Seventeen years ago, Poland witnessed a historic moment that forever changed its defense capabilities and military prowess1 . It marked the arrival of the first F-16 combat aircraft, a significant step forward in the country’s aviation history. As we celebrate the 17th anniversary of this momentous event, it is important to reflect on the impact and significance of these advanced aircraft in strengthening Poland’s national security.
The arrival of F-16 aircraft in Poland was a transformative moment for the country’s military. It symbolized the transition from obsolete Soviet-era aircraft to the most modern ones – American. These powerful machines, equipped with advanced avionics and state-of-the-art weaponry2 , not only raised Poland’s air defense potential, but also strengthened its position in NATO. F-16 aircraft have enabled Poland to effectively join the alliance’s collective defense efforts and have strengthened ties with NATO partners.
Poland’s decision to purchase F-16 aircraft resulted from the nation’s commitment to security and sovereignty. In the 17 years since their arrival, these aircraft have played a key role in protecting Polish airspace. Their adaptability and effectiveness have not only deterred potential adversaries, but also ensured that Poland is well prepared to respond quickly and decisively to any threat. F-16 aircraft have been used in various domestic and international missions, demonstrating their versatility and reliability. In addition to improving national security, the F-16 program has also made a significant contribution to the development of Poland’s aviation industry. Maintenance and servicing of these aircraft has created employment opportunities and contributed to technological advances in the country. Knowledge transfer and training provided by American experts allowed Polish personnel to gain world-class expertise in aircraft maintenance, avionics and pilot training.
As we celebrate the 17th anniversary of the arrival of F-16 aircraft in Poland, it is worth looking to the future. F-16s will continue to play a key role in Poland’s defense strategy, adapting to new challenges and emerging threats. With continued modernization efforts and improvements, these combat aircraft will remain at the forefront of air combat capabilities.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon combat aircraft (commonly called Viper by pilots) is one of the most recognizable aircraft structures in the world. Modern structures operated by the Polish Air Force are multi-role aircraft that meet the requirements for Generation 4+. It is worth remembering that the first designs he F-16s were aimed at building a platform that could only perform fighter missions and were classified as Generation 4 in combat aviation3.
History of this design goes back to 1965 year, a more preciselya two-pronged, experimental concept to build an aircraft that met the then-current requirements of the air forces of countries around the world. The first part of the idea was a program for a light fighter capable of daytime operations, which was given the working name “Advanced Day Fighter” (ADF). It was challenged with an armament weight of no more than 11300 kg. Taking into account the relatively low empty weight and the loads acting on the load-bearing surfaces of the airframe, an increase in the thrust value of up to 25% compared to the parameters of the MiG-21 aircraft was envisaged. The second stage of the project envisaged the construction of an air superiority fighter w i t h t h e working name “Experimental Fighter”, additionally designated F-X (Fighter Experimental) with a maximum weight capacity of up to 18000 kg. The idea of the concept envisaged that the aircraft would be treated as a modern platform retrofitted with an improved radar station for the guidance of long-range missiles of the “airto-air” class. The emergence of the competing MiG-25 Foxbat structure led to an acceleration of the F-X program in Western countries, resulting in the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. Despite the slowdown in the development of the ADF project, the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) project was born in 1971. Its goal was to build a fighter characterized by high maneuverability and achievable speed, and consequently capable of defeating Soviet designs such as the MiG-21 and MiG-25 in direct maneuvering combat4 .The final result of the LWF program prototypes was a platform designated YF-16 (later known as F-16), which made its first six-minute flight on February 2, 1974. The final design and serial production of the single- and two-seat versions of the aircraft was undertaken by the US-based General Dynamics (later bought out by Lockheed Martin)5.
