The prototype YF-16 (serial number 72-1567) was rolled out at Fort Worth on December 13, 1973. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 (JTF22A-33) turbofan, rated at 23,830 with full afterburner. Maximum takeoff weight was 27,000 pounds. The YF-16 carried no radar, and the aircraft had analog flight controls with no computer software.
The YF-16 was air freighted by C-5A to Edwards AFB on January 8, 1974. Its first flight was an unintended short hop around the pattern on January 21, 1974 at the hands of test pilot Phil Oestricher. During high-speed ground tests at Edwards, Oestricher had inadvertently scraped the tailplane on the runway as the nose was raised, and a violent lateral oscillation set in. He decided to take off and regain control in the air. He stayed up for six minutes and landed uneventfully. The scheduled first flight was delayed until a new right stabilator could be fitted. The first official flight took place February 2, 1974, again with Phil Oestricher at the controls. He reached 400 mph and 30,000 feet.
YF-16 no 2 (72-1568) was flown for the first time on March 9, 1974 with test pilot Neil Anderson at the controls.
On two occasions during these early test flights, the F100 engine went into uncommanded idle while in flight, forcing a dead-stick landing. Temporary flying restrictions were imposed on the YF-16 until the problem could be corrected. The fault was traced to contamination of the fuel-control valve which caused the valve to jam in the idle position, but while the curbs were in effect the YF-16 had to remain within dead-stick landing distance of the airfield.
The flyoff between the YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17 began as soon as flight testing started. The two YF-16s reached speeds of over Mach 2.0, maneuvers achieving 9g, and altitudes above 60,000 feet. There was an attempt to get as many pilots as possible to fly both the YF-16 and YF-17. The Lightweight Fighter prototypes never flew against each other, but they did fly against all current USAF fighters as well as against MiG-17s and MiG-21s that had been "acquired" by the USAF.
Within the Air Force staff, there was a strong institutional bias against the LWF, since they perceived it to be a threat to the F-15 program. To head off some of this suspicion, the program was renamed Air Combat Fighter (ACF) by the Defense Department. In the meantime, the governments of Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway had begun to consider possible replacements for the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. They formed the Multinational Fighter Program Group to choose the successor. The prime candidates were the Northrop YF-17, the Dassault Mirage F.1, the SAAB JA37 Viggen, and the General Dynamics YF-16. The winner of the ACF contest in the USA would probably be the favored candidate, but the MFPG wanted to see if the USAF was going to buy the plane for itself before they made a decision. These countries wanted a decision from the USAF by December of 1974.
In the meantime, some US Navy officers had been expressing interest in a low-cost alternative to the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, which was at that time experiencing severe teething troubles and suffering from a series of cost overruns. This program came to be known as VFAX. A stripped version of the Tomcat (named F-14X) had been proposed by Grumman, but had been summarily rejected by the Deputy Defense Secretary. In May 10, 1974 the House Armed Services Committee dictated that the VFAX would have to be a wholly new aircraft, but, apparently having forgotten the sorry experience with the F-111, they wanted the USAF and the Navy to purchase basically the same plane. However, the Navy (unlike the Air Force) wanted the VFAX to be capable of filling both air-to-air and ground-attack roles.
In August of 1974, the Congress took money intended for VFAX and diverted it to a new program known as Navy Air Combat Fighter (NACF), and directed that this plane make maximum feasible use of the USAF's LWF/ACF technology and hardware. It would be basically a navalized LWF/ACF. However, most Navy officers were solidly committed to the F-14 and wanted nothing to do with either the VFAX or the NACF. Nevertheless, Congress was insistent, and in September of 1974, the Navy announced that it would select a single contractor to begin engineering development of the NACF and requested bids from the industry. In response to this request, on September 27, 1974, General Dynamics announced that they would be teaming with Ling-Temco-Vought (also located in Dallas/Fort Worth) to propose a NACF design based on the YF-16. The carrier-capable F-16 was assigned the company designation of Model 1600 by LTV. LTV carried out several different concept studies involving different engines--the F404, the F101,a and an improved F100 were all considered. The navalized YF-16 was to have been provided with the capability of carrying and launching AIM-7 Sparrow BVR missiles, which would have required the development of a Sparrow-compatible BVR radar. Neither of these features were part of the original planning for a USAF F-16. If both the Air Force and the Navy picked the YF-16, General Dynamics would be the prime contractor for the Air Force and LTV would be prime contractor for the Navy. However, in retrospect, since both contractors were located in the same state, there was little likelihood of receiving a contract.
