Editor’s note: Aviation Week reporter Amy Butler recently flew a Lockheed Martin F-16D Fighting Falcon, the iconic fighter its pilots refer to as the Viper. The U.S. Air Force’s D model she rode is the latest in a long line of attack jets equipped to suppress and kill enemy radar sites. Butler’s report takes a non-pilot view of what it’s like to be a backseater in an aircraft best known by the name Wild Weasel.
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.
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.