F-16XL: Why the US Air Force Said No – It is a well-known fact that the F-16 Fighting Falcon was indeed the backbone of the U.S. Air Force’s fighter fleet for more than four decades.
But what often gets lost in history is that just a year before the first F-16 entered service, the team behind that next-gen aircraft’s development already had a better one in mind—the F-16XL.
According to Marine veteran Alex Hollings at Sandboxx, “the fighter was so capable, in fact, that it went from being nothing more than a technology demonstrator to serving as legitimate competition for the venerable F-15E in the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter program. Ultimately, it would lose out to the F-15E based on production cost and redundancy of systems, but many still contend that the F-16XL was actually the better platform.”
He continues: “Like the YF-23 that lost to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, the F-16XL has since been remembered as an aircraft that might have been better than the jet we ultimately got—with concerns about dollars and cents making the decision, rather than maximum capability.”
Despite never making it into production, no one could deny F-16XL’s high-end capabilities.
“Although this new jet would be largely based on the existing F-16, the changes were dramatic, including two fuselage sections added near the front and back of the aircraft, increasing its length by some fifty-six inches. The cranked-arrow wings that had proven so effective in SCAMP were also added, along with a new form of wing skin made using carbon fiber that saved some six-hundred pounds in the design,” Hollings writes.
“Those massive wings, now fully realized, gave the F-16XL a nearly doubled fuel capacity, and the additional lift coupled with six hundred thirty-three square feet of underwing space to leverage allowed for the addition of an astonishing twenty-seven hardpoints for ordnance. Remarkably, the F-16XL seemed to outperform its smaller predecessor in nearly every way, prompting the Air Force to take an interest in the idea of actually building this new iteration fighter,” he adds.
In addition, for F-16XLs conducting air-to-surface missions, they “could carry twice the payload of the standard F-16 and still fly as much as 44 percent further—all without external fuel tanks and while carrying a full suite of air-to-air weapons (four AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders) for the fighter to defend itself. If you were to equip the F-16XL with the exact same payload as an F-16A on such a mission, the F-16XL could fly nearly twice as far as its predecessor.”
Hollings then contends that “it wasn’t just about extended range and added payload.”
“The F-16XL was capable of supersonic speeds at high or low altitudes, all while carrying its mighty payload, and had no trouble climbing quickly with bombs underwing. And even despite the added wing, fuel, and ordnance loads, the aircraft still somehow managed to fly eighty-three knots faster than the F-16 using military power at sea level, and more than three hundred knots faster on afterburner at high altitudes, even while carrying a full bomb load,” he concludes.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.