The F-16 is the fighter jet of choice for many countries and given its dominance of the fighter market, it has seen itself proven in combat for a number of nations. In addition to this it is also used as a public relations tool at airshows and events all over. Adam Duffield takes a look at both of these roles.
Although the United States has always operated by far the highest number of the type, it was F-16s belonging to the Israel that scored the first kill. In 1981, only a year after the first aircraft arrived in service, an Israeli F-16A shot down a Syrian Mi-8 helicopter during the Lebanese Civil War marking the start of a number of engagements between the two forces. In 1982, one of the largest air to air battles involving jets took place between the Israeli F-16s and the MiG’s of Syria. After three days of intense fighting the IAF had shot down 44 Syrian aircraft with one particular F-16, serial 107 (named ‘Suffa’) credited with 6.5 kills on its own. To this day, the IAF has claimed nearly 2/3rds of the known F-16 air to air victories. Of course, the F-16 is a multi-role fighter and the IAF also proved its ground attack capability during Operation Opera in 1981 during which 8 F-16s (including 107) attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor being built at Osirak, in the centre of the country.
As well as being the first claimed kill, the most recent (at the time of this article) is also against a Syrian helicopter, this time a Mi-17 Hip shot down by a Turkish F-16. On September 16, 2013, the Syrian Hip crossed into Turkish airspace and, despite warnings, continued to violate it. With tensions between the two high especially since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, a pair of F-16C’s were diverted to intercept and, eventually, shoot down the helicopter – the only recorded air to air victory of a Turkish F-16.
The F-16 was heavily utilised by the USAF during one of the largest conflicts of modern times, during operations in Iraq during both Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent invasion. The US committed significant assets during Desert Storm (along with many other nations) and the F-16 proved to be a highly successful platform for them. Operating over 13,000 sorties during Desert Storm alone (more than any other type) they were involved in some of the most significant raids of the operation. The USAF F-16s also scored their first air to air kill whilst enforcing the no-fly zone after Desert Strom. On December 27, 1992 an F-16 of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Squadron based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, shot down an Iraq Air Force Mig-25 Foxbat over Southern Iraq. This marked the start of a number of air to air victories not only over Iraq but also against Serbian aircraft as part of NATO peacekeeping missions.
With a number of member countries heavily invested in the F-16, they have been deployed in a number of NATO led and other multi-nation related missions over the years. Both the US and Netherlands utilised F-16s during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990’s covering by no-fly zone enforcements (Operation Deny Flight) but also to provide close air support for ground forces and, later, ground attack strikes during Operations’ Deliberate Force and Allied Force. Most recently F-16s from all five of the original operators (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and US) along with the UAE were involved in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya as part of a UN Security Council resolution along with other types including RAF Typhoons and French Air Force Rafales. However, it is in Afghanistan where the F-16 is still proving its worth today being operated by the US and Netherlands (Denmark also utilised the type in operations up until 2003) throughout the country since 2001.
Outside of these well-known operations and engagements, the F-16 also provides protection of the nations to which they belong. Countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands frequently launch their aircraft as part of Quick Reaction Alerts to protect their own airspace whether it be from probing Russian Bomber flights or the loss of communication from a passenger aircraft. The US Air National Guard also performs the same role alongside other assets at their disposal.
Given the volume of F-16s produced over the years and the vast number of forces around the world that operate them, it should come as no surprise that it is common to see displays of the aircraft at airshows all over.
Within the UK, two European displays are seen more often than any others – the Dutch and Belgian Air Force Solo teams. The Royal Netherlands Air force first used the aircraft in a solo display in 1979 and has continued ever since. Display pilots are selected from operational squadrons within the air force and normally server a two year assignment. With the RNLAF squadrons being split between Volkel and Leeuwarden, the chosen display squadron normally alternates between the two bases as well. During the 2012-2013 season, the team was supplied by a mix of 312 and 313 Squadron personnel based at Volkel with the Pilot being Captain Stefan “Stitch” Hutten. The instantly recognisable ‘Orange Lion’ scheme used during for the season was first applied to the aircraft in 2009 and has also seen Captain Ralph “Sheik” Aarts and Captain Tobias “Hitec” Schutte display it since then. For the 2014-2015 season the pilot will be Captain Jeroen “Slick” Dickens and it has recently been confirmed that, despite rumours to the contrary, the ‘Orange Lion’ scheme will return to the skies for at least the 2014 displays.
