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What Might Have Been: F-20 Tigershark

The best fighter never bought?

When test pilot Russ Scott took off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. on Aug. 30, 1982, he was making the maiden flight of a sleek and beautiful fighter, the Northrop F-20A Tigershark.

With a General Electric F404-GE-100 turbofan engine rated at 17,000 pounds of thrust, the F-20A was 40 percent more powerful than the twin-engined F-5E Tiger II that preceded it. Northrop said the F-20A would have a low price tag, operate from short runways, and outfight the Soviet Union’s best.

“We wanted hot, light airplanes that were just as stripped-down as possible.”

Today, veterans of the Pentagon‘s “lightweight fighter Mafia” say the Tigershark could have been the fighter they wanted, but wasn’t. Like other American fighters, the F-20A eventually became too big and too complex, the Mafia members argued.

The reformers included Air Force Col. John Boyd (1927-1997), Col. Everest E. Riccioni, and Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey. “We wanted hot, light airplanes that were just as stripped-down as possible,” said Sprey.

F-20 Tigershark

A F-20 Tigershark, the first F-20 built, takes off in Northrop colors with an F-5F chase plane. U.S. Air Force photo

The Tigershark was initially called the F-5G. The Carter administration had initiated a Department of Defense (DOD) project called “FX”, intended to sell less-advanced fighter designs to U.S. allies to limit the possibility of front-line U.S. technology falling Soviet hands, and Northrop initially saw Taiwan as the most likely prospect for the new aircraft. Taiwan already operated F-5s. General Dynamics, then the builder of the F-16, which was being introduced into U.S. Air Force service, was developing the more austere F-16/79, using the J79 engine, for the FX program.

Northrop’s design team, under Welko E. Gasich, was divided on how to improve on the F-5 design. Some engineers wanted to retain two engines, in part to avoid aerodynamic re-shaping of the new fuselage.

Even while it was wooing Taiwan and South Korea, Northrop received an order from tiny but densely populated Bahrain for four Tigersharks.

Northrop hired retired Air Force Col. Everest “Rich” Riccioni to help select the best design. Riccioni applied his mentor Boyd’s concept of “energy maneuver,” to the new fighter. He helped Northrop choose a design by engineer Robert Sandusky in preference to others by Walt Sellers, John Patierno and Lee Begin. Sandusky’s sleek design incorporated the “wasp waist” of engineer Richard T. Whitcomb’s transonic area rule, and was soon redesignated F-20A.

Even while it was wooing Taiwan and South Korea, Northrop received an order from tiny but densely populated Bahrain for four Tigersharks.

F-20 Tigershark

A F-20 Tigershark fires an AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface tactical missile. U.S. Air Force photo

While just a single F-20A was flying, Darrell Cornell, Northrop’s chief experimental test pilot, took over most cockpit duties. Paul Metz, hired by Northrop in 1980, became the third F-20A pilot.

Cornell made the first flight of the second F-20A at Edwards on Aug. 26, 1983. The second Tigershark introduced General Electric AN/APG-67 radar, a head-up display, and a lengthened and bulged canopy.

Northrop believed its product was superior to the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon. Both began as no-frills lightweight fighters and gradually became heavier and more complex. The F-20A was a better point-defense interceptor, but for most missions the two were comparable. And the F-20 was less expensive.

Northrop hired retired Brig. Gen. (later, retired Maj. Gen.) Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager as a public relations spokesman for the Tigershark. Yeager, then 61, made two flights in the aircraft.

Northrop believed its product was superior to the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon. Both began as no-frills lightweight fighters and gradually became heavier and more complex. The F-20A was a better point-defense interceptor, but for most missions the two were comparable. And the F-20 was less expensive.

