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WARPLANE: A Century of Military Aviation Advances
Parts One and Two: Wednesday, November 8th, 9-11pm   |   Parts Three and Four: Wednesday, November 15, 9-11pm

The Warplanes That Changed The World

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
(The specs below relate to the F-16C model.)
Type: Multi-Role Combat
Crew: One
Length: 49 feet 5 inches
Wingspan: 32 feet 8 inches
Range: 2,000 miles
Maximum Speed: Mach 2+ (1320mph)
Ceiling: 55,000+ feet
Armament: One 20mm cannon; up to 20,450 pounds of bombs and missiles
Dates in Service: 1979-Present

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The F-16 grew out of a 1971 US Air Force order for an agile fighter that could defeat the new crop of small Soviet-built planes -- the MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 -- that were proving a handful for the Air Force's and Navy's powerful but cumbersome F-4 Phantoms. A group of influential USAF thinkers, known as the "Fighter Mafia," believed the answer was to reverse the trend of American fighters becoming ever more expensive and more complicated, and to come up with a nimble, cheap plane that could beat the MiGs at their own game.

The F-16 was the first combat aircraft to use "Fly by Wire" controls. There are no mechanical linkages between the side-mounted control stick and the plane's control surfaces (in early prototypes, the stick didn't even move). Instead, the inputs are converted to electronic signals that are processed by computers. The F-16's airframe is inherently unstable (the term is "relaxed stability"), which gives it greatly-enhanced maneuverability but means that the flight control computer needs to make constant, small corrections to keep it airborne.

Ironically, given its rather humble beginnings, the F-16 is one of the most commonly used and most sophisticated airplanes in the USAF's inventory. Although basically a 30-year-old design, the US Air Force has constantly upgraded the plane with new sensors, electronics, engines and armament. Today's F-16s look almost identical to their predecessors, but are vastly more capable aircraft.

The F-16s are one of aviation history's great export successes; they are flown by dozens of countries, and will be in service for decades to come.