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Posts Tagged ‘General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon’

For those of us fortunate enough to take in an Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration (or a Blue Angels show if the Navy is your thing), it’s been an upward view to a rare display of precision flying and aerobatic skill.  The team hones their show to a razor’s edge, flying all sorts of different formations in very close proximity at very high speed.  Split-second timing and absolute commitment are required to bring off the various maneuvers.  Accidents in this arena are ones from which a pilot rarely walks away.

We’ve discussed it before.

And sadly, we discuss it again for Today’s History Lesson.

January 18, 1982 marks the date of the USAF Thunderbirds’ worst flying accident.  Tragedy was no stranger to this particular group of men, as they were still coping with the loss of their leader in an air show just five months prior, and another member four months before that.  But it was time to prepare for a new season, and that meant dusting off their Northrop T-38 Talons and getting to work.

The Talon was a very capable little bird, used primarily as a trainer.  It delivered good power from its two small engines, but wasn’t so powerful (as say, an F-15 or 16) as to get away from a trainee.   It was not blessed with tremendous top speed, but it was very maneuverable, which allowed for a more pleasing (read: acrobatic) air show than the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs (a relative pig in the air) they replaced.  And they kept the front-line aircraft on the front lines.

One of the signature Thunderbirds formations (and it’s probably used by every aerobatics group) is the Diamond.  Four aircraft fly in a baseball-diamond-shaped formation only a few feet apart, and they usually maintain that formation all the way through a loop.  The lead pilot guides the formation, while the other three have their eyes locked onto him, oblivious to all else, including their distance from the ground.  Their jobs are to maintain a precise position to the lead, regardless of what he does.  It’s a high-speed version of follow-the-leader.

That’s all well and good…unless something goes wrong with the lead aircraft, and that’s what seems to have happened on this particular day.  Apparently #1’s pitch control actuator wasn’t functioning properly and, rather than pull out of the bottom of the loop at about 100 feet above the ground, Major Norm Lowry’s plane continued into the ground.

Captains Mays, Peterson, and Melancon, piloting the #2, #3, and #4 aircraft, probably only had a split second to realize there was problem before they, too, followed their leader into the Arizona ground around Davis-Monthan AFB.  All four pilots were killed instantly, and 1982’s Thunderbirds season ended before it even began.

The “Diamond Crash” sparked heated debate as to the value of these exhibition teams.  In less than a year, the Thunderbirds had lost millions of dollars of aircraft and, much worse, six highly-trained pilots.  Families were being devastated, pilots lost, and dollars wasted on what amounted to 90 minutes of “hot-shot stunt pilot antics”.

Congress disagreed with the rhetoric, and allowed the teams to continue.  The Thunderbirds returned in 1983 with a new team and a new steed…the F-16 Fighting Falcon.  But there is no doubt that 1982 was a terribly tragic year for the Thunderbirds.

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As we’ve looked at various aircraft, there’s a trend of “action-reaction” that I hope you’ve noticed.  An airplane was produced (North American’s XB-70 Valkyrie), which prompted the Russians to produce an aircraft (the MiG-25 Foxbat).  The Foxbat caused the U.S. military immense alarm, and that led to the incredible McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle.  Cause and effect…action and reaction.

The subject of Today’s History Lesson is the “reaction” to the F-15, though not the Soviet response (which was the MiG-29 Fulcrum, a remarkable airplane that also deserves its day on these pages).  Rather, this response actually came from the U.S. military itself.

The Vietnam War brought to light a real deficiency in military thinking with regards to airpower.  Up until then, “interceptors” were the rage…planes with high straight-line speeds loaded with missiles for long-range, standoff attacks.  High manueverability, low wing-loading, and dogfight capabilities were not deemed relevant anymore…until Air Force interceptors-turned-fighters (like the F-4 Phantom II and, to a lesser degree, Republic’s F-105 Thunderchief) started getting swatted from the Southeast Asian skies with alarming frequency in close-in engagements with true enemy fighters.  All of a sudden, the “lightweight, gun-carrying fighter” concept from World War II suddenly looked a lot more enticing.

The military went to work, requesting proposals for a lightweight fighter design.  And then the Soviet Foxbat was spotted, and the lightweight fighter was temporarily shelved in favor of the F-15 Eagle.  But the idea of a true dogfighter was never forgotten.  As the F-15 came to production, it became clear that, despite its awesome capabilities, its fly-away cost-per-plane was going to be very large.  The idea of a smaller, less expensive compliment was raised and, suddenly, the lightweight fighter was back on the table.

