You are currently viewing The Struggle Between the F-16 and the F/A-18 to Enter the U.S. Air Force

The Struggle Between the F-16 and the F/A-18 to Enter the U.S. Air Force

The Lightweight Fighter Competition has given us two legendary fighter planes from the fourth generation.

Contests Among Lightweight Boxers: An Often-Overlooked Event Comparing the F-16 and F/A-18 In the real world, there was a U.S. Air Force programme that could be called “That 70s Showdown” long before Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Laura Prepon, and the rest of their co-stars entertained T.V. audiences on FOX’s That 70s Show.

Lightweight Fighter Competition (LWF) was a programme that yielded two legendary fourth-generation fighter aircraft: the F-16 Fighting Falcon (or “The Viper,” as she is affectionately known to her crew) and the F-18 Hornet. Yes, you heard that right. Surprising as it may be, both of these cutting-edge fighter planes are in their forties, despite their prominent roles in blockbuster films like Iron Eagle and Top Gun: Maverick. Let’s examine the project that gave birth to these two legendary aircraft.

Air & Space Forces Magazine reporter Erik Simonsen wrote about the LWF in a December 2016 article.

“When the F-15 and F-14 were being developed for the Air Force and Navy in the early 1970s, their performance and price were unprecedented, especially in speed and radar detection range. The United States Congress was horrified at the prospect of relying on such expensive machines as the mainstays of the two service fighter forces, so it ordered the Air Force to look into more cost-effective aircraft to supplement the F-15 and, later, the F-14. In January 1972, the Prototype Program Office initiated the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) programme at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The RFP called for “a lightweight, low-cost fighter with exceptional manoeuvrability.”

Boeing, Ling-Temco-Vought, Lockheed (now known as Lockheed Martin), General Dynamics, and Northrop were the five major contractors that entered this lightweight competition (now known as Northrop Grumman).

These two were chosen as finalists by the United States Air Force. Lockheed did take over the F-16 programme, but not until 1993. General Dynamics and Northrop planned to construct their designs’ two YF-16 and YF-17 prototypes.

With this freedom came two very different and unorthodox designs from the companies. General Dynamics created a hybrid airframe with a single engine and a bubble canopy to give the pilot unmatched visibility. Northrop proposed a design featuring twin tails and two engines, with a long extension at the leading edge that evokes a hooded cobra.

In April 1974, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger of the Nixon Administration told the services to look into a low-cost Air Combat Fighter. He said the ACF could come from successfully developing one of the LWF prototypes to counter the Democratic-controlled Congress’ efforts to reduce fighter acquisition costs for the Air Force and Navy.

On December 13, 1973, the YF-16 debuted from the General Dynamics plant in Fort Worth, Texas, its distinctive, futuristic shape adorned in a patriotic red, white, and blue colour scheme to make the most of the widespread media coverage.

Phil F. Oestricher, a test pilot for General Dynamics, gave the prototype its first flight when he did a high-speed taxi test at Edwards Air Force Base in California the next month. Oestricher said the jet responded well, and he “achieved very quickly” the maximum planned speed during the mission debrief. According to the test pilot, “all fighter pilots will be impressed” by the “outstanding visibility” provided by the canopy’s single-piece design.

Northrop wouldn’t be outdone, so on April 4, 1974, they unveiled the YF-17 Cobra prototype from their Hawthorne, California, factory. After two months of preparation, Northrop’s Chief Test Pilot Henry E. Chouteau gave the Cobra her first flight at Edwards AFB. During the debriefing, Chouteau’s enthusiasm boiled over as he said, “When our designers said that in the YF-17 they were going to give the aeroplane back to the pilot, they meant it.” An actual fighter, as seen through the eyes of a fighter pilot.

By late 1974, the Air Force had completed its flight evaluations of both contenders. On January 13, 1975, then-Air Force Secretary John L. McLucas announced that the winner of the LWF Competition was the General Dynamics YF-16. Even though Northrop only produced two YF-17s, the company’s efforts were not wasted. Ultimately, F-18 was developed we know and love today, after being chosen for the Navy’s Naval Fighter Attack Experimental program. According to an anonymous author on the website, the U.S. Navy preferred Northrop’s concept as a possible replacement for the ageing A-7 Corsair attack fighter. Northrop and McDonnell Douglas had planned to collaborate on developing an F-18 fighter version for the Navy and an A-18 attack variant for the Marines but later merged. We were able to make the flexible F/A-18 Hornet because of this.

In other words, the rest is history. YF-17 airframes are at the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance, California, and the Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama.

Leave a Reply