The story of how TOPGUN selected the F-16N Viper, the adversary aircraft that had the ability to simulate the MiG-17, MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-27

The story of how TOPGUN selected the F-16N Viper, the adversary aircraft that had the ability to simulate the MiG-17, MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-27

By Dario Leone
Jan 13 2022
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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Not only did the F-16N Viper allow TOPGUN to simulate current fourth-generation threats, it gave them the ability, in one aircraft, to simulate all the threats the school had envisioned.

The history of air combat has seen one recurring theme—new tactics are learned in battle, forgotten or discarded when battle concludes, and relearned at great cost during the next war. This cycle continued into the 1960s, when America was drawn into the Vietnam War. Despite having a skill and equipment advantage, US Navy aircrews were faring poorly against North Vietnamese fighters. Air combat lessons learned during prior wars, and since forgotten or deemed inapplicable due to advances in technology, were once again relevant.

TOPGUN, the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, was established in 1968 to teach Navy aircrews the core air combat tactics, to train others in those tactics, and to ensure that naval aviation “never again” forgot its lessons learned.

As explained by Brad Elward 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 adversary aircraft realistically represented the actual threats Navy pilots would see around the world. The MiG-17 Fresco and MiG-21 Fishbed were second-generation fighters and saw their heyday during the 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, the Soviets had deployed their MiG-23s in large numbers, and the MiG-25 was now operational in limited numbers. Moreover, 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 in the Soviet Bloc aircraft:’ said Roy Cash, TOPGUN’s skipper in 1981.

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Efforts to obtain new adversary 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 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 to fly the F-16. “I went down to Carswell Field in Fort Worth to fly the F-16/79.” Cash said he was accompanied by Adm. Paul Gilchrist, who at the time was commander at Naval Base San Diego. “I went down there and flew it against Adm. Gilchrist and one of my other instructors, Al Mullen, who went down there with us. Al took an F-5 down, and the admiral and I flew down in a Learjet or something, and so I got to fly the F-16, got my 9G pin, and got to beat up on the F-5. Obviously, we gave the F-16 a very good evaluation report. TOPGUN’s evaluation of the F-16 continued under both of Cash’s successors, Ernie Christensen and Chris “Boomer” Wilson. TOPGUN also considered Northrop’s F-20 Tigershark, which the company had been promoting for foreign sales against the F-16/79. The F-20 represented a further advancement of 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 one TOPGUN instructor familiar with the issue, Northrop did not allow the TOPGUN staff to fly the F-20 prototype, instead limiting their access to the F-20 simulator.

However, it was Christensen who filed the actual mission-needs statement in early 1982, formally requesting that TOPGUN be permitted to purchase new adversary aircraft with fourth-generation capabilities. Although he had been to Fort Worth to fly the F-16 himself and was a supporter of the need to acquire more-advanced adversary aircraft, Christensen said a major point for him came during a visit to Tonopah to fly against the secret MiGs. Christensen recalled, “We were flying against the MiG-17, -19, and -21, and some of the MiG-23s, but there were MiG-23s and -25s out there that the Navy would be flying against in combat. These were third-generation Soviet aircraft. I thought, ‘We can’t just keep flying A-4s and F-5s as MiG-17, -19, and -21 simulators when we have MiG-23s and MiG-25s out there.’ We had to find something else.’” And Christensen was right. “Supersonic aircraft represent 90 percent of the real-world threat. What we get must 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 ordered the Navy and Air Force to study the use of a single aircraft to fill the adversary role for both services, which led TOPGUN to consider a modified version of the F-16 as well as Northrop’s F-20 offering. In the end, the Navy selected the F-16N. Based on the Block 30 F-16C/D, the F-16N utilized the APG-66 radar from the F-16A/B and was powered by the General Electric F110-GE-100 engine. The aircraft’s gun was removed to save on weight, and its wings were strengthened to allow 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 little bit underpowered. What TOPGUN got, the Viper, was a better version.”

Here’s why the F-16N had been the finest adversary fighter ever flown by the U.S. Navy

A small number of TOPGUN instructors began F-16N training in February 1987, undergoing a ten-week course at Luke AFB. Additional pilots went in March and April. Also in April, TOPGUN completed its internal F-16N FAM/TAC syllabus, which was designed to prepare its IUTs to fly and fight the F-16N. The F-16N FAM/TAC syllabus, which was similar to that used to train the IUTs on the A-4 and F-5, was given to the entire TOPGUN staff in September, as well as select pilots from VF-126. The first five F-16N aircraft arrived at Miramar in June 1987 (the first two on Jun. 17) and were painted in a light-gray and blue camo scheme factory paint job. The Vipers, as they were called by the staff, were immediately put to use, accumulating 65.9 hours in forty-four sorties that month and 1,531.8 hours and 1,348 sorties for the year. TOPGUN stood down for two months, effectively skipping Class 04-87, to accommodate F-16N training. Class 05-87, which ran from Sept. 14 through Oct. 16, was the first class fully supported by the F-16N. The first two dual-seat TF-16Ns arrived in April 1988. TOPGUN subsequently took over F-16N IUT training for all new instructors.

TOPGUN typically flew its Vipers with an AIM-9 Sidewinder captive-training round on the left wingtip and an ACMI pod on the right wingtip. The F-16N did not have wing pylons, which reduced both weight and drag. Although the aircraft could carry a single fuel tank on its centerline, most did not. However, this configuration was more commonplace for the two-place TF-16Ns, which carried roughly 1,200 pounds less fuel than the single-seat models. Not only did the F-16N allow TOPGUN to simulate current fourth-generation threats, it gave them the ability, in one aircraft, to simulate all the threats the school had envisioned, ranging from the Vietnam-era MiG-17 and MiG-21 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 properly by the adversary pilot; wrote Paul Nickell in an article appeared on The War Zone. “To simulate the MiG-17 or a similar threat, we simply flew the F-16 full up, except we never used the afterburner. To simulate the MiG-21, we flew it full up, except we would select no more than zone 2 (zone 5 being the max) afterburner. To simulate the MiG-23, we flew the F-16N at the speed of heat and made no turns greater than about four g’s. On top of that, we could simulate the fourth-generation Soviet fighters, the Su-27 and MiG-29, if we flew it full up, full burner and at any speed.”

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Instructor Mark “Pfunny” Pfundstein spoke of what the F-16N brought to TOPGUN in a 1987 Naval Aviation News article. “We never had the capability to chase down the F/A-18 and F-14 at low altitude. If we were two miles behind, dead six in the F-5, forget catching them.” Pfundstein, who also flew the Israeli Kfir with VF-43 for two weeks a quarter as part of TOPGUN’s adversary standardization mission, added, “The [Viper’s] performance will make training more realistic, but the primary justification for having the F-16 is to be able to train against radar weapon control-equipped fighters capable of employing radar-guided missiles.” Pfundstein, who was speaking in late summer of 1987 just as the F-16s were being put to work in the TOPGUN Power Projection course syllabus, concluded, “Fighter readiness should improve because we are training against the worst-case threat.”

TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Splinter F-16 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-16C Fighting Falcon 57th WG, 64th AGRS, WA/83-1159 / 2016

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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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