As I previously mentioned in the Hornet vs Viper discussion, both of these legacy fighters are multirole. They’re designed to fight their way in to a target area using an array of air-to-air weapons, use their advanced targeting pods in conjunction with either “dumb” or “smart” bombs, and then fight their way back out.
So to discuss the differences, I’ll break the comparisons down into air-to-air and air-to-ground, focusing on the “Pilot Vehicle Interface” or PVI – the way in which the pilot interacts with both the jet’s hardware and software to put bombs on target on time or 20MM SAPHEI (semi armor piercing high explosive incendiary) rounds through the fuselage of a MiG-29 Fulcrum at 3,450 feet per second.
What this won’t be is a classified discussion of the capabilities of the aircraft. There’s obviously more to this basic overview, but there’s a reason it’s classified. So, no, you may not know where my troops are and you may not go there and count them, Boris.
AIR TO GROUND
I wanted to start the discussion with air-to-ground because this is an area where the two aircraft are more similar than they are different. They’re both capable of delivering a wide range of general purpose and Precision Guided Munitions (laser-guided, JDAMs, other standoff weapons, etcetera)
While dropping general purpose (unguided) bombs, both jets are capable of using a Constantly Computed Impact Point (CCIP) or Constantly Computed Release Point (AUTO in the Hornet). In both jets, the CCIP basically computes where the bombs will impact at a given point in time, allowing the pilot to maneuver the aircraft where he wants the bombs to hit.
This is the preferred method in the F-16 community, and typically works out pretty well during a trip to the range when you’re bombing for quarters (betting your flightmates on who can get the closest hits to the bullseye while dropping BDU-33T/Mk-76 practice bombs). In this mode, the pickle button is hot and the bomb releases as soon as you “put the thing on the thing” (Pipper on the target).
In my experience with bombing in the Hornet, most guys prefer the AUTO (F-16 equivalent of CCRP). In this mode, the jet pretty much does the math for you based on the coordinates you input in the system for the target. You can then refine the solution using the waypoint diamond and slewing it over the target in the HUD, but the jet is doing the math on when to release. Hitting the pickle button is now a “Consent to release” to allow the bomb to drop when the appropriate ballistics are met for the bomb to reach the target.
As a former Viper guy, I’ve tried CCIP in the Hornet, and it’s nowhere near as user-friendly as the F-16’s pipper. I can see why most guys use AUTO, but I think CCIP is a much more precise method for dropping dumb bombs.
For PGMs and using the targeting pod, the Hornet’s ATFLIR (or Litening AT in the Marines) is mounted on the left side while the F-16’s Litening or Sniper pod is mounted on the right. This results in a left-hand orbit around the target in the Hornet versus a right hand “wheel” for the Viper. It may not seem like a huge deal to most people, but to the average fighter pilot, right hand patterns are just unnatural. We’re definitely not ambi-turners, and after making left hand patterns while bombing for quarters at the range, it’s a bit unnatural initially to switch to a right hand orbit to accommodate a pod on the wrong side.
I think the nod here goes to the Hornet.
AIR TO AIR
Fighting against other aircraft is sexy and glamorous, but it’s really a small part of flying a fighter in the real world. We train to it very often, and it’s a lot of fun to do, but at the end of the day, in the current environment, a strike fighter pilot’s job is to support the ground fighter by putting bombs on target on time – whether you’re talking about Close Air Support or a strike into enemy territory.
The Viper is a much more user-friendly platform for using the air-to-air capabilities of the aircraft. The PVI in this jet is typically much better – every page of the Multifunction displays, every function of the radar, and all weapon modes are accessible using Hands on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) commands. It is rare for a pilot to have to reach up and change anything, which is particularly useful when you’re trying to fly formation, use the radar, and employ weapons on an aircraft several dozen miles away with a thousand knots of closure.
The Hornet is not terrible, but it’s poorly designed in that regard. Even something as simple as breaking a radar lock requires a “piccolo drill” with your fingers of nearly a half dozen switch actuations on the stick to clean off your radar. The Viper requires all of one button press.
Hornet guys will also find themselves reaching up to the DDI displays to change radar modes or display pages. With enough practice, it’s almost transparent, but it’s definitely a weakness. Where the Hornet shines is in the radar itself. The Navy did what the Air Force should have done by realizing that the F-35 was years away and investing in upgraded Hornets (E/F) with AESA radars. Even some of the Marine early A models were upgraded to the A++ variant with the new APG-73 radar and upgraded avionics. The F-16’s APG-68 is not a terrible radar by any means, but it is technology that desperately needs upgrading.
