YF-17 and YF-16

Naval Flight Officer explains why the number of engines was key for the Navy in selecting the YF-17 over the YF-16

By Dario Leone
Jun 24 2023
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‘We used to have a joke in flight training: “What happens to a prop aircraft when it loses its engine? It becomes a glider. What happens to a jet when it loses its engine? It becomes a rock.”’ Josh Bennet, US Navy Naval Flight Officer.

The US Air Force (USAF) Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program sought a small, lightweight, low cost, air superiority day fighter designed for high performance and ease of maintenance.

The Northrop YF-17 and the General Dynamics YF-16 competed one versus the other in the LWF program.

The LWF was initiated because many in the fighter community believed that aircraft like the F-15 Eagle were too large and expensive for many combat roles.

On Jan. 13, 1975 at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), Secretary of the Air Force John L. McLucas announced that the YF-16 had won the competition over YF-17 for full scale development as the USAF’s next Air Combat Fighter.

Noteworthy the F-16 Fighting Falcon achieved combat-ready status in Oct. 1980. Since then many foreign nations, including Belgium, Denmark, Turkey, Egypt and Israel, have purchased the F-16.

Although it lost the LWF competition to the F-16, the YF-17 (which was nicknamed “Cobra” and was the culmination of a long line of Northrop designs, beginning with the N-102 Fang in 1956, continuing through the F-5 family) was selected for the new Naval Fighter Attack Experimental (VFAX) program and evolved in to the F/A-18. In enlarged form, the F/A-18 Hornet was adopted by the US Navy and US Marine Corps to replace the A-7 Corsair II and F-4 Phantom II, complementing the more expensive F-14 Tomcat. This design, conceived as a small and lightweight fighter, was scaled up to the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is similar in size to the original F-15.

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Why did the Navy choose the YF-17 over the YF-16?

‘I won’t dwell on this question for too long, but much of the reason why the navy chose [the YF-17 over the YF-16 for the VFAX program that evolved into the F/A-18] is that the [YF-17 and the subsequent] F/A-18 have 2 engines,’ Josh Bennet, US Navy Naval Flight Officer, says on Quora.

‘We used to have a joke in flight training:

‘“What happens to a prop aircraft when it loses its engine? It becomes a glider. What happens to a jet when it loses its engine? It becomes a rock.”

‘Without getting too deep into engines and aero, the aspect ratio (wing) of a Jet is much much smaller compared to that of larger commercial aircraft. Why? Because jets need to pull more Gs and they can’t do that with a wing that has good glide performance. The shorter, stubbier wing handles the force of the G’s much better ensuring that they don’t fall off in flight.
‘Without letting myself get too far off track, because of the lack of glide capability, if a jet loses an engine, it loses power needed to sustain lift. If this were to happen on a jet approaching a carrier on final approach, the pilot could very well not have time to eject before hitting the water. The F/A-18 has two engines, so if it loses one, it still has another working engine to get it home.

Naval Flight Officer explains why the number of engines was key for the Navy in selecting the YF-17 over the YF-16
A parked YF-17A/F-18 Prototype aircraft at Naval Air Station, Miramar, San Diego, California, in 1977.

‘Other factors for why the F/A-18 was chosen over the F-16 include the size of the landing gear (landing gear is designed to fit the aircraft itself and the smaller gear on the F-16 wouldn’t be able to support the wait of the jet on a carrier landing), as well as how they conduct A2A refueling (drogue v boom).’

Actually the YF-17 did not feature a landing gear designed to land on aircraft carriers and relied on the boom system for aerial refueling, but once the Cobra was selected by the Navy, its design was adapted to naval use. The F/A-18 Hornet has a landing gear designed to operate aboard the service flattops and a drogue system for aerial refueling.

Bennet concludes;

‘For more information google has hundreds of articles about 18 v 16, funding, joint aircraft, etc that delve into the details about how, when and why the navy chose the F/A-18 and the Air Force chose the F-16, but personally, the number of engines is the determining factor.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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