What began life as a General Dynamics research project evolved into a United States Air Force contender to replace the expensive, complex and large General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" swing-wing interdictor fighter-bomber. The resulting product became the "F-16XL", a highly-modified form of the original F-16 "Fighting Falcon" multi-role fighter. The F-16XL was pitted against a McDonnell Douglas offering, this a ground-attack/fighter-bomber derivative of the original F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter but lost out in the USAF decision. Despite its promising nature, the F-16XL fell to aviation history with just two completed prototypes.
Debuting in 1974, the original Fighting Falcon was adopted for U.S. military service in 1978 and went on to see well over 4,500 units produced (now under the Lockheed Martin banner). It has become an export favorite and remains well-liked by her pilots for her multi-faceted mission qualities. The F-16XL itself was born through a research-minded endeavor undertaken by General Dynamics in the mid-to-late 1970s as the F-16 "SCAMP" ("Supersonic Cruise and Maneuver Prototype"). The program was a design study centering on the effects of laminar airflow at supersonic speeds along with the causes and effects of sonic booms.
The end result was an evolution of the original F-16 approach which included an all new wing planform consisting of a "cranked-arrow" delta surface area. This allowed for improved lift (at the expense of increased drag), increased maneuverability and range. Along with the changes to the wing, the aircraft was a whole four feet longer than the original F-16. The two completed prototypes became S/N 75-0747 and S/N 75-0749.
In 1981, the Enhanced Tactical Fighter (ETF) competition was in play and the F-16XL was entered to face-off against the modified F-15 for the USAF challenge. The F-16XL was evaluated with wing-mounted and underfuselage air-to-air missiles as well as loads of conventional drop bombs under the many available hardpoints found under the new wing area. Testing began in 1982.
The F-16XL featured an overall length of 54 feet with a wingspan of 34 feet and height of 17.6 feet. When empty, it exhibited a weight of 22,000lbs and 48,000lbs for a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW). Power was served through 1 x General Electric F110-GE-100 turbofan engine offering 17,100lbs through dry thrust and 29,000lbs with afterburner engaged. Performance included a maximum speed of 1,400 miles per hour (Mach 2), a cruise speed of 600 miles per hour, a range of 2,850 miles, a service ceiling of 50,000 feet and a rate-of-climb reaching 62,000 feet per minute. The F-16XL held an inherent operational range that proved nearly double that of the original F-16 offering.
Armament-wise, the F-16XL fielded a single 20mm M61 Vulcan internal Gatling cannon for close-in engagements. Its offensive capacity was relatively staggering when compared to the original F-16 mount. There proved some 27 hardpoints overall including wingtip mountings (some seated under the wings/wingroots inline), allowing the aircraft to manage a bevy of missiles and conventional drop ordnance. There were sixteen underwing stations cleared to carry 750lb each while two positions were plumbed for external fuel stores. The wingtips were reserved for the tried-and-true AIM-9 "Sidewinder" Air-to-Air Missile (AAM). There were four semi-recessed positions and used to carry AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-ranged air-to-air missiles. A fuselage centerline position was multipurpose and two chin positions were outfitted with LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting InfraRed for Night) equipment. All told, the aircraft offered double the weapons-carrying capability of the original F-16.
Despite the changes, the USAF elected to go in the direction of the F-15 derivative in 1984 and this begat the F-15E "Strike Eagle" still in use today. The F-15E held several inherent advantages over the enhanced F-16XL: its twin-engine configuration offering not only more power and speed but also improved the survivability of both air crew and airframe during low-level strike runs. The existing F-15 airframe also required far less modifications to achieve the strike role - a second cockpit was added aft of the primary one and this outfitted with the necessary ground attack instrumentation. There already existed a two-seat trainer variant so the airframe was more or less proven for the conversion process. Comparatively, the F-16XL relied on a single engine which meant any direct damage to the installation endangered both crew and airframe. The first F-16XL prototype was a single-seat model which forced the crewman to take on all the duties of mission management and attack. The second prototype introduced a second crew station. Lastly, the changes required to the existing F-16 airframe were both complex and expensive in the terms of serial production, clearly giving the advantage to the McDonnell Douglas design in the eyes of USAF brass.
As such, the F-16XL was passed over as America's F-111 replacement. After their days as USAF test subjects, the prototypes were passed on to NASA for further flight research and some additional modifications to the designed ensued. Testing was headed through the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California until about 1999 before both were placed into storage. They were officially retired as recently as 2009 and remain in storage to this day (February 2014), leaving their full capabilities as a strike fighter to the imagination of the reader.
Despite the setback, the F-16 line has enjoyed a healthy service life the world over and continues to play an important front-line role for many nations including the United States.
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