capable of much more. Pilots are using F-16s in Afghanistan for convoy escort, anti-IED missions, strafing and show-of force runs as well as ground-attack with outside of the radar-destruction mission.

One of the F16Cs in our four-ship. Amy Butler/AWST

The F-16 is considered a legacy fighter -- any time a shiny new aircraft shows up on PowerPoint or in development, today’s hardware gets pegged as “legacy.” The Block 50s rolled off the line for about a decade beginning in the early 1990s. Twenty years of service is not old in today’s Air Force fleet. But, the jet is showing its age in that the avionics are not integrated, and pilots have to manually operate upgraded systems that have been layered over one another as the F-16's capability has improved. These include the GPS and the Harm Targeting System. It would be like a computer operator separately having to boot up a laptop and then each program separately and manually as well as any peripherals – such as a printer. Also, some of the aircraft are getting close to their allotted hours of usage. 

The Block 50 will be in service for more than a decade to come. Thus, the F-16 is at a crossroads – its owners in Washington hope to get more capability with as little spending as possible until the F-35 starts delivering in operationally relevant numbers hopefully in the next decade. 

The Air Force is planning to fund an upgrade for the F-16 that will include an active, electronically scanned array radar, structural improvements, new cockpit displays and communications enhancements such as the inclusion of Integrated Broadcast Service technology. Lockheed Martin is currently reviewing bids from Raytheon and Northrop Grumman for the crucial AESA decision, and an announcement is expected next year. This upgrade is slated for 350 of the Air Force F-16s that are in the Block 40 configuration or newer. Though the aircraft are suitable for 8,000 hr. of service, the Air Force hopes to allow for up to 12,000 hr. with structural improvements.

I flew with one of the older Block 50 aircraft, tail number 91-468, meaning it rolled off the line at then General Dynamics (later absorbed into the greater Lockheed Martin fold) in 1991. I was still in high school then, and my pilot, Capt. Joshua “Switch” Larsen is even younger than me …

After the flight. Amy Butler/AWST

The mission plan called for air combat maneuvering tactics training. Specifically, it was a two-on-one scenario, where Switch and I were the one – or the aggressor – and the two remaining F-16s were blue, or friendlies. There was no question who would win the fights, but the point was for Switch to challenge the skills of the other two pilots, both of whom were flying in F-16Cs with only a single external fuel tank. Our jet had two, making us slightly more draggy but able to stay aloft longer.

One thing that – not surprisingly and certainly not uniquely -- struck me was how physically and mentally taxing the flights are. That is, of course, why training is so important, to both acclimate the body and train the mind to make sure the habits needed to get through flights and execute a mission are second nature.

The Air Force has cut back on funding for flying hours, forcing commanders such as Col. Clay Hall, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB, S.C., the only U.S.-based Wild Weasel unit, to prioritize training only to certain missions. This means some skills can atrophy, though he notes the unit is maintaining its readiness.

Maneuvers involving G-forces are obviously the most taxing. During my Nov. 27 flight out of Shaw, Switch executed a climbing takeoff. Typically, this involves a nose-up to 90-deg. to a specific altitude. In our case, we climbed at about 80-deg. to 12,000 ft. (according to Switch – I can’t say I was paying attention to the HUD at that point). He opted for a gentler climb owing to my – let’s say “encouragement” – from the back seat! He nosed over and leveled out to avoid negative Gs (thankfully - my top request for the flight). A few seconds in, 12,000 feet up and a massive shot of adrenaline (for me), and we were then on our way to a chunk of airspace called Bulldog, aptly named as it sits over the border with Georgia.

Rob Sexton, 20FW Public Affairs

Switch brought me up to speed on the displays, which, compared to those on display at air shows for new trainers, fighters and commercial aircraft, appeared rudimentary. We also used the onboard Lantirn pod to try and find some activity at the small Columbia, SC, airport, which was apparently in a lull. The quality of the imagery is subpar when compared to that designed in the Electro-optical Targeting System for the F-35. It is far grainier.

I was not allowed to view any of the EW or Harm Target Systems for security reasons, and most of the wing’s Sniper pods are forward deployed. So, while I was on a Wild Weasel, we didn’t get to do any of the weasel-type stuff.

Some of the more physically taxing maneuvers included maxing out at 7G (the aircraft was only cleared to 7.3 owing to its load) and a sustained 135-deg. turn at 6G. We did a high-aspect, or nose-on-nose, pass with one of our adversaries on the training mission; he zipped by our left side while on the right side his wingman was deploying flares (quite a sight after writing about it for 13 years).

This was during a “tap-the-cap” exercise in which we, as an adversary, crept up behind a two-ship on a fictional combat air patrol mission. The goal there was to remain silent, forcing the adversaries to rely on visual skills to spot a threat. They picked us up about 1.5 miles out and we pursued at about .92 Mach. Within less than a minute, we fulfilled our mission and were shot down (for training purposes) after a few maneuvers. 

We also executed Split-S and Immelmann turns as well as loops, barrel rolls and aileron rolls. Switch later punched through the cloud deck with our nose about 45-deg. down from around 17,000 ft. to about 1,300 ft. to demonstrate speed at as low a level as we could do in Georgia. We flew about 450 kt. He explained that strafing runs are often taking place at a lower altitude when called on in theater.

The reaction of the controls on the F-16 – the first military “electric jet” -- seemed different than those I experienced when I flew in an F/A-18F in 2005. Switch told me to pull back for a loop, and I basically pulled too hard (apparently a common novice error), risking overloading the aircraft with Gs. With the Super Hornet, I did just the same and pulled back for a loop, but the pilot at that time said you “can’t hurt the aircraft,” because it compensates.

In the case of the F-16, Switch swooped in to correct the error (we’d gone from 0G to about 6G too quickly). And, I ended up commanding a somewhat wobbly, but safe, loop. 

That said, the aircraft felt just as solid, despite having half the number of engines as a Super Hornet. It did, however, have a lighter feel, as it was designed for agility.

We did not simulate dispatching weapons. But, it is clear that employing them will be more complex than how they are to be deployed based on my experience in the F-35 simulator. The F-35 is designed to allow the pilot to be more efficient at doing a variety of missions. This is made possible through fusion of avionics in the cockpit, for example. Today, that fusion happens in the pilot's brain. Even on a routine training mission, he was very busy managing the aircraft and communications, often forcing the eager and chatty journalist in the back to wait to ask a question. 

Clearly, if these pilots transition to the F-35, they will experience a major leap in what technology can do for them as they fly.

One other note from the trip was that prior to takeoff, a maintainer called an abort for our takeoff owing to a suspect strut in the right landing gear. While the the other three F-16s in our flight took off, we lumbered slowly back to the shed. Luckily, maintenance cleared us for takeoff shortly thereafter, but we lost some time with the F-16Cs during training. What was interesting about this was once we returned, Switch had to recalibrate his frequencies and such, all owing to a false alert from maintenance. I wonder if the introduction of Lockheed Martin's Autonomic Information Logistics System, which is designed to manage the F-35 from mission planning to maintenance and parts supply, will reduce the number of these types of false aborts. 

Finally, when I told a longtime friend and former Pentagon bean counter about my mission, his comment was that the F-16 was “one of the most cost-effective programs in Air Force aviation history.” It remains to be seen whether all of the technology and capability stuffed into the F-35 will ever be able to make such a claim. 

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