In October of 1974, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger announced that that he was considering production of the winner of the ACF contest to satisfy USAF, Navy, and export requirements. Up to that time, the LWF/ACF program had been largely an academic exercise for the USAF. The design emphasis would now be changed to that of a multi-role aircraft. It would complement rather than supplement the F-15 Eagle in USAF service, easing somewhat Air Force fears that the ACF would somehow sidetrack their Eagle program. The production form of the LWF (by now known strictly as the ACF in Defense Department press releases) would have a larger radar antenna, giving the aircraft some BVR capability. The USAF announced plans to buy 650 ACFs, with the possibility that this order could be increased to 1400 or more. This move was designed to assure the potential NATO customers that the USAF would stand firmly behind the new fighter.
On January 13, 1975, Air Force Secretary John McLucas announced that the YF-16 had been selected as the winner of the ACF contest. The Air Force placed a contract for fifteen FSD (Full-Scale Development) airframes. Both single- and two-seat versions would be built, with the single-seater being designated F-16A and the two-seater F-16B. The reason given by the Secretary for the decision was the lower operating cost, longer range, and better transient maneuverability of the YF-16. Another advantage of the YF-16 over the YF-17 as far as the Air Force was concerned was the fact that the F100 turbofan of the YF-16 was the same powerplant as that of the F-15, and it was felt that buying more of these engines would advance the cause of the fighter that it REALLY wanted, the F-15. Political considerations also played a role, since with the F-111 program coming to an end, General Dynamics of Fort Worth needed the F-16 order to stay in business.
In the meantime, the F-16 still remained one of the contenders for the NACF order. One proposal from General Dynamics was for a single-seat naval fighter based on the two-seat F-16B but with the space ordinarily occupied by the rear seat being used for increased avionics or fuel. On May 2, 1975, the Navy announced that they had decided not to buy the navalized F-16, but opted instead for an aircraft developed from the YF-17, which was eventually to emerge as the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The Navy apparently preferred a twin-engined format for additional safety for overwater operations. The LTV proposals never actually reached the mockup stage. Unhappy about the loss of the NACF contract, LTV files a lawsuit which was ultimately unsuccessful.
In February of 1975, the NATO consortium was offered the F-16 at a unit flyaway cost of 5.16 million dollars, based on a total production run of 2000 planes for the USAF, NATO, and other countries. At the same time, the US government announced that it had cleared F100 engine technology transfer to these countries.
YF-16 #2 had originally been scheduled to go to the Paris Air Show in 1975. However, before it could go, it was damaged in an accident in which test pilot Neil Anderson skidded the aircraft on its belly in the grass beside the Carswell AFB runway. Although only slightly damaged, the aircraft eventually ended up in nonflying test duties at Rome Air Development Center, New York.
In May of 1975, YF-16 #1 made its first transatlantic flight for a sales tour to its potential NATO customers, and put in an appearance at the Paris Air Show. On June 7, 1975, armed with the assurance of a USAF commitment to the type, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway announced that they had agreed to acquire the F-16 as a replacement for the F-104G. A total of 348 were in the initial production contract (116 for Belgium, 58 for Denmark, 102 for the Netherlands, and 72 for Norway). The Fokker plant at Schiphol Oost in the Netherlands would built 184, and the SABCA Gosselies plant in Belgium would build 164. In its new form, the F-16 offered more new technology, superior performance, and a more attractive offset production package than any of its competitors. Initially, there was some criticism of the F-16's lack of BVR and all-weather capability, as well as some concern about the performance problems that the F100 engine was encountering at the time.
A large network of manufacturers were contracted to build the F-16 under license in Europe, with the final assembly taking place at SABCA's Gosselies plant in Belgium, at the Fokker plant at Schiphol in the Netherlands, as well as at the parent General Dynamics plant in Fort Worth, Texas. At the same time, the Belgian company SONACA (formerly known as Fairey SA) was reconstituted with new management and was contracted to build the aft fuselage. Fokker was to build fuselage center sections, leading edge flaps, the trailing edge and flaperon and other assemblies for US production, and was to carry out the final assembly of machines destined for Dutch and Norwegian service. SABCA was to build the wing structure box and other parts and was to handle assembly of the complete wing. SABCA was also to be responsible for final assembly of planes destined for Belgian and Danish service. The vertical fin box and the wing and centerline pylons were to be built in Denmark by Per Udsen. The undercarriage was to be built by DAF in the Netherlands and the wheels by Raufoss in Norway.
The Belgian Fabrique National (FN) plant was to be responsible for final assembly of the F100 engines for the European aircraft. Kongsberg of Norway was to build the fin drive turbine module whereas Phillips in Holland was to handle the augmentor nozzle module.
MBLE of Belgium was assigned the overall responsibility for the APG-66 radar, with Signaal and Oldeflt of the Netherlands being responsible for the radar antennae and the HUD display. Neselco and LK-NES of Denmark were to supply the fire control computer, the radar displays were to be built by the Danish company Nea Linberg, and Kongsberg of Norway was to handle the inertial navigation system.
