Northrop F-5: The Supersonic Lightweight Fighter That Was More Beloved By American Allies Than the US Air Force

Photo Credit: National Museum of the USAF / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: National Museum of the USAF / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When it comes to fighter jets, the emphasis has always been on making them faster and cheaper to procure and maintain, while not sacrificing their ability to deliver hits against enemy targets. The Northrop Corporation believed it had designed an aircraft that ticked these boxes: the F-5. Unfortunately, while it saw (and continues to see) service with many American allies, it failed to capture the attention of the US Air Force.

Developing a lighter, faster and smaller supersonic fighter

Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter on display
Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter, 2016. (Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

The origin story for the Northrop F-5 dates all the way back to the 1950s, when Edgar Schmued, an aircraft designer and the vice president of engineering at the Northrop Corporation, told his team to begin designing an aircraft that went against convention. By that, he meant that, instead of developing a large and heavy fighter jet like other companies, Northrop should focus on putting together one that was lightweight, reliable and highly maneuverable – oh, and it also needed to be cheap to maintain.

This was a tough order, but Schmued’s team was more than up to the challenge. They were helped along the way by Walko Gasich, Northrop’s chief engineer. He suggested the engines be placed within the fuselage, to maximize performance, and defined what is now known as the “life cycle cost” for aircraft, giving the designers a framework within which to work and strive.

More interested in a trainer than a combat aircraft

Northrop T-38 Talon in flight
Northrop T-38 Talon, the trainer version of the F-5, flying over Edwards Air Force Base, California, 2010. (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Northrop Corporation had hoped the US Air Force would be interested in the F-5, then designated the N-156F. However, while the service was interested, it wasn’t in the way the company had hoped. Instead of wanting to invest in it for combat, it quickly became apparent that the military was more interested in a trainer version of the aircraft: the two-seater YT-38 Talon.

While the YT-38 was favored, Northrop continued work on the N-156F, albeit as a private endeavor. In February 1958, an order of three prototypes was issued under the Military Assistance Program, which, if successful, would allow for the export of units to any allied nation to the United States. While successful, interest continued to be low – that is, until the administration under President John F. Kennedy properly set things in motion, with the Royal Norwegian Air Force receiving the first operational F-5s in 1964.

Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighter vs. F-5E/F Tiger II

Northrop F-5E Tiger II in flight
Northrop F-5E under service with the Swiss Air Force, 2012. (Photo Credit: Peng Chen / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

The first iterations of the Northrop F-5 were the “A” and “B” Freedom Fighter models. As aforementioned, they entered service in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, with more than 800 being manufactured and delivered to international partners.

Following the International Fighter Aircraft Competition, the Northrop Corporation introduced a more advanced version of the F-5. The “E” and “F” variants – the Tiger II – featured several upgrades, including a better fuel capacity, advanced avionics, a greater wing area with improved leading edge extensions, an inertial navigation system and the air-to-air refueling capabilities.

Similarly to the previous versions of the fighter, the F-5E/F was (and continues to be) operated by American allies. While some units are flown by branches of the US military, this is in more of a training capacity. By the time production ceased in 1987, the total number of aircraft produced under these two variants was around 1,400.

Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II specs.

Northrop F-5E Tiger II in flight over a river
Northrop F-5E Tiger II, 1972. (Photo Credit: P. Wallick / ClassicStock / Getty Images)

As aforementioned, the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II is the more advanced version of this lightweight fighter – but how is it different from its “A” and “B” predecessors? Well, for starters, it features a much more powerful pair of engines, replacing the original J85 power plants with more capable J-85-GE-21s. These allow the F-5E/F to reach a maximum speed of Mach 1.63, with a 140-mile range when carrying weaponry on its hard points.

Speaking of weaponry, the F-5E/F makes use of a combination of aircraft-mounted cannons and droppable munitions that allow it to hit targets both in the air and on the ground. It’s primary armaments are two 20 mm M39A2 Revolvers at the nose, while its seven hard points (one under the fuselage, four at the wing-tips and four under the wings) allow for the equipping of a variety of missiles and rocket pods and/or the storing of drop fuel tanks and air-to-ground ordnance.

Operational service over the decades

Northrop F-5C dropping munitions on the Vietnamese jungle
Northrop F-5C on a combat mission in Vietnam during Skoshi Tiger, 1967. (Photo Credit: lan Band / Fox Photos / Getty Images)

Despite being designed in the 1950s, the Northrop F-5 continues to see active service around the world, with the likes of Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Honduras, Iran and others still equipping it.

In regards to the US Air Force, the fighter first entered service as a trainer with the 4441st Combat Crew Training Squadron at the former Williams Air Force Base, Arizona. The following year, the F-5 underwent a combat exercise in Vietnam with the 4503rd Tactical Fighter Squadron and South Vietnamese forces. Dubbed Skoshi Tiger, it saw 12 modified aircraft, redesignated the F-5C, fly more than 2,500 combat sorties in the skies over Vietnam.

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Nine of the fighters were lost during the five-to-six-month period the test ran. While overall deemed a success, the Air Force still failed to show enough interest to utilize the F-5 outside of its training capacity.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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