The True Story of the Birth of a Little Tiger
The story of the F-5 Tiger begins in 1954, when a Northrop team toured Europe and Asia in order to determine the defense needs of NATO and SEATO countries. The answer? A 1955 company design study outlined plans for a lightweight supersonic fighter that would not only be capable of operating out of short runways and aircraft carriers, but would also be easy to maintain and relatively inexpensive. The design was given the designation N-156F, after the specs went through several overhauls. The Air Force was not initially impressed because it hadn’t been in the market for lightweight fighters. But it appeared that all was not lost for the F-5, because the Air Force did need a new training aircraft to replace the Lockheed T-33.
In 1956, the Air Force announced that it would acquire a different design, the two-seater trainer N-156T, under the designation T-38, and the name Talon was chosen. The construction of three prototypes was authorized. Unfazed by this turn of events, the Northrop company decided in 1958 to continue with the development of the N-156F as a private venture. The inaugural flight of the prototype version of the newly designated F-5 aircraft took place in July of 1959. Three years later, the Department of Defense announced its choice of the F-5 as the aircraft for its Military Assistance Program (MAP). America’s NATO and SEATO allies would be able to acquire a reasonably priced supersonic warplane of world-class quality, and of course, that plane was the F-5A Freedom Fighter. Initial deliveries of the F-5 were made to Iran in 1965, and other countries, attracted by its low cost and reliability, were soon snapping up the feisty little aircraft.
An agile and tricky air-combat opponent that was never meant for anything other than MAP distribution, the F-5A nonetheless was quickly recognized as something special and in 1965, the Air Force borrowed twelve combat-ready F-5As Freedom Fighters from MAP supplies. They sent the planes to Vietnam with the 4503rd Tactical Fighter Wing for operational service trials in a program code named Skoshi Tiger, or Little Tiger, and so it was during the aircraft’s short tour of duty that its nickname was earned. Which is odd, considering that the F-5’s time in Vietnam was the only time the Air Force let the aircraft see active duty. The Tiger is unique in that it has never been part of the USAF’s tactical forces.
But it prospered in a number of other ways. The Northrop F-5 was one of the most successful US aircraft industry exports due to the same qualities that the guys at Northrop and licensed foreign producers of the F-5 such as Canadair of Canada, CASA of Spain, FFA of Switzerland, Hanjin of South Korea, and AIDC of Taiwan (but not Fokker) wouldn’t overlook: it was reliable, easy to maintain, and while it did not always have the performance of some of its more costly contemporaries, it was still a lot of plane for a little money. Very few American planes have enjoyed as much success in allied air forces as the Little Tiger has over the course of its career and the F-5 is still a part of many foreign air forces.
Just Tell Me About The Goddamn Plane
Ooh, so sleek, so sexy! In case you didn’t hear it the first time, the F-5 is a easy-to-fly, easy-to-fix, lightweight and inexpensive supersonic fighter. To get technical in ways even I don’t understand, this baby is a “low-wing monoplane equipped with an all-moving horizontal tail mounted in the low position.” For maximum flying enjoyment, the fuselage has been carefully contoured in accordance with the “transonic area rule.” (Are you getting hot yet?) Side-mounted inlets supply air to two General Electric J85 afterburning turbojet engines. (I know I am!) Just for the curious, the 4.8 percent thick wing has “twenty-four sweepback at the quarter chord line” and the trailing edge is almost straight. Speed breaks are mounted in the bottom of the body of the plane.
Popular opinion holds that the F-5 Tiger handles well and does not have a propensity for entering unintentional spins. Perhaps that’s because its turning performance is enhanced by an “aileron-rudder interconnect system” and handling characteristics are improved by “artificial damping about the pitch and yaw axes.” (This is an aeronautical orgasm waiting to happen.)
While the F-5 was originally designed for daytime use as an air-to-air fighter, it has also been extensively used as a ground-attack aircraft. Photorecon versions of the Tiger have also been produced. Armament for its air-exclusive combat role consists of two 20 mm cannons and two Sidewinder missiles. But wait! That’s not all! For those just in case situations, five pylons carry up to 6,200 pounds of weaponry, such as 20 unguided rockets or four air-to-air missiles, or external fuel tanks. Truly, a supreme machine.
Who could ask for anything more? Maybe they wanted their pylon to carry 7,000 pounds. Or a service ceiling that is 1,300 feet higher. And 156 more miles of range when flying with maximum fuel and engines providing more than twenty-three percent more power! On November 20, 1970, a Northrop design was presented to the USAF, who had been looking for a fighter able to fly air superiority missions against planes like the Soviet-built MiG-21. The design? An advanced F-5 that came to be known as the F-5E Tiger II. An order was placed for 325 production aircraft, the first of which came gliding off the tarmac in 1972. But it wasn’t until 1973 that the USAF accepted the Tiger II for service and a year later, its two-seater counterpart, the F-5F, was born.
You may be wondering what these planes were good for. Well, like we said, the design was made to be at least as good as the Soviet MIG-21, and the two planes do share some characteristics. That made them perfect for use as an aggressor aircraft meant to represent enemy fighters in simulated combat. In fact, the top air combat training schools in the US, the Navy’s Fighter Weapon School and the Air Force’s Aggressor Squadron, both use F-5Es in their combat training. Estimates show that an F-5 can be operated at roughly one-third the cost of operating an F/A-18. Yeah!
The final production tally was more than 1,400 aircraft for more than thirty customers. Most were built by Northrop, but licensed production also took place in South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan. But even a fine wine will eventually sour and the beautiful and dependable F-5 Tigers are gradually being put to sleep.
Aircraft type: F-5E/F-5F
Aircraft manufacturer: Northrop
Length: 14.40 m / 15.48 m
Span: 8.60 m
Height : 4.07 m / 4.02 m
Radar type: AN/APW-159, Emerson
Jet engine manufacturer: General Electric
Jet engine type: 2 / J85-GE-21 A/B
Fuel capacity without auxiliary fuel tank: 2648 L
Max. speed at low altitude: M 1.04 / M 1.03
Max. Mach number: M 1.63 / M 1.56
Max. thrust without/with afterburner: 15'575 N / 22'250 N
Admissible G-load: -3 to +7.3
Service ceiling: 15'000 m / 15'200 m
Air-to-air missiles: 2 SIWA LL-63/92
Aircraft gun: 2 20mm Flz Kan 76 (M39A3)
Empty weight: 4900 kg / 5180 kg
Take-off weight without external loads: 7062 kg / 7443 kg
Max. take-off weight : 10'312 kg / 10'550 kg
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See also: F-5 Freedom Fighter