Flying & Fighting in the F-16: Interview with RAF exchange Wild Weasel ‘Viper’ pilot Air Commodore Paul Godfrey
Air Commodore Paul Godfrey of the RAF swapped his seat in a Harrier to become the the first non- USAF pilot to fly the F-16CJ ‘Wild Weasel’. We talked to him about flying and fighting in the Viper tasked with killing enemy air defences.
How did you get to fly an F-16?
“I was incredibly lucky to get selected for an exchange tour with the USAF. I was due to be going to the Block 40 F-16 at Hill AFB in Utah, but a slot came up on the Block 50 (Wild Weasel) at Shaw AFB when I was going through my conversion at Luke AFB, Arizona. I ended up being the first non-US pilot to fly the Block 50 F-16CJ, based on the 55th Fighter Sqn at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.”
How did it differ from the type you were flying before?
“I was flying the Harrier GR7 prior to going to the US, so it was an enormous difference, both in performance and role. The Harrier was a ground attack aircraft, but in the F-16 we were Air-to-Air, Air-to-Ground and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). It was a huge step up and an incredibly steep learning curve.”
First impressions? “I loved it. The view is amazing and it is such an agile and flexible aircraft. The side stick was very natural and the HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick – essentially the buttons to control all of the avionics) is probably the best I have ever used. I was also incredibly excited to be able to use afterburner for the first time in my career…a proper kick in the backside!”
How would you rate the cockpit for the following:
“7/10. Everything you need is right in front of you and you can
control almost everything from the HOTAS. The ‘switchology’ is incredibly natural and exactly the same for any weapon you are carrying regardless of role. As an example, to select an air to air missile in an air to air mode was only a single switch selection on the throttle even if you were in an air to ground or SEAD mode. It would be a 10/10, but the displays were a little small. The Block 60 has upgraded them and I’m sure that is close to perfect…”
“Amazing. 10/10. There is nothing like that bubble canopy for a view in a fighter. Note there is no canopy arch as designed in to most other fighters in the world – primarily for strength to allow the windscreen to be beefed up. I felt like I was sat on top of the world.”
“5/10. There is a common misconception that the angled ejection seat aids comfort in the Viper. I guess it is subjective, but I found I was always sitting forward into a more upright position and it caused a strain on the lower back. I had to roll up my helmet bag and use it as a lumbar support most of the time. The angle of the seat was good in long transits though – it came into its own when you sat back and enjoyed the best view on (or off) the planet. The plus side of no centre stick was the room in front of you. For a smallish cockpit it actually felt very roomy.”
“7/10. As mentioned, I thought the screens were a little small, but this was a space limitation. The Harrier had a better navigation system (in terms of numbers of waypoints and maps) and the Viper had quite a small data input panel. The HUD was not huge, but this was offset by the use of the JHMCS helmet mounted sighting system that was introduced. Unfortunately that was brought in after I left.”
You have flown both the Typhoon and F-16: which would
you take to war and why?
“That is a very difficult question as you are asking me to chose my favourite out of the kids! The Viper was like a sports car; you strapped it on, had an amazing view and it cornered really well. The Typhoon is like a Viper on steroids though; a souped-up special edition sports car with way more power and an amazing sound system. If I had to chose, I would take the Typhoon. The power and agility is above that of the F-16 and in a combat scenario, speed and altitude are always sought after advantages. The more modern systems in the Typhoon would also give me an edge.”
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Typhoon versus F-16: In WVR which aircraft would have the advantage and why? “I have flown Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM – dogfighting) against a Viper several times in a Typhoon. The Typhoon generally comes off best due to its raw power. Even at slow speed you can plug the burners in and go up. The F-16 was sometimes a little tricky to get speed back if you had dumped it in a manoeuvre. However, a well-fought F-16 is definitely a formidable opponent. One additional Typhoon advantage is the world class anti G system, which allows you to pressure breath, whilst also using an anti G suit and anti G pressure vest which both inflate to help you stay conscious at high G. F-16s, whilst they have an anti G suit and a system called Combat Edge (an inflatable vest), you are working very hard to stay awake.”
..and in a long range BVR set-up.
“Typhoon would have the advantage as the radar is more powerful and you can get higher and faster (which increases your weapons’ ranges).”
Which set-ups and altitudes would the F-16 favour?
“The F-16 is a small aircraft which is difficult to see head on. So a longer range set that has the Viper pointing at you would give them an advantage. ‘Lose sight, lose the fight’ as the saying goes. Both are good ‘rate’ fighters (using their rate of turn to essentially eat up the distance between the aircraft), but the modern off-boresight missiles (ASRAAM on the Typhoon and AIM-9X on the Viper) takes away a lot of advantage.
It used to be that you had to get behind someone to shoot them, but not anymore. You have to be aware of a fleeting shot from any position, which means you have to be ready with the chaff and flares and know what your next manoeuvre will be.”
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How would the F-16 pilot fight?
“What is known as a 2-circle rate fight. If you were starting head on, in a Viper I would look to lead turn just prior to the ‘merge’ (when we cross), in order to gain angles. I would then pull 9G to get to my best rate speed and try and get the nose back on. But again, the modern air to air missile allows all sorts of shots…you only need one good one.”
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Who would you put your money on?
“As much as I loved the Viper, my money would be on the Typhoon.
What is the best thing about the F-16?
“The view and HOTAS.”
….and the worst?
“The angle of the seat!”
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How would you rate the F-16 in the following areas:
Instantaneous turn rates
Sustained turn rates
“Easy – put the power up, take the brakes off and pull back on
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“Easy-ish. An F-16 is very straightforward to land, but not easy to land well. The wing is amazing and she always wants to fly, so a mistimed flare can result in a bounce (always embarrassing when a flight of aircraft are waiting to take off at the end of the runway and grading you), and when you are aerodynamic braking (holding the nose off to slow down), there is a danger of accidentally holding the air brake override and scraping the air brakes on the runway. It doesn’t happen often, but it has been done.”
Climb rate “Very Good.”
“Very good for its size.”
“Very Good. The ability to put other sensors on (Sniper, Harm Targeting System) gives it flexibility. I think an AESA-equipped Viper would be formidable.”
What’s the biggest myth about the F-16?
‘The seat was raked 30 degrees to increase G-tolerance. This is incorrect. It was the only way they could fit the seat in there without re-designing the canopy and the canopy is part of the ‘lifting body’ design, which means that the canopy and fuselage generate lift along with the wings.”
What should I have asked you?
“How does the US flight equipment compare with the UK’s?”
Describe your most memorable flight in an F-16?
“I was participating in Operation Southern Watch in Iraq during
9/11. We came back to the USA in October 2001 and the US was still launching several Combat Air Patrols a day over large US cities. I volunteered to fly a CAP on Thanksgiving in November 2001 to allow a US pilot to spend it with his family. I led a flight of two and took off before sunrise to fly up to Washington DC, where our CAP was located. We established in an orbit over the top of DC as the sun came up.”
Absolutely wonderful set of comments regarding the Viper and the Typhoon by my eldest son