Following the completion of its test duties, YF-16 number 1 (72-1567) was converted to Control Configuration Vehicle (CCV) configuration. It was later restored to its original configuration and is now on display at the Hampton Roads History Center in Virginia.
The manufacture of the first production F-16 began at General Dynamics's Fort Worth plant in August of 1975. This involved General Dynamics in a major modernization of its huge Forth Worth plant, which had originally been built during World War 2 for B-24 Liberator production and had not been updated since the 1960s. The production F-16A differed from the YF-16 in having a 13-inch fuselage extension to accommodate more fuel and was fitted with the Westinghouse APG-66 radar. The nose was deeper and longer to accomodate the radar. The vertical fin was increased slightly in height and incorporated a radar warning receiver in its tip. The ventral fins were redesigned and made larger in area. The nosewheel door was redsigned--It was now a one-piece design which hinged to starboard, whereas the nosewheel door of the YF-16 was in two pieces, the front section hinging to port, the rear section hinging to starboard. The wing area was increased by 20 square feet and an additional underwing hardpoint was fitted. A total of nine external points were now available (3 under each wing, one at each wingtip, and one on the fuselage centerline) for up to 10,000 pounds of fuel or weapons. The horizontal tailplane was increased in size, and a jet starter was added to the F100 turbofan. These changes resulted in an increase in weight by 25 percent over that of the YF-16.
The need for FSD aircraft dropped to six single-seat F-16As (serial numbers 75-0745/0750) and two two-seat F-16Bs (serial numbers 75-0751/0752). The first F-16A/FSD was flown on December 8, 1976, with Neil R. Anderson at the controls. The first two-seat F-16B (fourth of the FSD aircraft) took off on its maiden flight on August 8, 1977, with company test pilots Neil Anderson and Phil Oestricher at the controls.
Following the completion of the test program, most of the FSD F-16s were used for various test purposes. The second FSD F-16 was imployed in 1984 by NASA at Langley AFB, Virginia to test a decoupler pylon concept. The third and fifth FSD F-16As were modified with a "cranked-wing" delta configuration, and the third FSD F-16A was converted to two-seat configuration to become F-16XL ships. The first FSD F-16A was fitted with a General Electric YF101 turbojet to become the F-16/101. The sixth FSD F-16A became the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration demonstrator. The eighth aircraft was fitted with a General Electric J79 turbojet to become the F-16/79 and later the F-16B-2 demonstrator.
In 1977, the Air Force announced plans to buy an additional 783 F-16As and Bs. At this time, the USAF specified that the plane was to serve as a fighter-bomber, in contradiction to its initial plans for the LWF as a lightweight day fighter.
The Belgian production line opened in February of 1978, with the Dutch line opening in April of 1978. The first F-16 to be delivered to Europe arrived at Gosselies on June 9, 1978. It was a Fort Worth-built machine, and was used for assembly tests at the SABCA plant.
Large-scale production for the USAF began with FY78 funds, and the first full production F-16A coming from the Fort Worth production line flew for the first time in August of 1978. It entered service with the 34th TFS, 388th TFW at Hill AFB in Utah on Oct 1, 1980.
The first flight of a European-built F-16 took place on December 11, 1978 from Gosselies. This was a two-seat F-16B, flown by Neil Anderson and Serge Martin. The first Fokker-built F-16 (J-259, 78-259) flew for the first time on May 3, 1979.
The first F-16A/Bs were delivered to the 388th TFW at Hill AFB in Utah in January 1979. The same month, the first F-16A/Bs were delivered to the Belgian Air Force. The first Fighting Falcons were delivered to the Royal Netherlands Air Force in June of 1979. Deliveries to Denmark, Norway, and Israel began in January of 1980.
In Europe and the USA, an intricate MSIP (Mutinational Staged Improvement Program) was initiated to handle the upgrading of the F-16 aircraft on a planned, gradual basis. MSIP not only covers progressive modifications to aircraft on the production line, but also implements these improvements retroactively in existing aircraft.
72-1567/1568 General Dynamics YF-16 Fighting Falcon 1567 modified as CCV tests. 75-745/750 General Dynamics YF-16A Fighting Falcon 745 modified as F-16/101 with GE F101 engine. 745 is on display at WPAFB marked as 79-0317 747 modified as F-16XL/B with cranked-arrow wing. Transferred to NASA as 848 749 modified as F-16XL/A with cranked-arrow wing. Transferred to NASA as 849 750 modified as AFTI test bed. 75-751/752 General Dynamics YF-16B Fighting Falcon 752 modified as Wild Weasel test bed. 752 later modified as F-16/79 with GE J79 engine.