In the early 1950s, military planners were wrestling with the challenges associated with trying to adapt from a projected strategy of an all out nuclear war against masses of Soviet bombers and their fighter escorts speeding towards the Continental United States, in, response the U.S. air forces, launching hundreds, fast high altitude interceptors, some , like the McDonnell F-101B Voo Doo interceptor , armed with the Hughes Genie, nuclear air to air missile. Gone, or so they thought, were the days of such antiquated concepts such as ‘dog fighting requirements and those armaments. Conventional fighting in the mountains and paddys of Southeast Asia, was the last thing on there minds, despite indications to the contrary, and was as far removed from the SIOP, ( Single Integrated Operational Plan) as one could get. Higher, faster, farther(sometimes) was the mantra of the day, and then modern fighters got bigger, heavier and more complex. Not everyone thought was on board. Jack Northrop, was a ‘maverick’ of a guy, unconvinced the direction other manufacturers were going. He and his chief designer , Edmund Schmued, had other ideas.
But, as early as 1953, Schmued and his design team and the engineers at Northrop Aviation; in Hawthorne, California, were already at work studying various configurations during a feasibility study for a Lightweight Fighter concept called ‘N-102 Fang’. Yeah… I know. Sounds a bit corny, yes, but it was kind of interesting regardless. Single-engine, it featured a high mounted delta wing (unusual for the period, though there have been some recent Quiet Supersonic platform concepts with high mounted cranked arrow concepts with a similar layout.), and a horizontal tail layout similar to the yet to fly Mig-21 in prototype form, with a bifurcated intake below the cockpit ala’ F-16. Although it would have been powered by the General Electric J-79, which ultimately powered the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, which while it, emerged victorious over the Northrop proposal , N-102, would lay the foundation for would ultimately lead to the F-5 family of lightweight, affordable, high performance combat aircraft . In an ironic twist, N-156 was born from a Navy requirement for a small supersonic fighter to operate from a series of small ‘sea control’ carriers, the naval planners were actively being planned, and while the ‘mini-carrier’ concept was eventually discarded in favor of the ‘supercarrier’ , work continued on N-156, evolving considerably along the way.
Northrop Design Study N-102, would lead to N-156 which was commissioned in 1955. Interestingly, USAF while not especially interested in a lightweight fighter, perceived the need for a two-seat supersonic trainer, as a T-33 replacement, manifested itself in the form of the YT-38A, to be known as Talon, taking to the air for the first time in April of 1959, with the first production examples being delivered in 17 March 1961, Training Command. Today the Talon is the mount of choice for NASA‘s Astronaut Corps, in addition to it’s continued service as the updated “Charlie”, variant.
In the meantime, Northrop Aircraft designers continued to refine their N-156 Lightweight Fighter concept . Early mockup photos showed a design that pretty much looked like the plane ultimately built, sans the trapezoidal tail, with which we are all familiar with. Clearly adequate rudder authority and directional stability issues presented a bit a challenge that needed to be addressed, result in the existing form of today
It wasn’t until 10 months later that N-156F, made it’s first flight. Piloted by Northrop test pilot Lew Nelson, N-156F , went supersonic on the first flight, a testament to his confidence in the airplane. The Air Force on the other hand, despite all this still wouldn’t bite, and continued on pretty much as before with procurements of heavier , more expensive systems in the form of the well known F-4s and F-105s. The first country to take note was Norway and in February 1964, Northrop, gained it’s first export order for the type for 64 planes. The government of Norway specified that certain improvements conducive to arctic combat operations, like ice and rain protection systems and even arresting gear. The folks in Hawthorne, sold a lot of F-5s and by the mid-sixties, had good-sized backorder of an astonishing 1000+ examples. Not bad for an in-house initiated program. The Republic Of South Korea, Greece, and of course Iran, among those nations which help see Northrop’s profits soar. I wasn’t long before other nations, including Canada, which needed a replacement for it’s aging and obsolescent Canadair Mk 2 Sabres.
Meanwhile, The Cold War, was waged daily, but wars by proxy, were cropping up all over the place, including Southeast Asia, even as memories , and lessons of the U.S. experience on the Korean Peninsula , were strangely as may seem in retrospect, had already begun to fade, even as a ‘new’ Asian war was beginning to escalate. Following the now famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to.) 1965 Gulf of Tonkin Incident, during which the U,S.S. Maddox, came under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Following that engagement, The Johnson Administration, authorized a massive buildup of land and air war assets in the region, signaling a major policy shift from an advisory to combatant role. American pilots began flying thousands of sorties daily against targets in northern and southern southeast Vietnam and Laos, that continued from that point through the remainder of the sixties. However, higher than anticipated combat losses and other attrition factors were beginning to impact aircraft availability for tasking, and some military planners began to re-examine the Northrop F-5A as an cheaper, alternative platform, and despite their cool attitude towards the small fighter, made an initial request for 200 aircraft.