Five companies submitted design proposals, and two (Northrop and General Dynamics) were selected by the Air Force as worthy of actual prototypes.  The first “official” flight of the YF-16 was scheduled for (and performed) on February 2, 1974.  But its first actual flight was back on January 20th, due to a malfunction.  While accelerating the plane to near-takeoff speeds, oscillations forced the test pilot to lift off for a 6-minute unplanned flight in order to prevent damage.

In the end, Northrop’s proposal, the YF-17, finished second in the competition, but would later be modified and purchased by the Navy and Marine Corps as the F-18 Hornet.  The winner of the competition, the YF-16, would be purchased by the Air Force and christened the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

We’ve covered very little of the plane’s actual capabilities, we’ve not spoken at all of its widespread use all over the world, nor have we mentioned the fact that, 35 years after its first flight, it’s still in production (though not for domestic purchase).  But we’ll talk more about the F-16 in the future as anniversary dates arrive, because there’s a lot to talk about.

Recommended Reading: World Air Power Journal – Volume V focuses on the F-16 (as do a couple others).  Now out of print and nearly impossible to find, this $19-per-quarterly-issue subscription was a tour-de-force.  The finest periodical ever.  I treasure my copies.  Or, fly an F-16 yourself!!

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If I were to ask you what you were doing 10 years ago today, I bet only one or two would have even the vaguest of ideas.  If you were to ask me that same question, I could tell you that I was celebrating the release of Falcon 4.0, which was, at that time, the most highly-anticipated flight simulator ever.

Exactly one week before, I had been at the office, online with a bunch of guys in an Internet chat room.  But this one was dedicated to Falcon 4.0, and we were awaiting the pronouncement of Falcon’s “Gold” status, due at any time.

Many of us had flown earlier versions, specifically Falcon 3.0 (with its add-on packs).  Sold by Spectrum HoloByte in the early 1990’s and featuring the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, it was immensely popular for its realistic flight model and avionics suite, which were as good as computer power (and declassified documents) would allow.  But Falcon 4.0 was going to be something really special.  Now being built by Microprose (Spectrum HoloByte had purchased Microprose and purloined the name), the new sim promised advances galore.  I believe the “4.0” project had begun in 1993 and had carried on until the team hired Leon Rosenshein as the project lead.

At that point, development pretty much began anew…and would continue for several years.  There were various modes developed, such as the Tactical Engagement (a one-target canned mission) and the Dogfight mode (you against the world).  But the heart of Falcon 4.0 was the campaign.  Unlike other “sims” that used scripted campaigns or mission trees, warfare in Falcon 4.0 was entirely dynamic.  When a campaign (between North and South Korea) began, missions looked pretty similar.  But as you (and all the AI) flew their sorties, subsequent missions would be tasked based on what was (or wasn’t) accomplished.  In addition, you could modify the tasking order as the campaign progressed (attack more bridges, go after air defense, take out more industry), and the AI aircraft would receive more of those missions.  Every campaign was unique.

There was a ground war as well, and Microprose brought in a developer who cared little for flight sims but loved tanks.  His job was to build the ground war…so that’s what he did…and at least 100,000 lines of code (if I remember right) went into that aspect of the sim.

No one had ever (or has since) attempted to build a sim this ambitious, but the legacy of Falcon 3.0 somewhat demanded it.  And then Hasbro Interactive purchased Microprose in 1998.  The Falcon project had, to date, cost millions, and Hasbro wanted a return.  They ordered that the sim be released in time for the Christmas season…

…which brings us back to that Saturday night in the Falcon 4.0 chat room.  There was immense excitement that evening.  We didn’t know for sure, but the Falcon guys had popped in from time to time saying it was close.  You probably can’t imagine the anticipation (unless you’re a sim-head like all of us are) that was there, nor the joy we had when it was announced that Falcon 4.0 was “Gold” (code-locked for distribution).  We were soon joined by Grout (Steve Blankenship – Falcon’s producer) who confirmed the status.

And a week later, December 12, 1998, Falcon 4.0 was released.  Its rush to production meant it was full of bugs, which caused a lot of initial frustration.  But subsequent patches fixed many of the problems.  Ten years later, you can still purchase the sim, now produced by Lead Pursuit.  Titled Falcon 4.0: Allied Force, it’s more stable and feature-complete than ever.  And in those 10 years, no other sim has even come close to what “Leon and the boys” put together.

Recommended Playing: Falcon 4.0: Allied Force – You can’t get the original anymore (unless you just happen to find one laying around).  So get F4:AF instead…and experience the love for just a couple Hamiltons.

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