The solo display of the Belgian Air Force was also founded during 1979. Like their Dutch counterparts, the Belgians are also known for their distinctive colour schemes that adorned the display aircraft and the current scheme was introduced during the 2012 season along with a new pilot. Replacing Cmdt Michel “Mitch” Buelen, Captain Renaud “Grat” Thys is based at 350 Squadon, Florennes elected to bring a new look aircraft to stamp his own signature on the display. Unlike the RNLAF, the assignment to the BAF Solo display is typically for three years and, whilst it has not yet been confirmed, it is likely that we will once again see “Grat” in the UK skies during 2014.
Of course, they are not the only European operators to offer a solo display. The Royal Danish Air Force and Norwegian Air Force both have dedicated solo teams however are much less rarely seen in the UK, especially the latter. The Hellenic Air Force also operates a solo team utilising their F-16 Block 52+ complete with distinctive conformal fuel tanks – the only solo team in Europe to display with them. Formed in 2009 and having trained with the US Viper West team, only two pilots have been in control of the team, also known as ‘Zeus’, and the current display pilot is Captain Georgios Androulakis. Unseen in the UK so far, their social media team has passed comment on their wish to attend RIAT in past year so, hopefully, it will not be long until they make the journey to attend.
One of the most memorable solo displays recently has come from that of the Turkish Air Force. Under the name of Soloturk, the display team was founded in 2009 with training taking place during 2010 leading to a first public display in 2011. In the same year, Pilot Murat Keleş debuted the show at RIAT leading to winning the award for the Best Overall Flying Demonstration. A return to the UK in 2013, this time with Captain S.Yalın Ahbab at the controls, really showed just how good the team is and, for many, was the best F-16 display seen.
Many other forces around the world use the F-16 either in solo displays or flypasts although do not necessarily have permanently formed display teams. The UAE Air Forces F-16E/F ‘Desert Falcon’ has displayed at the Al Ain airshows over the years, initially under the hands of Lockheed Martin test pilots but now by a pilot from their own force. The Royal Bahrain and Republic of Singapore Air Forces amongst others have also appeared at their own local shows.
The United States Air Force up until recently had two separate solo display teams named Viper East and Viper West based on opposite sides of the country. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts in the US that eventually led to Sequestration during 2013, Air Combat Command took the decision to suspend both teams at the end of 2011 and at present there is still no indication if they will return to the air. Both teams were well respected and also helped train teams from other nations and, along with solo demonstrations, also regularly performed as part of heritage flight flypasts.
However, whilst the solo displays may not have escaped the cutbacks, the USAF still retains an F-16 demo team in the form of The Thunderbirds. Despite their display schedule being cut during 2013 it has been confirmed that they will return to a full schedule for the 2014 season. Having been formed over 60 years ago the team have been wowing crowds all over the globe and their previous mounts have included the F-100 Super Sabre and F-4 Phantom before transferring to the F-16 in 1983. Originally using F-16A/B aircraft, they now fly F-16C/D Block 52 variants with only a few minor modifications from the rest of the operational fleet and, if required, can be very quickly restored to that standard if required (excluding the distinctive paint scheme).
There is only one other F-16 based display team in the world – the Republic of Singapore Air Force Black Knights. Whilst the Thunderbirds are a permanent team who spend many hours practicing for their busy display schedule, the Black Knights are very much the opposite. With display pilots taken from regular operational squadrons, they are very rarely seen and have taken numerous extended breaks during the years. First using 2 x F-16 in 2000 as part of a mixed team display with 4 x A-4Us, it wasn’t until the team reformed in 2008 that a full complement of F-16C’s were utilised. Another break has meant that the team hasn’t been seen in the air until this years 2014 Singapore Airshow where they returned with a new paint scheme.