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Quick Flightline Friday – F-20 Tigershark – 041414 update April 14, 2014

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, Basics, Flightline Friday, fun, silliness, Society.
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Since I am going to be out most of the week, I am going to update this post today, instead of on Friday, when, God willing, I will be at church pretty much all day.

The F-20 755px-F-20_Northrop_colors_in_flightTigershark.  It is another of the great also-ran’s of American military aviation.  Derived from a design dating back to the late 1950s, incredibly, with the installation of a modern engine, updated digital avionics, and some minor aerodynamic changes, the F-20 Tigershark emerged as a very potent low-cost 4th generation tactical aircraft. Itcould have been, and maybe should have been, a big seller to third world NATO allied nations.  But it didn’t sell.

The Tigershark got its start as a Northrop design submission for a new trainer for the United States Air Force back in the late 1950s.  The design originally started out as a speculative lightweight fighter (the N-102 Fang), but when the USAF competition for a new advanced trainer began, Northrop realized their little fighter design would be a nice fit.  Northrop had sort of specialized in idiosyncratic designs, and small and light weight were sort of a fetish at the company for decades.

800px-T38-BankThe trainer became the T-38 Talon, which is still in use as the USAFs advanced trainer for fighter and attack aircraft today, over 50 years after it entered service.  But when Kennedy entered office in 1961, his administration sought to support a lightweight fighter for lower-rung, less-advanced allies that could serve in all the Cold War brushfire wars that administration was interested in prosecuting.  So Northrop returned to their trainer design, called the N-156, and produced a new model, the N-156F, that became the F-5A Freedom Fighter.

The Freedom Fighter had several advantages. It was cheap.  It was designed to be very easy to maintain, even in an F-5C_VNAF_23TW_522FS_BienHoa_1971austere environment without a great deal of advanced support facilities.  But it had very short legs and was certainly not overpowered.  Even by the late 60s, the F-5A was obsolescent for combat in all but the most permissive air defense environments, and competitors from other countries posed threats to this low-end fighter market. So, USAF fired up a competition for an F-5 follow-on, to ameliorate some of the Freedom Fighter’s shortcomings.

Naturally enough, Northrop won that competition, too, and what came forth was the F-5E Tiger II.  By adding 800px-Northrop_F-5E_(Tail_No__11419)_(cropped)afterburners to the small J85 turbojets, a small ranging radar, ability to carry infrared air-to-air missiles, and some other improvements, the F-5E and its two seat variant, the F-5F, went on to be best sellers throughout the 1970s, with nearly 1400 built.  The F-5E received a big boost when, in the early 70s, USAF bought a couple hundred to serve as aggressor aircraft in the air-to-air training role.  Air combat in Vietnam showed that USAF’s priority on fighting a nuclear war did not work out well in a conventional environment, with large, heavy aircraft designed to carry a nuclear weapon a long distance being rather poor performers in the air-to-air arena. Even more, the pilots had not been trained hard in that vital area, skills had deteriorated, and our guys had a hard time dealing with the very maneuverable aircraft used by the North Vietnamese. Nonetheless, at least as many losses were attributed to bad tactics and bad airmanship, as were due to unsuitable aircraft types.605px-Topgun_patch

The Navy had started its own intensive air-to-air training program, the famous TOPGUN program, in the early 70s.  As always, USAF did one better, developing a massive training environment at Nellis Air Force Base called Red Flag, where extremely realistic and difficult training was implemented.  F-5Es played a key role in that training, simulating such very maneuverable communist aircraft as the MiG-19 and MiG-21.

But by the early 80s, the F-5E was running out of steam.  Many newer types were available, foreign competition was intense, and there had been so many incredible advances in engines and avionics that the Tiger II was looking pretty tired. It was at this time that Northrop decided to try to refresh the design again, putting in a modern engine, very modern avionics, and some aerodynamic changes to improve performance. And improve performance it did.

Originally called the F-5G, to seem newer and sexier, Northrop petitioned the Air Force for a new number for their aircraft, and was given F-20.  Northrop lobbied pretty hard for this number, to try to sell the fact that this new plane was a big advance on the “teen-series” fighters – the F-15, -16, etc.

