F-20 — The Tigershark Survivors
During the Cold War, the US government had a policy where the US would support anyone who was an enemy of communism. While this helped check the spread of communism, it lead to the US being in bed with some pretty unsavory tyrants. This philosophy was changed with the election of President Jimmy Carter. Carter declared that we should never export our front-line weapons and fighter jets.
This declaration lead to the FX fighter jet program lead by Northrop. Northrop believed that they could upgrade the F-5E Tiger II aircraft to be equal to any front-line fighter in the world, yet cost only a fraction of the price. The FX program got the go ahead in 1980, but without any government funding. What emerged was the F-20 Tigershark. Powered by a GE F404-GE-100 low bypass turbofan offering 17,000 pounds of thrust, the 15,000 pound aircraft could hit Mach 2.1 at 36,000 feet.
Despite offering excellent performance at modest cost, sales never materialized for the F-20. An early sale to Taiwan was canceled to avoid offending mainland China. Other countries were interested, but they were hesitant to buy into the F-20 unless the USAF or Navy would adopt the aircraft. A small but critical sale to the US Navy for aggressor aircraft was a heartbreaking loss to Northrop when the US Navy purchased the F-16N. You cannot blame the US Navy since the F-16N was offered to them for well under cost just to stiff Northrop. The final nail in the coffin came when President Reagan declared that he was willing to sell anything to anyone as long as they had the cash. This opened the flood gates for export sales of the F-15 and F-16. The few sales that the F-20 had written up were converted to F-5E Tiger II aircraft. The F-20 program was shuttered in late 1986.
Four Tigershark aircraft were started by Northrop at their own expense. The first two were used extensively to fly demonstrations for potential customers. Both aircraft were lost in crashes, one in Korea, the other in Canada. Both accidents were pilot error related to the aircraft being able to outperform the humans who fly them. The third aircraft was set up much more closely to the final production configuration. It was used extensively in testing. It survives today in a California museum. The fourth airframe was never completed.
In the end, the F-20 Tigershark was reported to use 53% less fuel, required 52% less maintenance, had 63% lower operating costs, was four times more reliable, and had the fastest scramble time of any fighter jet in the world. That made it the finest fighter aircraft that never went into production. And the F-16N sale that doomed the F-20? The F-16N was quietly retired long before its time due to airframe cracks. The F-16N simply could not hold up to the daily use that those Navy fliers expect from an airplane.
F-20 Tigershark On Static Display
Note—click on the Serial Number to see a photo of each airplane.
Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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