Wednesday, February 26

Still Unloved

First Prototype of Northrop YF-5A on Display at Seattle's Museum of Flight
Recently, I was reminded of a story that’s little known in American aviation. It’s the story of the Northrop F-5. In many ways, it’s a story of success despite the “big guys.” You see, the F-5 is a plane the US didn’t want.
"On Loan" - a California Plane in a Seattle Museum
In the 1950’s, Air Force (and Stuart Symington) killed the flying wing, soon thereafter, Jack Northrop left the management of the Northrop Corporation and Thomas Victor Jones took over. Jones was the CEO when I went to work for Northrop and Jack was retired. One of the things the new management pushed was the development of an aircraft that was MUCH lighter, cheaper, and arguably BETTER than the heavy “Century” series of the time – IMO, Jones had a temperment not far different than Jack Northrop combined with a Mississippi river boat gambler. The result was the N156. This aircraft ultimately developed into the T-38 supersonic trainer and the F-5 lightweight fighter. In further developments that I won’t try to go into in this post, later evolved into the F/A-18 and the Iranian “Saeqeh” of today. It ALMOST became the F-20 Tigershark and the F-18L, the last attempts by any US corporation to develop an advanced aircraft privately.

The US Air Force favored the T-38 as a low-cost supersonic trainer, but turned its nose up at the idea of a fighter that could operate at FAR lower cost and FAR higher readiness at the cost of the ultimate bit of performance. The US Navy thought better of such a concept for their “Escort carriers,” but escort carriers were about to vanish and soon the “lightweight fighter” became the illegitimate child nobody wanted to claim. Fortunately, some realized that parts of the world might want a fighter that required less maintenance and the F-5 was born when Kennedy was president. The first ones were known as the “YF-5A.”
Ultimately, more than 3800 T-38 and F-5 aircraft were produced, though the US Air Force never became a significant operator of the F-5, using them only to simulate enemy aircraft in their “Aggressor” squadrons. Thirty years after the last F-5 aircraft were produced, 25 countries still operate them including countries such as Switzerland. Even the US Air Force still operates the T-38 as its primary supersonic training aircraft and will do so until the aircraft approaches 80 years of service. T-38 aircraft are operated at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls (site of the HH100), among other places. The surviving prototype F-5, the YF-5A, was displayed for a while in the Air Force Museum annex. Some websites claim it is still there. However, I was surprised and heartened to see it in a prominent place in Seattle at the Museum of Flight (MOF). The display indicated it was “on loan” from the US AirForce Museum. I guess the Air Force still doesn’t really want the F-5 enough to keep it on display at its own locale unless under some disguise.

While the YF-5A itself never had any Seattle connection I know of, Jack Northrop DID have same. You see, a previous Northrop Corporation (Avion) was owned by Boeing and the MOF does mention these. In corporate rearrangements, Jack was told he’d have to relocate to Wichita. His response was, well, impolite and soon Jack didn’t work for Boeing any more. The MOF doesn’t talk about THAT aspect of the connection. Nowadays, a LATER Northrop Grumman company is based in places OTHER than Wichita, and it ALSO had and has many connections with Boeing. Again, a future post…

NORAIR Became "Northrop Aircraft Division - A Good Place to Work. Now on Display at the Seattle Museum of Flight


Khal said...

Neat stuff, Steve. Thank you. The drive for the last 1% of performance at 99% of the cost is what one would refer to as the excellent being the enemy of the good.

Steve A said...

If one watches "Top Gun," one should count up the dollars lost in $70mil F-14s compared to $5mil "MIG 28s" (actually Northrop F-5E aircraft). It is one of only a few movies I've seen that caused me to cheer whenever the bad guys scored. The movie was somewhat spoiled by the cannon fire from the F-5s appearing to come from the inlets rather than from the actual forward fuselage cannon location. Not a good idea to ingest smoke and cannon casings into an engine...

limom said...

Interesting story.

John Romeo Alpha said...

I think the T-38 first drew my attention from its usage in the Shuttle program. I think it says a lot that NASA chose it for those purposes.

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