F-20 Tigersharks

Two F-20 Tigersharks fly in formation. U.S. Air Force photo

The third F-20A Tigershark made its initial flight on May 12, 1984, apparently at Edwards with Cornell at the controls.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the FX program gradually fell out of favor as the administration relaxed export restrictions. Then the 1982 signing of the U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué on arms sales blocked sale of the F-20 to Taiwan. Worse for the F-20’s chance in other markets, the Air Force had an iron in the fire with regard to foreign military sales (FMS), as every F-16 sold to a foreign country meant the overall production cost of the Air Force’s own F-16s would go down.

An investigation cleared the F-20A of any design or mechanical flaw. It was found that Cornell had blacked out due to excessive Gs pulled in the acrobatic demonstration routine. The phenomenon of gravity-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) was then receiving widespread attention.

With Taiwan now starting their own indigenous light fighter project, a grand tour of Korea was planned for the Tigershark. On Oct. 10, 1984, test pilot Darrell Cornell demonstrated the first F-20A in a high-speed, low-altitude flyover at Korea’s Suwon airfield. Cornell threw his F-20A into a climbing roll with flaps and landing gear extended, when the aircraft stalled and crashed. Cornell was thrown clear and killed instantly.

An investigation cleared the F-20A of any design or mechanical flaw. It was found that Cornell had blacked out due to excessive Gs pulled in the acrobatic demonstration routine. The phenomenon of gravity-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) was then receiving widespread attention.

F-20 Tigershark Agressor

A F-20 Tigershark sporting an aggressor paint scheme. The F-20 was ultimately not selected by the U.S. Navy for adversary duties. U.S. Air Force photo

Five months later, on May 14, 1985, Tigershark No. 2 crashed at Goose Bay, Labrador. Pilot David Barnes (1934-1985), was killed. The Canadian accident report called G-LOC the cause of the crash.

Just months later, in January 1985 the U. S. Navy picked the F-16N rather than the F-20A for adversary duties. Northrop had placed high hopes on a Navy order and now had nowhere to turn. A fourth F-20A was never completed.

In a last-ditch effort on April 3, 1985, Northrop offered the U. S. Air Force 396 F-20As at an impossibly low $15 million each, against $18 million for an F-16. It was too late. The Air Force had no requirement.

In a last-ditch effort on April 3, 1985, Northrop offered the U. S. Air Force 396 F-20As at an impossibly low $15 million each, against $18 million for an F-16. It was too late. The Air Force had no requirement.

The F-20A Tigershark was fast, maneuverable, lethal, easy to fly and easy to maintain. But Northrop was never truly able to compete with the F-16 on cost and the Tigershark failed, ultimately, because it tried to be too many things. Too heavy to be a lightweight, lacking the stealth properties then being developed in supersecret “black” programs, the F-20A was also too light to be a robust, globe-girdling warplane like the F-15E Strike Eagle. It was an outstanding fighter, but in the end the Northrop F-20A Tigershark was the right aircraft at the wrong time.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-134">
    Dennis Livesay

    I was fortunate to visit Don Crane, The Director of Domestic Marketing at Northrop Corp. and was shown the F-20 and was impressed. I was at the time, founder and CEO of Sym-Tech Corporation in Maryville Tennessee, an Aerospace Systems Analysis. I later attempted to interface with a leader in the US Aerospace Director in DC, but to no avail. Too bad that the US did not buy the F-20A.

