An upward twist and a gentle forward push of the throttle and the afterburner roared into life quickly accelerating the ‘Super Viper’ down Runway 09 at the IAF’s Yelahanka base near Bangalore. Pushed by an awesome 32,000 pounds of thrust of the GE F110-132A, the ‘jet’ leapt off the terra firma after a short take-off roll. Retracting the landing gear from the front cockpit, ‘Ben-son Hedges’, Falcon 2, in a two-ship formation handed over the controls to me for what turned out to be another highly memorable and in some ways remarkably different F-16 sortie.
It was on March 27, 1995 when, leading an Indian Air Force (IAF) delegation to the US, I had the first opportunity to fly an F-16 at one of the USAF’s flying training bases. But, the aircraft that I flew on that occasion was the earlier F-16B model of the Fighting Falcon. But, almost 15 years later, what I flew on February 10, during the Aero India-2011 air show was an infinitely superior airplane in many aspects compared to its older sibling. According to its manufacturer Lockheed Martin, evolutionary integration of technologies of its latest F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightening II 5th generation fighters has made the Super Viper emerge as the ultimate ‘Fourth Generation Fighter’ that meets or exceeds India’s MMRCA requirements and is absolutely the right choice for the IAF.
Earlier, I had been given a quick run of the Super Viper’s capabilities in the simulator at Lockheed’s main show pavilion in Hall ‘E’ at the exhibition grounds. The briefing and cockpit familiarization was conducted in a highly efficient manner bringing out the unique qualities of the AESA radar with simultaneous multi-mode functions, the full-colour all-digital cockpit, net-centric warfare and electronic warfare capabilities. Now it was time to experience the real stuff in the air. After take-off, on instructions from Ben I banked the aircraft in a climbing turn to the right to move into the assigned south-west sector for our manoeuvres. Even though saddled with the conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) on both sides of the fuselage, the Super Viper handles with ease during all types of manoeuvres such as hard turns, wingovers, barrel rolls, loops, etc which I carried out with great pleasure during the initial handling of the aircraft in the sector. Pulling ‘g’ was like shedding mental and physical cobwebs accumulated over eight years of ‘Life after Air Force’ and proved to be highly therapeutic, to say the least. However, as usual, such heavenly joys are short-lived and after about 10 minutes of doing aerobatics, we got down to the serious business of exploring operational capabilities of the ‘jet’. Ben demonstrated the capabilities of the APG-80, the only AESA radar operational in the international market today. This revolutionary all-weather precision targeting sensor provides outstanding situational awareness and detection, ultra-high resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mapping, fully interleaved with automatic terrain following and air-to-air tracking of multiple targets. We killed a couple of ‘bandits’ in mock missile attacks and then engaging the terrain following mode at 100 ft agl (above ground level), enjoyed the hands-off camel ride over the hilly terrain of western Karnataka which, incidentally, was dotted with windmills.
The beauty of the entire system is that the AESA can handle and display all the modes simultaneously, on individual panels or collectively on the tactical situation display (TSD) panel, providing excellent situational awareness to the pilot with the least amount of workload. The pilot can receive data-linked instructions to engage a ground target in the air, keep a watch on friendly tracks and engage the ‘hostiles’ while evading/neutralising hostile ground-to-air threats with real-time information being available on the single TSD.
The Super Viper has an external load capability of 8,000 kg. As far as the reach is concerned, the F-16IN can deliver in excess of 1,500 kg of ordnance on targets more than 1,700 km away and return home without refueling. The latest modern operational precision guided weapons are integrated on the Super Viper with a possibility of integrating third party weapons as well. It also carries the most advanced electronic warfare system (EWS) including the aerial towed decoy system.
Simulating the operational tasks in the air, it was time to head home. During the return flight, after putting the aircraft in an unusual attitude, Ben asked me to operate a switch which quickly auto-recovered the jet by bringing it into a shallow climb, wings level flight. The same could also be pre-programmed with a minimum height auto recovery to save a pilot when disabled such as due to ‘g-lock’ etc.
A high-speed arrival over the runway with a starboard break, a quick circuit and landing ended a most enjoyable, instructive and an unforgettable sortie in the Super Viper—a most serious contender in India’s MMRCA race. Back on the tarmac, I discovered that not only Benson Hedges’ but the Crew Chief’s first name was also ‘Jim’. Can there be more unforgettable coincidence than this?
— Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. (Jimmy) Bhatia