I met Harry Hillaker in 1983, maybe 1984, at Edwards AFB. I'd driven down from San Francisco to talk about the F-16XL, which had started off as a technology demonstrator for a NASA-inspired supersonic transport wing but had turned into a contender for the USAF's Dual Role Fighter competition.
Harry's determination and enthusiasm are still fresh in my mind. With tons of extra fuel in the delta wing and stretched fuselage, tandem bomb carriage and what he called the "black art" of vortex lift, the XL was close to equalling the range of the much bigger F-15 DRF. In the Edwards O-club, we stopped by a photo of the B-58 bomber. "They called it the Harry J," Hillaker said, and the resemblance of its lines to the XL jumped out.
Hillaker was opinionated and rebellious. One of the starting points of the F-16 was when Hillaker was dispatched by the bosses at Fort Worth to try to sell the Air Force their F-X contender - a competitor to the F-15. The new design had a swing wing, not so much because it made sense but because the high sheriffs thought that if it didn't, it would reflect poorly on the then-controversial F-111. After a less-than-enthusiastic hearing from the USAF, Hillaker was close to quitting - but then got the assignment to design a lightweight fighter prototype, quite possibly because someone at a high level knew damn well that it didn't stand a chance.
First, General Dynamics built bombers. Second, what requirement there was had been written around Northrop's P-530 Cobra. Third, the Air Force wanted no part in it, having merely been cajoled and blackmailed into writing a requirement for two prototypes.
Hillaker took full advantage of the Air Force's lack of interest. As he put it later, he borrowed an idea from Willy Messerschmitt and wrapped the smallest possible airframe around the biggest available engine. Avionics space was kept to a minimum and fuel capacity was traded for light weight and low drag. A lot of cut-and-try wind-tunnel testing went into the strakes that blended the wing into the body and into the shark-mouth inlet. Apparently loopy ideas - fly-by-wire, a reclined seat and a futuristic frameless canopy - went into the mix. I suspect that none of this would have been allowed if anyone at a senior level in the USAF had given a hoot.
The resulting YF-16 left Northrop's design in the dust. In a few chaotic months, too, the cowboys from Fort Worth rode into Europe and sold the staid Nordics, Dutch and Belgium on the radical fighter. A budget-strapped USAF agreed to buy 650 jets in return for saving the B-1, which Jimmy Carter whacked anyway a few months later.
Today, more than 4,400 F-16s have been built. An Advanced Block 50/52, the Emirates' gadget-packed F-16E/F, the Israeli Soufa and the F-16IN on offer to India - where I'm writing tonight - still look a lot like the YF-16, but perform nothing like it, thanks to Moore's law - which conveniently came along to get around the airframe's tightly packed design.
And if they'd only built the delta - Lockheed tried again in 1995, for the UAE, and would have made it had the USAF agreed to buy a wing of them. There was one configuration I saw with a stealthy diverterless inlet and saw-toothed nozzle... but it would have made certain other concepts, favoured at The Highest Levels, look bad.
Farewell, Harry - I am honored to have known you. At dozens of fighter airfields from Utah to Poland, Israel, Singapore and Korea, you could write the words on Wren's tomb at St Paul's:
Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.
If you seek his monument, look around you.
pix: Lockheed Martin, USAF, NASA