Warplanes: F-16s Too Good For Aces


April 28,2008: The F-16 isn't the most numerous post-World War II fighter (the MiG-21 is), but it has been the most heavily used. F-16s spent a lot more time in the air than MiG-21s. As a result, the F-16 is breaking a lot of records lately. One has flown over 7,000 hours (including 1,100 in combat.) The pilot with the most combat hours (Lt. Col. Andy Uribe, with over 1,000) got them all in an F-16. The combat pilot with the most flight hours (Col. Mike Brill), got all 7,000 in an F-16.

The 19 ton F-16 entered service 30 years ago, and over 4,200 have been produced, for use in 25 different countries. Worldwide, there are nearly 2,400 pilots with at least 1,000 hours in the F-16, and over 500 with at least 2,000 hours. But there's only one with 6,000, another one with over 5,000, and only 21 with more than 4,000. The aircraft is still in production, and is to be replaced in U.S. service by the F-35.

The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air. But advances in engineering, materials and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Safer aircraft, and better training, has allowed pilots to fly longer. The downside of all this, so to speak, is that the dominance of U.S. combat aviation over the last six decades has resulted in fewer opportunities for these experienced F-16 pilots to fight anyone in the sky. Since the middle of World War II, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have dominated any aerial battlefield they have entered. That domination has resulted in fewer air battles. The enemy is either destroyed on the ground, or refuses to fight. Thus there are no more aces (those who have shot down five or more aircraft) on active duty in the United States, or anywhere else. That's been a trend for decades, and in a few more decades, there will be no more living aces at all. Well, maybe not, but eventually that will be the case. That's because pilotless combat aircraft are becoming more and more common, and capable. The first of these, the cruise missile, is already over half a century old. But recent developments in electronics (cheaper and more powerful) and software (able to do more, and do it more quickly) has made it likely that future fighter aces will be robots.


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