1978: AF accepts first production model F-16
The Air Force accepted its first production model F-16, aircraft 78-0001, Aug. 17, 1978, from the General Dynamics plant, now Lockheed Martin, in Fort Worth, Texas. Up until 1959, U.S. fighter aircraft production starts were fairly constant. But at that point, the national strategy changed from mutually assured destruction to flexible response. Trying to save money and grow efficiencies, the new defense secretary, Robert McNamara, demanded all weapon systems go through systems analysis prior to purchase. New fighter production starts ground to a halt.
During Vietnam, air combat rules of engagement required visual recognition of the enemy prior to firing a missile. Many fighter aircraft were designed to intercept soviet bombers with long range missiles. The visual recognition requirement combined with the poor performance of some of the missiles resulted in many more close-in fights than expected. In those fights the U.S. aircraft proved to be too heavy and lacked maneuverability.
During the late 1960s, Col. John Boyd teamed with civilian mathematician Thomas Christie to develop a mathematical model called the Energy-Maneuverability Theory. The model analyzed the air combat maneuverability of aircraft while ignoring its real-world test data.
Meanwhile, the Air Force came up with two fighter programs that appeared to be in conflict with each other. The first was the Fight Experimental Program aimed at developing a big, long-range fighter, which resulted in the F-15. The other program was the Advanced Day Fighter, which later became the Light Weight Fighter Program. Boyd and his model influenced the design of both aircraft. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard believed aircraft companies should competitively prototype the Light Weight Fighter. Five companies made proposals resulting in two finalists, the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17.
A number of things helped make the program very significant. First, the Air Force needed to replace its aging F-105s and F-4s. Second, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger said the Light Weight Fighter Program would not have to compete with the F-15 program. There would be two U.S. Air Force fighters. Finally, some of our NATO allies formed the Multinational Fighter Program Group to search for a common fighter for the alliance. As one source said, this would be “the arms deal of the century.” So, the Air Force changed the name of the Light Weight Fighter to the Air Combat Fighter for the competition. Five companies made proposals with three finalists, the YF-16, YF-17 and the Dassault-Breguet Mirage F1E.
Secretary of the Air Force John McLucas announced the YF-16 won the competition on Jan. 13, 1975. The reasons given were the lower operating costs, the aircraft used the same engine as the F-15, greater range and significantly better maneuver performance than the YF-17. In an odd turn of events, the production F-16s were 25 percent heavier than the YF-16 and the Navy chose the YF-17 for its fighter, which became the McDonnell Douglas FA-18 Hornet.
As for aircraft 78-0001, between January 1983 and November 1989, it flew with the 310th Fighter Squadron here at Luke Air Force Base. Since October 1991, it has resided as the F-16 static aircraft in the Memorial Park at Langley AFB, Va.