By all accounts the 1980’s era Northrop F-20 Tigershark was a great fighter jet that was maneuverable with good short field capability. It was kind of like a super F-5E Tiger II with a new single General Electric F404-GE-100 turbofan engine that boosted performance to Mach 2.0 and featured modern avionics, a Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) control system, composite materials, new weapons systems and a powerful beyond visual range General Electric AN/APG-67 air to air/ground pulse doppler radar with a Heads Up Display (HUD). It could have been quite a formidable aircraft but unfortunately for Northrop, the F-20 Tigershark never went into production and only three prototypes were ever completed.
Northrop began working on the F-20 design in the mid 1970’s independently of any government funding, then designated as the Northrop F-5G, which was further developed under the DoD “FX” Program to design fighters competitive with modern Soviet aircraft, minus front line, security sensitive technology used in US military aircraft. The F-20 (redesignated from F-5G to F-20 in late 1982) was intended to be a low-cost light combat aircraft for the USAF and as a more affordable export option over the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The first Northrop F-20 Tigershark prototype flew in 1982. Northrop and the USAF signed an agreement in 1983 in which the air force were responsible for certification of the F-20’s performance, flight readiness and fixed pricing program.
USAF General (retired) Chuck Yeager was recruited by Northrop to act as a spokesperson for the fighter jet. Although in his early 60’s, he flew it a couple of times to further endorse the F-20 program and gave it the thumbs up, saying it was “Magnificent“.
The three F-20 aircraft produced went on to complete 1,500 test flights (interestingly they were not considered as prototypes and were built to production standard). Numerous weapons launches were also conducted on test flights, including AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground ordnance including rockets, bombs and AGM-65 Maverick missiles. The F-20 had a capability jump in regards to the medium range AIM-7, which enabled it to fire beyond visual range. It was not until the mid 1980’s era F-16C variant, that the Fighting Falcon could fire the AIM-7.
By 1983 Northrop were seriously promoting the aircraft and F-20 aircraft were flown on numerous international demonstrations, including in Europe, to spruik for sales. Northrop stated the F-20 could become airborne 60 seconds after an alert, with the claim this was fastest scramble time of any fighter in the world for the time!
Nations operating the earlier F-5 such as South Korea and Canada were potential customers for the F-20 Tigershark (both were major operators of the F-5/CF-5). Others that were serious contenders to purchase the F-20 included Bahrain, Morocco and Taiwan.
Unfortunately 2 of the prototypes crashed during promotional flight displays, with the sad loss of the pilots in both incidents. F-20 82-0062 was lost in Suwon South Korea in 1984 when test pilot Darrell Cornell lost consciousness due to excessive G forces, whilst performing his aerobatic demonstration flight, resulting in the aircraft stalling, crashing and sadly killing him instantly – known as G-LOC i.e. Gravity-induced Loss Of Consciousness. In the second incident F-20 82-0063 crashed in Canada in 1985 at Goose Bay, Labrador – test pilot David Barnes was killed in a similar G-LOC incident.
Despite aircraft malfunctions being determined to not have been the cause of the accidents, the prototype crashes obviously did not help entice potential buyers of the F-20. The USAF did not intend to buy the F-20, NATO nations were placing orders for the F-16 and although “low-cost”, the F-20 design probably ended up being too advanced for many foreign operators of earlier, easy to maintain F-5 fighters.
Cost, Capability & Political Disadvantage
A key issue with the F-20 program was that the aircraft were significantly more expensive than the F-5A/E it was intended to replace and not that much cheaper to buy than the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon – in 1983 the F-20 was approximately worth $10.7 million USD per unit compared to the F-16A at $12.4 million USD but it was predicted to cost significantly less than the F-16 during lifecycle maintenance and operating costs – Northrop Chairman at the time, Thomas Jones stated “Its cost of ownership is less than half the cost of an F-16” (it was said the F-20 would require less maintenance personnel, time and parts to maintain). While the F-20 wing design improved lift at higher angles of attack (good for maneuverability in air combat) it did not improve cruise lift under normal angles of attack and reduced the range and payload that could be carried in an attack role.
The low wing clearance and landing gear position also limited the weapons payload that could be carried compared to the F-16A. An F-20 had two wingtip missile points and 5 external hardpoints for weapons and fuel drop tanks that could carry up to 4,080 kg / 9,000 lb payload – significantly less payload than an F-16A which could typically carry up to 7,800 kg / 17,200 lb of ordnance on 2 wingtip missile rails and up to 9 external hardpoints. In air combat the visibility from the cockpit of the F-20 would also have been reduced compared to the F-16A and the latter also had a higher service ceiling.
In today’s climate the F-20 would have made for a handy adversary training aircraft but the US Navy selected the F-16N for this role over the F-20 in 1985. Ironically the US Navy and US Marine Corps also carry out adversary training today using ageing ex-Swiss Air Force Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighters, designated as the F-5N!
Northrop gave it a good shot but with no foreign or domestic purchases (neither the USAF or US Navy were interested), and the United States government policies of the day under President Reagan relaxing restrictions on export sales, the F-16 became the preferred option for export sale and the US $1.2 Billion F-20 program was cancelled in 1986. Export sales of the already proven F-16 also reduced F-16 production costs for the USAF, so there wasn’t much support from the government for Northrop and the F-20 really didn’t stand much chance!
Today the sole surviving F-20 Tigershark prototype (82-0064, N44671) can be found within the California Science Centre in Los Angeles. The aircraft was donated by Northrop.
The California Science Centre is a great place to visit when in Los Angeles and admission is free (except for special exhibitions). You can see exhibits on scientific achievements including air and space technology including Space Shuttle Endeavour, so it is well worth a visit!
In my next post I will take a closer look at yet another prototype combat aircraft from the Northrop stable that did not go into production. This time the highly advanced yet unorthodox Northrop YF-23 “Black Widow II“ Advanced Tactical Fighter.
California Science Centre – F-20 Tigershark
Defence Media Network – What Might Have Been: F-20 Tigershark
National Museum of the USAF Fact Sheet (archived) – Northrop F-20 Tigershark
Popular Mechanics – Why the F-20 Isn’t Selling (Pg.145, March 1986)