Forty years ago this week, the USAF/General Dynamics YF-16 Lightweight Fighter (LWF) took to the air on its official first flight with General Dynamics test pilot Phil Oestricher at the controls. The YF-16 would go on to win the Air Combat Fighter competition following a head-to-head fly-off against Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra.
The YF-16 was General Dynamics entry into the USAF Lightweight Fighter Program of the 1970’s. Its basic design was based on USAF Colonel John Boyd’s Energy Maneuverability (EM) Theory which posited that an aircraft with superior energy capability would defeat an aircraft of lesser energy capability in air combat. To achieve such, EM Theory dictated a small, lightweight aircraft having a high thrust-to-weight ratio, which permitted maneuvering at minimum energy loss. The YF-16 was an embodiment of this requirement.
The official first flight of the YF-16 (S/N 72-1567) took place on Saturday, 02 February 1974 at Edwards Air Force Base, California. General Dynamics test pilot Phil Oestricher (pronounced Ol-Striker) did the piloting honors. The nimble aircraft performed very well and was a delight to fly. Oestricher landed uneventfully following a brief test hop that saw the YF-16 reach 400 mph and 30,000 feet.
Interestingly, the real first flight of the YF-16 inadvertently occurred on Sunday, 20 January 1974 during what was supposed to be a high-speed taxi test. As the aircraft accelerated rapidly down the runway, Oestricher raised the nose slightly and applied aileron control to check lateral response. To the pilot’s surprise, the aircraft entered a roll oscillation with amplitudes so high that the left wing and right stabilator alternately struck the surface of the runway.
As Oestricher desperately fought to maintain control of his wild steed, the situation became increasingly dire as the YF-16 began to veer to the left. Realizing that going into the weeds at high speed was a prescription for disaster, the test pilot quickly elected to jam the throttle forward and attempt to get the YF-16 into the air. The outcome of this decision was not immediately obvious as Oestricher continued to struggle for control while waiting for his airspeed to increase to the point that there was lift sufficient for flight.
When the YF-16 finally became airborne, it departed the runway on a heading roughly 45 degrees to the left of the centerline. Oestricher somehow maintained control of the aircraft during the rugged lift-off and early climbout phases of flight. The pilot then successfully executed a go-around, entry into final approach, and landing back on the departure runway. A tough way to earn a day’s pay by any standard!
History records that the YF-16 went on to win the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) competition with Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra. The production aircraft became known as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, of which more than 4,500 aircraft, in numerous variants, were built between 1976 and 2010. The now-famous aircraft has clearly fulfilled the measure of its creation as evidenced by its presence in the military inventory of more than 25 countries worldwide. Significantly, America’s Ambassadors in Blue, The United States Air Force Thunderbirds, have flown the F-16 in air demonstrations since 1983.
While its initial foray into the air did not necessarily lend confidence that such would be the case, the YF-16 did survive its flight test career. Aviation aficionados may view the actual aircraft at the Virginia Air and Space Center located in Hampton, Virginia.