Jet pilots never plan to get in a dogfight—it is more survivable and cheaper (think gas) to pick the enemy off well outside of visual range—but as Paco alludes to, there are plenty of reasons why even the most advanced fighters may find themselves mixing it up in the phone booth. And if you need to pull out the knife, there arguably is no better weapon than the F-16C Fighting Falcon.
The Viper is what we call “a rate machine,” maintaining a very high rate of degrees turned per second. Turn rate is a function of power, low drag, and G-loading, and the F-16 excels in all of these areas. Now, a handful of fighters can turn very quickly, but in doing so they bleed all kinds of airspeed, rendering them a pig in space in just a few seconds, with no more energy and no more turn rate. The F-16, on the other hand, can remain in a high speed, high-G turn seemingly indefinitely.
A dogfight typically begins with two fighters merging in a beak-to-beak pass, probably no more than a 500-1000 feet apart. At this merge, each fighter is pointed in the opposite direction of the other fighter (e.g. MiG pointed West and Viper pointed East). When the fighters turn towards each other, the rate fight is on. Say, for example, the MiG is turning at a rate of 17 degrees-per-second and the Viper is “out rating” the MiG at a rate of 21 degrees-per-second. Even though this slight rate advantage of just 4 degrees-per-second doesn’t sound like much, it is the difference between life and death. In only 10 seconds, the Viper has completed 40 more degrees of turn, and is able to employ an AIM-9 or AIM-120, knocking the MiG out of the sky.
So how does the Viper pilot maximize rate? All fighter aircraft have what is called “corner velocity,” which is the speed at which the aircraft is max performing in rate. Too fast and the G-limit results in a slower turn; too slow and there isn’t enough airflow over the wings, and the jet flirts with a stall. The Viper, with its blended G- and AOA-limit, has more of a corner region, a range of about 100 knots within which the turn rate is maximized. The pilot’s job, then, is to:
1) Stay awake under the punishing G-loadings
2) Keep sight of the other aircraft as it passes over your shoulder and extends to about 1.5-2 miles away
3) Trade altitude for airspeed in order to maintain a maximum G turn within the corner airspeed range
4) Select the appropriate radar mode while cueing a lock and missile shot with the helmet mounted cueing system—no easy task when your 5-pound helmet weighs 45 pounds from the G-load.
Rate is just one of many variables in a close-range dogfight. By controlling airspeed, the F-16 pilot takes advantage of the Viper’s awesome rate capability to get around the circle first and take the first shot. Next time, we’ll discuss what to do if that first shot doesn’t land—going in for guns.