With AESA, the F-16 would be a clear winner in the Beyond Visual Range arena over the F/A-18A-F. Even with a two-tank configuration, the F-16 is faster and can fight longer than the Hornet. The Hornet just has too much drag to really “Get high, get fast, and do good work.”
Working into the visual arena, both aircraft have strengths and weaknesses. Dogfighting is both an art and a skill, but these aircraft really shine when fought to their strengths. As I mentioned in part one, a fight between these two aircraft comes down to the pilot, but I will discuss some of my preferences.
I like to refer to the Hornet as a “Gentleman’s Dogfighter.” It’s limited to 7.5Gs, which is a far cry from the Viper’s 9 (Sometimes more with the Block 30’s analog flight control system that will give you up to 9.3 or more if you overshoot the limiter). Dogfighting with the Hornet requires finesse and an above average ability to visualize the jet in three dimensions and manage your energy state. It is highly maneuverable, with the ability to point the nose virtually anywhere. It is a lot of fun to fight, but hard to master against a similar aircraft.
The downside to the Hornet is its power limitation. It is severely underpowered, and although you can get slow and threaten other aircraft with the nose, doing so can leave you without follow-on options. It is very unforgiving of pilots who ham-fist and bleed away all their energy.
Visibility is also a small problem, negated only by the lower G-loadings that allow a pilot to maneuver in the cockpit to get a better view without risking a severe neck injury. The seat sits high and is mostly in the way, which can limit the pilot’s view while looking back in a defensive setup or after merging in high aspect dogfighting (neutral). The canopy bow and leading edge extensions underneath the cockpit can also get in the way during a fight, although it’s less of a factor than the rearward visibility. Easy solution – don’t be defensive.
The Viper is much harder on your body. Although the ATAGS G-suit has made significant groundwork in reducing the effects of 9Gs, your 20lb head still puts 180 lbs of force on your neck while fighting. With no pylons or external fuel tanks, the F-16 in full afterburner can hold 9Gs, and even accelerate while pulling 9Gs at lower altitudes. This requires throttle modulation to stay in the appropriate airspeed band to maximize turn rate and minimize turn radius. There’s nothing worse than to be pulling 9Gs, accelerating, and losing because you’re getting too fast.
Although not quite as maneuverable as the Hornet, the F-16 is still a nimble fighter. Its superior turn rate allows it to get the nose around quickly, and the high thrust-to-weight ratio allows it to power out of most ham-fisting errors. While the Hornet’s flight control computer will give you just about whatever you ask of it, the F-16’s computer limits the angle of attack, keeping the aircraft from stalling. This makes it easier for a young lieutenant to reef back on the stick without falling out of the sky or losing nose authority, and regain energy when getting slow.
The visibility of the F-16 is far superior. The reclined seat allows for an unrestricted view out of the top or rear of the aircraft, and the bubble canopy gives good visibility on all sides. This is a big advantage, as the old adage goes – “Lose sight, lose the fight.”
So head to head, who wins? It depends on the type of fight.
A good Hornet pilot will take the fight downhill, try to get slow, and use his superior maneuverability to bleed the Viper down into his wheelhouse – a close-in knife fight at slow speed. If he tries to take the fight uphill or flat, the F-16’s superior rate and thrust to weight ratio will prevail.
Given a choice head to head, I would probably choose the F-16. Although I really love fighting in the Hornet against other Hornets, there is no worse feeling than being bled down on energy and out of options. I fought several F/A-18Cs, F/A-18E/Fs, and CF-18s when I flew the F-16, and I never lost. Aside from the F-22, I really don’t think there’s a better dogfighting aircraft out there. A lot of thrust is good, more is better. A clean F-16 is just a rocket ship. That’s just personal preference, of course. Others who have flown both may have vastly differing opinions.
Well, that concludes my comparison of the Hornet vs Viper. Hope you’ve enjoyed it. Take my opinions for what they’re worth – just one fighter pilot’s opinion of two very similar jets. The F-16 was my first love, so I’m obviously a bit biased, but I think they’re both great aircraft. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to fly them both.