The primary changes to the F-20 were the replacement of two small GE J85 engines with one F404 engine, a GE_F404_engineremarkably lightweight and durable powerplant. This engine was much, much more powerful than the two previous engines, as well as being much more reliable and fuel efficient.  Thrust increased from 10,000 lbst at sea level to 17,000 lbst.  This gave the F-20 a thrust-to-weight ratio of about 1.1:1 at combat weight, meaning it could accelerate going straight up.  In addition, the airframe was strengthened to permit 9 G maneuvering.  Coupled with the basic Tiger II aerodynamics, the F-20 was extremely competitive in terms of air combat maneuvers.

Radar_AN_APG-67_001What really improved the Tigershark over the Tiger II, however, was the avionics.  The very simple and limited ranging radar was replaced with a modern pulse-doppler set from GE, digitally controlled, with all kinds of modes: sea strike, synthetic aperture, track while scan, etc.  It could detect fighter size targets at about 40 miles (about the same as the APG-66 radar in the F-16), and could track 10 targets while engaging two.  The old Tiger II cockpit, which was a sea of analog gages and switches, was cleaned up remarkably with a good sized HUD and two large electronic multi-function displays (see below).

A huge selling point for the Tigershark was that its avionics were all brand new, 8-10 years newer than those used in the F-15 and F-16.  We all know how much digital electronics advanced in the late 70s and early 80s, and the Tigershark reaped the benefits of those advances.  This meant lighter weight, for one.  But more importantly thCA2AFV82compared to even the F-16s avionics, it meant much higher reliability.  At least, according to Northrop.  Northrop claimed that the Tigershark would have mean time between failures for major systems (engine, radar, inertial navigation system, etc) several times better than that of the F-16, and an order of magnitude better than the F-15. The F-20 was projected to consume 53% less fuel, require 52% less maintenance manpower, had 63% lower operating and maintenance costs and had four times the reliability of average front-line designs of the era

Typical A2A load: 2 AIM-9J, 2 AIM-7F

Typical A2A load: 2 AIM-9J, 2 AIM-7F

All this resulted in a very hot little fighter which would sell at a price substantially lower than any other American or even foreign aircraft of similar capability.  The Tigershark was a very modern, Mach 2 fighter on the cheap.  And in some areas, the Tigershark was more capable than the F-16 it ultimately competed against: the F-16 could not fire Sparrow radar guided missiles in 1984, whereas the Tigershark could.  The Tigershark had the quickest point intercept reaction time of any aircraft in the world at that time (and possibly today): from getting the launch command, the F-20 could be at Mach 1.2 at 30,000 ft in less than 3 minutes.

However, there were also a number of problems with the F-20.  This all had to do with Northrop recycling a design that started out as a 1950s training aircraft.  Because it was not designed from the start to carry large loads, the

Note minimal ground clearance

Note minimal ground clearance

Talon/Freedom Fighter/Tiger II/Tigershark all shared very short landing gear and a low mounted wing. This wing meant there was little ground clearance for ordinance.  This dramatically limited both the quantity and types of ordinance that could be carried.  In addition, the F-20, being both very small, and always rather limited in fuel capacity, had a much shorter range than aircraft like the F-16.  As an attack aircraft, the F-20 came up very short in comparison to other types.  Even the very design of the wing limited payload capability.  In addition, the F-20 was so small and cramped inside that, as vastly improved as it was, it did not show much promise for future growth.  The F-20 was an amazing improvement to the basic 1950s design, but it wasn’t going to go much further.

Nevertheless, the F-20 should have been very attractive to a number of air forces, especially those of countries untitled2that don’t make a practice of going to war with their neighbors and blowing up their stuff (like we do).  As a point defense interceptor/fighter aircraft, the F-20 was hard to beat on price and capability.  And it was thought many countries would be interested in it.

