As popular an aircraft as the F-16 Fighting Falcon (Viper) is, it was not warmly welcomed when it was in development. Those against this small single-engine air superiority fighter were concerned it would be a threat to its larger big brother, the F-15 Eagle, a twin-engine tactical fighter already the U.S. Air Force was also investing in. Even though the F-15 was more powerful, carried a larger payload, and was faster than the F-16, supporters of the Viper knew the cost of the F-15 was too expensive and, though faster than the newcomer, was less maneuverable than the Viper would be.
Despite the early push to end the F-16 development program, there have been over 4,500 Vipers built since its introduction in 1978. It has been part of over 25 air forces around the globe. Though the U.S. Air Force still operates them, they no longer purchase new ones. However, after 40 years of service, there are countries currently receiving improved F-16 Falcons.
As with any experimental development of fighter aircraft, the F-16 had its own storied moments. One of those would come during its initial flight tests. A little background to this story would be the Viper’s unique flying system, a first of its kind that was designed to make the F-16 more maneuverable. The Viper would have a fly-by-wire system, meaning that the flight control system was completely electronic. Instead of cables and pulleys, this fly-by-wire system of electrical signals and electro-mechanical equipment would manipulate flight surfaces during flight. Also, to improve maneuverability, the Viper was designed to be aerodynamically unstable, otherwise known as relaxed static stability (RSS). It was one of the first of its kind to use this technology, which meant its operation was also new to pilots of that time.
On January 20, 1974, it would be Phil Oestricher assigned to make the high-speed taxi tests of the YF-16 (F-16 prototype) at Edwards Air Force Base. Oestricher was a highly experienced test pilot with General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Prior to his test pilot career, he was a U.S. Marine Corps Reserves F-8H aviator. He was also a test pilot for the F-111 Aardvark, the fighter bomber produced by General Dynamics before the F-16.
As development on the YF-16 came to testing the aircraft, Oestricher would make the first official test flight on February 2, 1974, he flew 90 minutes up to 30,000 ft and reached 460 mph. But it would be the January 20 high-speed taxi that would prove a memorable moment in the F-16’s history.
As mentioned before, the flight controls utilized by the YF-16 were new to pilots of that era. Simulator flights by Oestricher using the YF-16’s system seemed to go well. Still, in the simulator, the fly-by-wire control system and side-mounted control stick still did not demonstrate how sensitive the input would be to the control of the ailerons. The control stick does not actually move like a center-mounted yoke. The YF-16 would measure the pressure applied by the pilot’s hand and then would relay that information to the fly-by-wire system.
When the moment came for Oestricher to conduct only a high-speed taxi test of the YF-16, he made what he thought were small control-stick inputs to the system. His handling of the controls during the pass, standard procedure to measure the aircraft’s roll response, was more than he anticipated, causing the aircraft to oscillate wildly, banging the right elevator on the runway. He struggled to bring the aircraft under control before the wings also contacted the runway. A crash resulting in the destruction of the prototype would not only endanger the life of the pilot but could have also been enough to end the F-16 program. Before he was forced into a crash, Oestricher decided it was safer to just lift off and get the aircraft back under control in the air. This resulted in a go-around and safe landing that would become the YF-16’s unofficial first flight.
In the short video below, you’ll see that despite the bit of trouble on the runway, the eventual flight and landing were uneventful. Before his death in 2015, Phil Oestricher was interviewed by Lockheed Martin, where he discussed this memorable flight, referred to as YF-16 Flight Zero.
If you are interested in learning more facts about the F-16 Fighting Falcon, read our article, 5 Fast Facts of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. To see and share our infographic, F-16 Fighting Falcon by the Numbers visit this link.
Memorable Moment – YF-16 Test Pilot Phil Oestricher
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