Eye of the Viper: The Making of an F-16 Pilot by Peter Aleshire, Lyons Press, Guilford, Conn., $22.95.
The U.S. Air Force calls the General Dynamics F-16 jet fighter the Fighting Falcon, but the men and women who fly it call it the Viper. It was developed out of a need for an agile single-engine fighter plane that was smaller, lighter and less complex than previous jet fighters, with a speed range from Mach 0.6 to 1.6.
The first flight of a test model YF-16A was on January 20, 1974. The original production cost estimate was $4.5 million each, but that has risen slowly over the years. The most recent upgraded models of Vipers with more powerful engines and add-ons such as new weapons systems, radars and targeting pods with radar-guided air-to-air missiles now cost close to $30 million each and about $15,000 for each hour of flight. It takes an estimated $4 million to train a pilot to fly what Peter Aleshire describes as “one of the most maneuverable, beautiful, heart-stopping fighter jets ever built.”
Aleshire reveals that credit for development of this agile and deadly jet fighter should go to the late Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot of the Korean War era, and his “Fighter Mafia” of supporters. He had led a crusade against the “be-ribboned, be-starred Blue Suits in the Pentagon” to persuade them to design and build a light jet fighter that would emphasize Boyd’s theory of “energy maneuverability.” His arguments for a cheaper dogfighting fighter-bomber won when the deficiencies of the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark (called a “Flying Edsel” by many) and the Navy’s Grumman F-14 Tomcat (the “Tom Turkey” to Navy pilots) became obvious and the F-16 proved it could outmaneuver the latest Soviet fighter designs.
Former fighter pilots are certain to be surprised at what today’s wannabe jet jockeys have to go through to survive the training that the author calls “the incestuous, insular, competitive world of the F-16 squadrons.” This inside story, by a skilled science writer who spent six months observing and interviewing instructors and students of one F-16 jet training squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., is especially enlightening to those of us who flew single-engine fighters during World War II.
Readers learn in great detail about the lives and experiences of one female and seven male student pilots as well as their instructors as they work through the nervewracking flying syllabus. Although all have prior flying experience, each of the eight students has his or her exclusive problems trying to acquire the precision and skills required to fight with the F-16 and survive in today’s supersonic aerial battles. Each one fails various phases in one way or another, and readers suffer along with them.
This aging reviewer with a rapidly dimming memory of flying fighters during the Big War could not put this fascinating book down. It’s an eye-opening, candid and entertaining look at what the current generation of jet fighter pilots must go through—admittedly far beyond what we slower-flying predecessors had to endure more than six decades ago.
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