The international success of the F-16 Fighting Falcon is worth comparing with past experience in designing and constructing fighters for combat missions. The search was for a structure that was reliable, lightweight, uncomplicated and proportionately cheap at the production stage. An additional requirement was the ability to accurately attack ground targets and reach speeds of about 2 Ma6 . For this reason, aluminum alloys (80%) were used in the construction of the aircraft, the parts of the hull exposed to high stresses were made of steel (8%) and the areas subject to high temperatures were made of titanium (1.5%). To ensure the structure’s lightness, composite materials were included (3.5%). To reduce costs, the bulk of the structure’s plating is stainless steel, of which only 2% was chemically etched. In addition to lightweight construction materials.
The final reduction in the empty weight of the F-16 Fighting Falcon was determined by the state-of-the-art methods used during design. By using the finite element technique7 based on advanced knowledge of aerodynamics, a solution for the wing-fuselage transition was developed, which reduced the weight of the structure by about 590 kg. The semi-shell airframe of the aircraft was technologically divided into three parts: the front (with the cockpit), the middle (incorporating the attachment of the supporting airfoils with the fuselage structure) and the rear (with the vertical stabilizer and horizontal stabilizers). This concept was designed to provide high resistance to positive overloads during maneuvering, as well as to increase the capacity of the fuel supply taken up in the subfuselage hatches by about 31%. In addition, the internal structure was reinforced throughout with conventional frames and stringers. The underside of the fuselage housed an aerodynamic brake and a brake hook, intended to shorten the aircraft’s runway in emergency situations. The F-16 Fighting Falcon platform was produced in single- and two-seat variants. The two-seat versions were not always operated for training and training purposes. They were also assigned to combat tasks, requiring both operators to pay close attention and focus. The cockpit was covered by a drop fairing made of organic glass, which, thanks to its design, provided excellent visibility in every direction (horizontally – 360°, down forward – 15°, down to the sides – 40°). To reduce optical distortion, glare and reduce the likelihood of succumbing to optical illusions, a layer of gold was applied to the surface of the shield to protect against glare. The cockpit was retrofitted with an Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES II) Class 0-08 , which featured a 30° rearward tilt capability. This solution allowed the structure to be piloted by a crew of shorter stature and allowed for better tolerance of positive overloads reaching up to 9g. The load-bearing airframes were made of dural steel and reinforced on the inside with girders and ribs. They have a variable thickness along their span and the smooth wing-fuselage transition – a strip wing9 – allowed the generation of high-energy edge vortices in the wall layer, favoring the generation of additional lift at high angles of attack. The mechanization of the aircraft’s wing includes front flaps, located on the leading edge and flaps on the trailing edge with the ability to pivot both surfaces at a speed of 35°/s, whose function is to regulate the lifting force of the aircraft. To prevent the airframe from being overloaded, and at the same time to be able to control how the flaps are swung, a digital Flight Control System (FCS) was used. Despite the initial convenience, in further development versions of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
FCS was abandoned due to its shortcoming in the form of high wear of the actuators mounted in the front flaps. The configuration of the contrail was made in the classic layout with a single vertical stabilizer and two horizontal stabilizers. Their outer plating was made of composite material (graphite-epoxy) reinforced with dural sheet. The internal structure of the vertical stabilizer was developed similarly to the structure of the wing using girders and ribs. Horizontal stabilizers were made in plate composition. Later in the production period, their load-bearing area was increased as a result of the need to increase the weight of the combat equipment used and to maintain stability. The design uses a classic three-post landing gear with a front wheel, retractable in flight. The main shins are folded forward into the undercarriage hatches. The auxiliary shin of the landing gear unit was placed behind the exposed air intake mechanism. It was directly connected to the propulsion unit, in order to prevent foreign bodies from entering the combustion chambers of the aircraft’s propulsion unit10 .
