What it was like: I took the F-16 fighter to almost Mach 2.0
The F-16 is an incredible and timeless fighter. But how fast can he go? Anything close to a jet’s maximum structural speed is usually reserved for the glossy brochure – 99.9% of the time we’re nowhere near it. There was one time, though, where I pushed the F-16 as fast as it could go.
I was stationed in Korea and there was a jet coming out of maintenance; the engine had been swapped out and they needed a pilot to make sure it was airworthy. It was a to do the housework jet – none of the typical missiles, bombs, targeting pod, external fuel tanks were loaded. It was a stripped-down hot-rod capable of its theoretical top speed.
When we fly, we usually go out in formation to work on tactics; every drop of fuel is used to prepare for combat. This mission, however, required me to launch as a single ship and test the engine at multiple altitudes and power settings. The final check called for a run at top speed.
I took off, entered the airspace and quickly started the profile. Plus, I could only carry 7,000 pounds of internal fuel; never enough with the monstrous engine behind me burning up to 50,000 pounds of fuel per hour. I cleared the various tasks in about 15 minutes and then was ready to race at top speed.
I was at 25,000 feet when I pushed the throttle forward, turned it past the detent, and engaged the full afterburner—I’d have five minutes of usable fuel at that setting. I could feel each of the 5 stages fading away, pushing me forward. I accelerated to Mach 1 – the speed of sound Chuck Yeager broke in his Bell X-1 – and started a climb. A few seconds later, 35,000 feet passed as I maintained my speed. Soon I was at 45,000 feet and began to taper my climb to get to the service ceiling of 50,000 feet. It was as high as I could go – not because the jet couldn’t go higher, but because if the cockpit were depressurized I would pass out in seconds.
Looking at 50,000 feet, the sky was now a few shades darker. I could begin to see the curvature of the earth. To my right was the entire Korean Peninsula, green with a thin layer of mist over it. To my left, a few clouds over the Yellow Sea separating me from mainland China.
As I maintained my altitude, the jet began to accelerate. At 1.4 Mach, with only about 2 minutes of fuel left, I did a jump and started to dive to help with acceleration. In my heads-up display, 1.5 Mach ticked off, backed by an old, slowly spinning Mach indicator in my instrument console.
At Mach 1.6, the jet began to shake. I expected that – the F-16 has a flight region around this speed that causes the wings to flap. Still, this jet had many hours on the airframe, and if anything were to fail, the failure would be catastrophic. Similarly, ejection at this speed would be well outside the design envelope – air resistance at Mach 1.6 is around 300 times what a car experiences at highway speeds. A few pilots tried, only to break nearly every bone in their bodies.
So now the option was to slow down until the vibration stopped, or push until it subsided on the other side. I was low on fuel, so I decided to increase my dive so I could accelerate faster. Slowly Mach 1.7 passed, then 1.8, then to 1.9, everything softened. I was now traveling at 1,500 mph over the Yellow Sea. The cockpit started to heat up so I took my hand off the throttle and placed it about a foot from the canopy and I could feel the heat radiating through my glove like you were putting on your hand in an oven.
At this point I was entering the thicker air at 35,000 feet which was keeping the Mach from going any higher. I was also almost out of fuel so I pulled the throttle from the afterburner and into military power—highest power setting without afterburner. Despite significant thrust still coming from the engine, the drag at Mach 1.9 caused the jet to decelerate rapidly, pushing me forward until my harness straps locked. It took over 50 miles for the jet to slow below Mach.
Getting a jet to Mach 1.9 is not some kind of record. In fact, some planes went twice as fast. It was an interesting feeling, though, to be on the edge of what an iconic aircraft like the F-16 can do. Thousands of amazing engineers that I never had the chance to meet designed the plane and now I realized the potential of what they had built. The heat and vibration, coupled with being outside the ejection envelope, let me know that the margin of safety was less than it normally is.
I’ve since upgraded to the F-35 which prioritizes stealth, sensor fusion, and networking over top speed, so it’s probably as fast as ever. It was a visceral experience reminiscent of the 50s and 60s, where the primary metrics an airplane was judged on were how high and how fast it could go.
Chance Lee is a fighter pilot who currently flies the F-35 Panther, America’s newest 5th generation stealth fighter. Prior to flying the F-35, he flew the F-16 Viper, including 82 combat missions. In his last role, he was the head of F-35 training systems, developing innovative techniques to train future fighter pilots. This first appeared in Sandboxx News.