Bu the Tigershark ran afoul of political maneuvering and typical USAF obstinacy.  The F-20 was far cheaper than the competing F-16, but the F-16 happened to be built in the home district of the House Majority Leader, Jim Wright.  Wright put a good deal of pressure on the USAF to not give any support to the F-20.  In addition, many elements within USAF did not want to see F-20s built, since they might take away F-16 customers, resulting in marginally higher price on the F-16 due to a lower production run.  So the USAF kept 0163470buying more and more F-16s, even for missions the F-16 was not particularly suited for, while the F-20 was never purchased by the Air Force. Without a US endorsement, foreign clients were reluctant to sign on – and General Dynamics sold F-16s at a loss to keep Northrop and its F-20 out of the marketplace.

I always felt this attitude by USAF was a bit ugly, and unreasonable. The F-20 would have made a perfect replacement/addition to the F-5E in the aggressor role (a role the Navy still uses it for today), since it could better represent more advanced competition from Soviet types like the MiG-29 and Su-27 than could the F-5E.  But USAF steadfastly refused to purchase the type for that purpose, for which it was eminently suited.  Today, the dissimilar air combat training that so benefited USAF pilots in the 70s and 80s, making them the best of the
f-20_2world, is defunct, since the Air Force does not have a dissimilar (that means, other than what is in service) type to train against, save for occasional Navy or foreign participation. So F-16s fight F-16s, F-15s and F-15s, etc.

The F-20 wound up also being hurt by a couple of crashes that had nothing to do with the aircraft.  Two of the three prototypes were lost due to what is called “G-induced loss of consciousness” – basically, the pilot pulls such hard Gs that he passes out, crashing as a result.  This was a problem back in the early 80s (and not just in the F-20), as the mega-capable modern fighters were going beyond the limits of what some humans could endure.  F-20-2

I am not one to say that the F-20 was a world beater that got entirely robbed by political shenanigans.  Like any aircraft, it had its upside and its downside. But it is probably one of the most capable aircraft ever to fail so totally, never garnering a single significant sale. And that sad end is, unfortunately, primarily due to politics, and not capability.  There was no reason, for instance, for a country like Venezuela to buy 18 F-16s, when they could have had 40 F-20s at the same price.

Anyhoo, now the important part, plane Pr0n.

I love these defense vids from the 80s.  So over the top in their earnestness and seriousness. Of course, the Cold War was serious business.

More Yeager greatness:

Uno mas vez:

I always thought the F-20 had a really great, clean cockpit design.  It was very good for its time, and fully modern even today:

F-20_cockpit_mock-up

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Comments

1. Hawkeye - April 11, 2014

Freedom!

2. CMike - April 11, 2014

When I first learned of the F-20 I thought there was a certain amount of “injustice” that it was torpedoed by the USAF. Yes, the main factory for the F-16 being in Fort Worth had some political considerations, as did the multinational construction aspect (the Dutch, Canadians, and more built sub-assemblies for the F-16 iirc). And yes, economies of scale were achieved by having as many allies as possible sign up for the F-16. At least two nations had orders for the F-20 contingent on USAF acceptance of the craft, but those nations ended up adopting the F-16 instead.

That said, Northrop’s F-20 didn’t compete for the lightweight fighter project; Northrop’s YF-17 did. While the F-17 didn’t get the USAF contract, a modified form of it became the F-18 Hornet. The YF-17 was a derivative of the N-300 prototype, which itself was an evolution of the F-5E. So the non-selection of the F-20 didn’t exactly end the production of the technological progeny of the F-5 (just ask the guys in Saint Louis who are still churning out the Super Hornets).

And let’s not forget that Northrop knew something that very few people did at that time: if they raised too much of a stink over not selling the F-20 then they could have had their stealth bomber — the B-2 Spirit — program cancelled. While Northrop might have spent $1.2B on the F-20, I think they made up for it with the B-2.

Bottom line: I think it’s inaccurate to call the F-20 an also-ran. The single-engine derivative of the F-5E might have been a good-enough plane for a lot of countries, but it would be quite a stretch to suggest it could compete with the F-16 on any basis other than cost.

(A true also-ran, IMO, would be the F-16XL.)

Tantumblogo - April 11, 2014

Let me get back on this some other time. There are a lot of details, not all good.


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