While USAF did utilize an adaptation of the N-156 as the venerable T-38A Talon, in larger numbers they had little interest in it’s single-seat stablemate, the F-5A, a very sleek and elegant, though diminutive fighter compared to most American offerings of the time, with perhaps the possible exception of the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, sometimes referred to back in the day, as the ” The Bantam Bomber”. Now, for those of you who just thought: “The what?” (For those of you don’t know, it’s small chicken OR a boxing weight class (115 lbs. or under), clearly a reference to it’s small size. The U.S. Navy with it’s shipboard requirements, were keen to embrace the “Bantam or itty-bitty bomber”more readily than Air Force, that had no such constraints. One might argue that the lack of such size specification, blinded them to the extent that they were loath to readily do likewise as the Navy, had done.
Nevertheless the U. S. Air Force, decided to evaluate the F-5A Freedom Fighter as possible solution in the Vietnam war theater, but with some changes. Among the first and most critical items to be address was pilot safety and engine integrity, so 90 lbs. of armor plate was added as was a fixed air to air refueling probe as well an avionics equipment more suitable to combat air operations, and redesignated the F-5C. During the early phase of the evaluation of the F-5, the program was called Sparrow Hawk, however the name was changed to Skoshi Tiger, which loosely translated meant “Little Tiger”, and hence, the origin of the “Tiger” association with the series. The evaluation in theater, would be conducted in three phases. During phase I, the aircraft would be tested against moderately defended targets in the southern country as units of the 3503rd Tactical Fighter Squadron(Provisional) At the beginning of phase II, the unit would redeploy to Da Nang, to attack more heavily defended objectives. Phase III would assess the overall effectiveness of the plane in terms of mission success, availability, serviceability, and advised as to the viability of continued operations of the type.
Pilots of the newly formed provisional 3503rd , were sent to Williams AFB in 1965, while Northrop performed the required modifications for combat ops, and later the same year, deployed to Bien Hoa AFB, in southern Vietnam. One of the first tasks on the ‘test card’ was to determined how quickly sorties with the type could be generated, and in a impressive demonstration of combat readiness, two of the planes and their crews attacked targets within 4 hours of their in-theater arrival, while employing cannon and four 500 lb. bombs each. Not bad. During the period of evaluation, Skoshi Tigers, flew over 400 sorties, even destroying 6 bridges along the famous Ho Chi Trail.
The F-5C, could carry the same ordinance of most U.S. types, such as 500 lb. bombs , but in somewhat smaller payloads compared to the Phantoms and Thuds, but despite all that, the Northrop F-5C, was the least vulnerable of all types in Vietnam, because they were small, agile and damned hard to see. It was at least as capable as the North American F-100 Super Sabre , in most respects. In fact , so successful was the Freedom Fighter, that training and reassignment to South Vietnamese Air Force Squadrons, was delayed, while USAF high command, and after the 3503rd was disbanded after six months and reorganized as the 10th Commando Squadron, were it performed missions in support of Spec Ops units on the ground, some of which have only recently been declassified. Unfortunately the ‘little fighter that could’, was destined to have a short service career with USAF, and in 1972 the type was (again!)rejected by the Pentagon in favor of the Vought A-7 Corsair II (which in all fairness was available to the Navy anyway) was eventually, turned over to the RVNAF, as part of the ‘Vietnamization’ of the war effort, by then president Nixon, as U.S. forces began scaling back operations as frontline combatants
Be that as it may, the people at Hawthorne, noted the lessons learned and applied them to every iteration of it’s product. The type has been flown by a large number of export customers worldwide, so it should have come as no surprise when Northrop rolled out it’s F-5E Tiger II, featuring more powerful engines along with new aerodynamic features, such as slats, a bigger wing, new leading edge extensions and a larger fuselage structure. The Tiger II, is deployed in over 30 nations, including Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Morocco even the Islamic Republic of Iran.many are built under licence in countries such as Singapore and Switzerland. The U.S. Navy at the Miramar Naval Weapons Fighter School “Top Gun”Aggressors are among the most well known users of the type as are the Patrouille Suisse Aerobatic Demonstration Team. Finally who among us doesn’t remember the ‘infamous Mig-28?” How many of us even now as we study the already released DCS: F-5E Tiger II Flight Manual, are plotting to deliver ‘the finger’, back to those eventual Leatherneck Tomcat jocks out there. Personally, I will gladly receive said finger from anyone with the skills to pull that off.