Northrop developed the F-20 Tigershark in response to a US Government call for the private development of a tactical fighter specifically tailored to meet the security needs of allied and friendly nations. The Carter Administration wanted a small fighter, less sophisticated than the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, for Foreign Military Sales (FMS). When the Reagan Administration decided to allow the international sale of the F-16, the F-20 program was doomed. On 17 November 1986 Northrop terminated its F-20 Tigershark program.
Northrop built the F-20 Tigershark, without benefit of government funds, for export to third world markets. The first flight of the Tigershark was made August 30, 1982. Despite lobbying by Northrop, the F-20 was never seriously considered for US Air Force service, and the US Navy eventually decided to buy F-16s rather than F-20s for its aggressor aircraft program. These two facts essentially doomed the F-20 foreign military sales (FMS), since international customers tended to buy the F-16 because it was used by the USAF, and the F-20 was not. When Northrop canceled the program, and $1.2 billion of private investment and 2,000 American jobs were lost.
The F-20 Tigershark was final expression of the F-5 / T-38 family. While bearing considerable resemblance to these earlier aircraft, the aerodynamics were improved by a redesigned nose and leading edge extensions, a single, more powerful engine (similar to the F-16's) replaced the pair of engines in earlier models, and the internal systems were updated throughout. Initially designated the F-5G, the Mach 2 class F-20 Tigershark's basic single-seat configuration was formally designated the F-20A. Three prototypes were produced - two in a bright red-and-white paint scheme and one in a metallic grey -- of which two crashed during sales demonstrations.
The F-20 combined propulsion, electronics and armament technologies with improvements in reliability to sustain high sortie rates in adverse weather. The F-20 incorporated a combination of advanced technology features. The F-20 could carry more than 8,300 pounds of external armaments and fuel on five pylons. It could carry six Sidewinder missiles on air-to-air missions. For air-to-ground missions, more than 6,800 pounds of armament could be carried. Two internally mounted 20mm guns were standard equipment on the Tigershark.
The avionics system features a General Electric multimode radar, Honeywell laser inertial navigation system, General Electric head-up display, Bendix digital display and control set and Teledyne Systems mission computer. Once airborne, the F-20 pilot utilized his multimode radar, which could detect and track targets at ranges of up to 48 nautical miles "look up" and 31 nautical miles "look down." The F-20 mission computer coordinated the aircraft's weapons systems. The head-up display placed critical weapons, target and flight data at the pilot's eye level. This allowed him to fight without having to look down. Northrop designed a new panoramic canopy for the F-20 that gave the pilot a 50 percent increase in rearward visibility over previous Northrop fighters. An improved seat and headrest design combined to substantially expand over-the-shoulder visibility, which is critical in air-to-air combat.
The F-20 is powered by a General Electric F404 engine, with 17,000 pounds of thrust. The F404 is recognized as one of the world's most reliable advanced technology engines. It is also used to power the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps F/A-18A Hornet strike fighter. Aerodynamic features of the F-20 included an enlarged leading edge extension to the wing, which generated up to 30 percent of the lift maneuvers. The "shark-shaped" nose allowed the F-20 to maneuver at much higher angles of attack than current operational fighters. The F-20 airframe could withstand nine G's.
The F-20 was reliable and easy to maintain. Based on comparisons with the average of contemporary international fighters, the F-20 consumed 53 percent less fuel, required 52 percent less maintenance manpower, had 63 percent lower operating and maintenance costs and had four times the reliability.
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