F-16s Could Fly for 92 Years
Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the iconic F-16 jet fighter, just completed a two-year test that simulated a staggering 92 years of normal flying for one of the single-engine planes.
That’s a long time. And amazingly, the F-16 — a 1990s-vintage Block 50 version — held up just fine. “The airframe was then subjected to several maximum-load conditions to demonstrate that the airframe still had sufficient strength to operate within its full operational flight envelope,” Lockheed explained in a press release.
The point of the test was to provide data for Lockheed’s coming effort to rebuild 300 or so U.S. Air Force F-16s — Block 50s and earlier Block 40s — so they can keep flying at least into the 2030s. The Air Force is struggling to maintain its roughly 1,900-strong fleet of F-15s, F-16s, F-22 and A-10s while also buying new F-35s to replace the oldest F-16s, for starters.
At some point in the 2030s, according to Air Force plans, the fighter fleet will consist of just 180 or so F-22s and slightly more than 1,760 F-35s. It’s getting from here to there that’s tricky.
That’s because the F-35s are coming in dribs and drabs. In 2010, the Air Force wanted to buy 80 per year starting in 2015, but owing to deep budget cuts and the stealth fighter’s high price — currently around $100 million per copy — today the plan is to buy 80 per year starting in 2021.
So the newest of the Air Force’s 1,000 F-16s must stick around longer than anyone had expected. As built, Block 40 and 50 F-16s have an 8,000 flight-hour fatigue life. At normal usage of around 300 hours per year, that amounts to 24 years, which would compel the F-16s to retire … well, now.
So the Air Force is bumping these F-16s up to at least 12,000 hours. Hence the fatigue testing — and the surprising conclusion that, in theory, an F-16 could last as long as 92 years. “The successful completion of this phase of full-scale durability testing demonstrates that this aircraft was built to last,” Susan Ouzts, vice president of Lockheed’s F-16 program, said in the press release.
To be clear, there’s basically no chance an F-16 will need to remain in service nearly 100 years. Although, to be fair, the Air Force’s 1960s-vintage KC-135 tankers and B-52 bombers could be 80 years old by the time they retire.