The history of dogfighting has seen a recurring theme: new tactics are learned in battle, forgotten or abandoned at the end of battle, and relearned at great expense in the next war. This cycle continued into the 1960s, when America was drawn into the Vietnam War. Despite having an advantage in skills and equipment, the US Navy crews fared poorly against the North Vietnamese fighters. Air combat lessons learned in previous wars, and since forgotten or deemed inapplicable due to advances in technology, were once again relevant.
TOPGUN, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, was established in 1968 to teach Navy aircrews the primary air combat tactics, to train others in these tactics, and to ensure that Naval Aviation “does not never forget again” the lessons learned.
As Brad Elward explains in his book TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation, as early as the late 1970s TOPGUN began to question whether its opposing aircraft realistically represented the real threats. Navy pilots would see around him. the world. The MiG-17 Fresco and MiG-21 Fishbed were second generation fighters and had their heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s. Since then the Soviets had fielded their MiG-23s in large numbers, and the MiG-25 was now operational in limited numbers. Additionally, the Soviets were developing two new fourth-generation fighters, the MiG-29 and Su-27. TOPGUN needed a new adversary aircraft that would reflect the threats of the 1980s and beyond. “We definitely needed something better than the F-5 and A-4 to simulate the advances of Soviet bloc aircraft,” said Roy Cash, the skipper of TOPGUN in 1981.
Efforts to obtain new enemy aircraft date back to the early 1980s under skipper Lonny McClung. McClung made trips to Northrop and General Dynamics to evaluate the F-5G (which became the F-20) and the F-16, respectively, and was the first TOPGUN pilot to fly the F-16. Roy Cash, who followed McClung as TOPGUN CO, recalled one of his trips to NAS Ft. Worth flying the F-16. “I went to Carswell Field in Fort Worth to fly the F-16/79.” Cash said he was accompanied by Admiral Paul Gilchrist, who at the time was commander of Naval Base San Diego. “I went over there and flew it against Admiral Gilchrist and one of my other instructors, Al Mullen, who went over there with us. Al dropped an F-5, and the admiral and I flew in a Learjet or something, and so I got to fly the F-16, I got my 9G pin, and I got could beat the F-5. Obviously, we gave the F-16 a very good evaluation report. TOPGUN’s evaluation of the F-16 continued under Cash’s two successors, Ernie Christensen and Chris “Boomer” Wilson. TOPGUN also considered Northrop’s F-20 Tigershark, which the company had been promoting for overseas sales against the F-16/79. The F-20 represented a further step up from the successful F-5E Tiger II and featured modern avionics, a more powerful engine (the GE-F404 used in the Hornet) and a more powerful and flexible radar. According to a TOPGUN instructor familiar with the issue, Northrop did not allow TOPGUN personnel to fly the F-20 prototype, instead limiting their access to the F-20 simulator.
However, it was Christensen who filed the Statement of Mission Requirements in early 1982, formally requesting that TOPGUN be allowed to purchase new adversary aircraft with fourth-generation capabilities. Although he was in Fort Worth to fly the F-16 himself and was a proponent of the need to acquire more advanced adversary aircraft, Christensen said a major breakthrough for him came during a visit to Tonopah to fly against secret MiGs. Christensen recalled, “We were flying against the MiG-17s, -19s, and -21s, and some of the MiG-23s, but there were MiG-23s and -25s there that the Navy would fly against in combat. These were third-generation Soviet aircraft. I thought, “We can’t keep flying A-4s and F-5s as simulators of MiG-17s, -19s, and -21s when we have MiG-23s and MiG-25s there. -low.” We had to find something else.’ And Christensen was right. “Supersonic aircraft represent 90% of the real threat. What we get should represent an accurate simulation of what we expect from the Soviets’ RAM series (of aircraft) over the next decade, as well as the MiG-23.
In November 1984, Congress directed the Navy and Air Force to study the use of a single aircraft to fulfill the adversarial role for both services, leading TOPGUN to consider a modified version of the F-16 as well as Northrop’s F-20 offering. In the end, the Navy chose the F-16N. Based on the Block 30 F-16C/D, the F-16N used the F-16A/B’s APG-66 radar and was powered by the General Electric F110-GE-100 engine. The aircraft’s gun was removed to save weight, and its wings were strengthened to allow the carriage of an ACMI pod for use on the TACTS range. Christensen said of the F-16N: “We flew the F-16/79, which was a bit underpowered. What TOPGUN got, the Viper, was a better version.
A small number of TOPGUN instructors began F-16N training in February 1987, attending a ten-week course at Luke AFB. Additional pilots went in March and April. Also in April, TOPGUN completed its internal FAM/TAC F-16N program, designed to prepare its IUTs to fly and fight the F-16N. The F-16N FAM/TAC curriculum, which was similar to that used to train IUTs on the A-4 and F-5, was released to all TOPGUN personnel in September, as well as to some VF-126 pilots. The first five F-16N aircraft arrived at Miramar in June 1987 (the first two on June 17) and were painted in a light gray and blue camouflage scheme factory paint job. The Vipers, as the general staff called them, were immediately commissioned, logging 65.9 hours in forty-four sorties that month and 1,531.8 hours and 1,348 sorties for the year. TOPGUN pulled out for two months, effectively skipping the 04-87 class, to accommodate the F-16N formation. Class 05-87, which ran from September 14 to October 16, was the first class fully supported by the F-16N. The first two two-seat TF-16Ns arrived in April 1988. TOPGUN then took over F-16N IUT training for all new instructors.
TOPGUN typically flew their Vipers with an AIM-9 Sidewinder captive training shell on the left wingtip and an ACMI pod on the right wingtip. The F-16N had no wing pylons, which reduced both weight and drag. Although the aircraft could carry a single tank of fuel on its centerline, most did not. However, this configuration was more common for the two-seat TF-16Ns, which carried about 1,200 pounds less fuel than the single-seat models. Not only did the F-16N allow TOPGUN to simulate today’s fourth-generation threats, it gave them the ability, in one aircraft, to simulate any threat the school had considered, ranging from MiG-17s and MiG -21 of the Vietnamese era. to the MiG-23 to the current MiG-29 and Su-27. “The beauty of the F-16N was that it could simulate all of these threats well, if flown correctly by the opposing pilot; wrote Paul Nickell in an article on The War Zone. “To simulate the MiG-17 or a similar threat, we simply flew the F-16 full throttle, except we never used afterburner. To simulate the MiG-21, we flew it full throttle , except we wouldn’t select more than area 2 (area 5 being the max area) To simulate the MiG-23, we flew the F-16N at heat speed and made no higher turns at about four G. On top of that, we could simulate the Soviet fourth-generation fighters, the Su-27 and MiG-29, if we flew them flat out, at full throttle, and at any speed.
Instructor Mark “Pfunny” Pfundstein talked about what the F-16N brought to TOPGUN in a 1987 Naval Aviation News article. “We never had the ability to hunt F/A-18s and F-14s at low altitudes. If we were two miles behind, dead six in the F-5, forget about catching them. Pfundstein, who also flew the Israeli Kfir with VF-43 for two weeks one quarter as part of TOPGUN’s adversary normalization mission, added: “The [Viper’s] The performance will make training more realistic, but the main justification for the F-16 is to be able to train against fighters equipped with radar weapons control capable of using radar-guided missiles. Pfundstein, speaking late in the summer of 1987 just as the F-16s were being put to work in the TOPGUN Power Projection course program, concluded: “Fighter readiness should improve because we are training against the worst of threats.”
TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation is published by Schiffer Publishing and can be ordered here.
Photo credit: US Navy