On January 20, 1974, the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet prototype YF-16 jet accidentally took off and nearly crashed during high-speed ground tests.
The accident could have killed the pilot and quite possibly the aircraft program itself. The pilot skillfully prevented disaster by taking the airplane into the air for an impromptu first flight—where it stayed for six minutes.
Here is the video of the accident:
The test pilot Phil Oestricher was taking the YF-16 prototype down the runway at Edwards Air Force Base when things went, well, not according to plan. As the Seattle Post Intelligencer writes:
As the aircraft accelerated rapidly down the runway, Oestricher raised the nose slightly and applied aileron control to check lateral response. To the pilot’s surprise, the aircraft entered a roll oscillation with amplitudes so high that the left wing and right stabilator alternately struck the surface of the runway.
As Oestricher desperately fought to maintain control of his wild steed, the situation became increasingly dire as the YF-16 began to veer to the left. Realizing that going into the weeds at high speed was a prescription for disaster, the test pilot quickly elected to jam the throttle forward and attempt to get the YF-16 into the air. The outcome of this decision was not immediately obvious as Oestricher continued to struggle for control while waiting for his airspeed to increase to the point that there was lift sufficient for flight.
Oestricher finally got the airplane airborne, flying for six minutes before landing the jet. Oestricher’s jet was the only YF-16 in existence at the time, and the U.S. Air Force might have lost interest in it had it crashed.
Alternately, General Dynamics might have declined to continue developing the aircraft, leaving the YF-17 Cobra the sole competitor.
General Dynamics—now Lockheed Martin-built over 4,600 F-16s over the last 40 years.
The aircraft’s official first flight took place on February 2, 1974, again with Phil Oestricher at the controls. He reached 400 mph and 30,000 feet.