    Dennis T. Livesay

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-135">
    Chuck Spinney

    Bob … as usual, you have written a very good article. The F-20 is a classic story of how to screw up a potentially good idea. I did not work on F-20, and I never advocated its purchase, but being close to Boyd, Sprey, and Riccioni gave me a good vantage point to observe its evolution. And at first, I was quite excited by the concept. But Northrop’s management gold plated the F-20 with too many bells and whistles, even including an AIM-7 capability at one point. I recall especially that Boyd and Sprey were not at all happy with that. Also, while the original F-20 idea had real merit, and certainly warranted a disciplined prototype development effort to see if it could deliver, I believed at the time that the added weight attending to the bells and whistles reduced its fuel fraction (the key to range) to an unacceptably low level. A good friend of mine in the ANG, Colonel Roland Smith, a very highly decorated flier (AF Cross and a bunch of Silver Stars in VN) flew it. He told me that it was awesome, particularly in its pitch rates, but it was too short legged. The F-20, being a derivative of the F-5 started off with a fuel fraction problem (all modifications of an existing design have a limited flexibility to increase its fuel fraction — just look at F-18E). The fact that it was a modification of an existing design meant that the designers had to be super disciplined to give the F-20 usable legs. The key to the YF-16s astounding range was its high fuel fraction, something Boyd, Riccioni, Sprey, and Harry Hilaker (the chief engineer at GD) insisted on from the inception of YF-16’s design. Unfortunately, the F-20 never had a chance: Northrop’s management saw dollar signs and took a good idea and tried to make it acceptable to everybody, including even the milcrats at Tactical Air Command, and in so doing, they converted a potential thoroughbred into a mutt no one wanted, including most, if not all, of the Fighter Mafia, who helped to inspire the program. Of course, the wrong lesson was learned by everyone in the defense industry — high-cost, establishment spec’ed bureaucratic kludges like the F-22, the F-35, and the F-18E/F are now the safe play in the game. To the best of my knowledge, the F-20 was the last time a major aircraft manufacturer in the United States made a serious effort to use its skill to design an innovative airplane on its own initiative … and the industry (in terms of its vibrancy, if not its cash flow), the Air Force tactical fighter force (which is now melting down due to rising costs, declining rates of replacement, and an aging force structure), and the United States are all the poorer for it.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-136">
    Bob Dilger

    Robert,

    Your article on the F-20 is excellent. Job well done.

    At the time Northrop provided me a briefing on the F-20 I was in charge of the Air-to-Air section at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB. I was most impressed by the F-20. (However, it was just a concept with a very realistic looking wooden Mock-up.

    We had unlike aircraft come to Nellis AFB and spend a week with us in unlike aircraft air-to-air training. The F-5 was by far the most difficult aircraft for the F-4E to handle. They usually won the air engagement at first. I had an expanded squadron of approximately 30 F-4s. They would bring 5 F-5s from Davis Monthon AFB. We would have at each other for the entire week. At the end of the week it was the F-4Es that had trouble filling the schedule. The 5 F-5s never missed a beat.

    The F-4s had to be piloted by cats with nine lives. In the first encounters the F-5s would usually win. Towards the end of the week we could hold our own and often win. Of course we had already used up 5-7 of our 9 lives. It was humbling to be defeated by a simple fighter that was about 1/4th the cost, did not have a radar and could turn about 3-4 times the sorties per day compared to a single sortie for the F-4Es.

    I was impressed by the F-20 but was concerned, as your article pointed out, Northrop waas ready to install a kitchen sink if asked. Their austere design philosophy had disappeared from earlier F-5 days.

    Godspeed, Bob Dilger

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-137">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    I don’t suppose you could tell the story of the Tiger pilots at AIMVAL/ACEVAL who, legend has it, mounted Fuzzbuster radar detectors in their aircraft and gave a bloody nose to some of the guys flying “technologically superior” aircraft against them?

    Personally, I was a big fan of the F-20 because I always loved the F-5E, but I have to admit seeing those big Sparrows on the pylons under the F-20’s wings kind of offended the senses just on an aesthetic level.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-138">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    I grew up in the era when the Thunderbirds flew T-38s but soccer games on the base virtually stopped when a pair of Phantoms were in the pattern. And you could see them coming for awhile with those smoke trails.

    About that same time, I was reading a foreword by RAF ace Air Vice Marshal “Johnnie” Johnson to a book, where he basically said we’d come full circle, from machine guns to radar and missiles, and back to putting guns on fighters, and also from the view that air combat was a pushbutton war where the missiles and sensors would do all the work and no one would ever see the enemy or have to maneuver to the realization that everyone was going to have to learn ACM all over again.

    Will we make another full circle?