Given the concept of the lightweight fighter design that resulted in the F-16 Fighting Falcon, its armament weight was reduced to a minimum. In the initial phases of production, the aircraft was retrofitted with on-board cannons placed in the front part of the structure and AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range guided air-to-air missiles, guided by the main heat source of the enemy aircraft – the propulsion unit. They were suspended from guides located at the ends of the carrier airfoils. In subsequent development versions, it was decided to take advantage of the free space located under the fuselage and install three nodes that allowed carrying loads. At the same time, the structure of the wings was strengthened, which allowed a total of six locks to be built in for the suspension of combat equipment. The armament of the F-16 Fighting Falcon can be divided into gunners, missiles and bombs. The shooting armament includes a lightweight six-barrel propulsion cannon with adjustable rate of fire (maximum 6,000 shots fired per minute) manufactured by General Dynamics coded M61A1 Vulcan in 20mm caliber, with a stock of 511 M50 cartridges. Later, the multi-role platform carried AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, which underwent modifications for greater reliability. Eventually, they were aimed at an object using the forward hemisphere (unlike previous versions of this combat agent). The F-16 Fighting Falcon also had the option of hovering semi-active target-guided AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range missiles and the AIM-120 AMRAAM active agent (medium range). In addition to basic airborne means of destruction, depending on the needs of use, the design could carry Matra R.550 Magic 2, Python 3, 4, 5 or Rafael Derby medium-range short-range missiles. Along with the idea of developing a fighter aircraft capable of precisely attacking ground targets using on-board radar stations, the AGM65 Maverick general-purpose air-to-ground guided missiles were introduced into the armament of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, including AGM-65A/B variants and an AGM-65D version with an enlarged warhead. As part of the implementation of the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) mission used AGM88 HARM anti-aircraft missiles carried in the central under-wing nodes, while AGM-84 Harpoon was used to destroy surface ships. Among the bombs, it is possible to distinguish the means characterized by low aerodynamic drag Mk 80, Mk 83, Mk 84 corresponding to weights of 227 kg, 454 kg, 907 kg, respectively, and the bomb with high aerodynamic drag M117 with a weight of 340 kg. The braked load intended for dropping at low cruising altitudes is the Mk 82 Snakeye while the cluster warfare agent is the Mk.20 Rockeye. In addition, a division has been made for Paveway II laser-guided bombs (including GBU-10, GBU-12, GBU-16), Paveway III (GBU-24A/B), TV and thermal imaging (GBU-15(V)-1B, – 2B with AGM-130 coded propulsion) and with the help of GPS navigation system, through Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)11 . Complementing the aircraft’s armament are bombs, in the design of which the guidance modules have been modified by reducing the span of their stabilizers.
The first F-16 Fighting Falcon designs were retrofitted with a single F-100-PW-200 axialflow twin-shaft turbofan engine (in the basic F-100 version) from Pratt & Whitney with a normal thrust of 55.23 kN, a combat thrust of 65.24 kN (both without the use of afterburning), with an afterburning of 111.18 kN. From the internal structure of the propulsion unit, two shafts can be distinguished, only one of which couples a three-stage compressor driving a two-stage turbine. The other shaft acted as a link between the ten-stage compressor and the two-stage turbine. The result was a multi-stage system with the compressor and turbine mechanisms working together. With a view to maintaining the fighter’s low empty weight requirement, the engine manufacturer used the latest technology at the propulsion unit construction stage, including sinter metallurgy. This method involves the use of powdered metal elements, which is injected into an adapted mold and then shaped into the appropriate engine parts. This solution led to a reduction in the weight of the drive to 1,428 kilograms and increased the fatigue resistance of the material compared to typical machining techniques (including in areas subjected to high temperatures). In addition, care was taken to ensure that the architecture of the assembly provided easy access to it in the event of faults without the need for complete disassembly. For this reason, the panels that form the outer covering around the engine from the underside of the hull were installed12.
Tekst powstał w ramach realizacji zadania publicznego zleconego w ramach Rządowego Programu Rozwoju Organizacji Obywatelskich na lata 2018–2030 r. „Bezpieczna Polska jutra – rozwój działań misyjnych Alioth Foundation”.
Fot.: Antonio Valentino, A Polish Air Force F–16 preparing for a night flight at Trapani Air Base during Trident Juncture 15, online – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polish_Air_Force_F16_preparing_for_a_night_flight_at_Trapani_Air_Base_during_Trident_Juncture_15.jpg [accessed: 9.11.2023].